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Native American educators teach their first Thanksgiving story

It’s that time of year when our youngest learners are coloring pilgrims and Indians and learning the story of the first Thanksgiving.  That story has been taught to generation after generation, and generally involves British pilgrims landing in America, sowing crops and sharing the first harvest in a meal with local Native Americans to give thanks for the bounty.

That’s not the story author and educator Jacqueline Keeler learned when she five.

“Growing up, my mom made it very clear to me that there was another story,” said Keeler, who is a member of the Dineh Nation and the Yankton Dakota Sioux. Her mother told her the pilgrims coming amounted to “theft of our lands.”

Her mother taught her that Native people did indeed show kindness to the pilgrims arriving. She told her “how much the pilgrims were truly struggling and how desperate they were for the help, [and] the fact that they would not have survived without Native American assistance.”

Her mother also warned her she would hear a different story in school. “She did encourage us to challenge [our teachers] if we heard things that were derogatory towards Native people,” Keeler added.

After all, the real-deal history is not pretty, and the pilgrims aren’t presented accurately in the widespread first Thanksgiving story, according to Keeler and many others.

"Often the pictures are of these white pilgrims in these very crisp clean clothes, you know, bringing in Native people into this bounty,” Keeler said.  “Actually they were starving to death, half the people had died, and it was the native people who brought most of the food.”

Keeler is a writer and educator and works with American Indian Child Resource Center in Oakland. She has written about what thanks giving means to Native people, and her work is used in middle school’s to plant the seeds of an alternative narrative. Yet Keeler believes the education must start younger – in preschool and kindergarten. That's precisely the time when the standard narrative of Thanksgiving history is taught.

So what would Keeler say to a room of five-year-olds?

“I would explain what Thanksgiving means to my own people, we have our own Thanksgiving traditions. And one of the things that we give thanks for is our continued existence.”

That’s definitely a deep concept for a five-year-old, but Keeler says, honesty with kids is important. After her mother told her the history, Keeler said she felt stronger.

“I had some inside knowledge into what happened when these poor starving came to our shores, and I had the feeling that I had to challenge the system,” she said. Little Keeler told her teachers what her mother had taught her, and they listened, she said. “I felt lucky that I had a lot of great teachers that were willing to hear my perspective even as a child.”

Yet she felt uncomfortable as a child being the authority figure on something her teachers didn’t know about. The support at home was crucial, Keeler said.

But not all young children have parents who can help them understand Native American history. “I know that a lot of young Native people don’t have that support; maybe they live in foster homes, and they have to address these things much more alone and without the confidence that having a parent who really supports you would provide.”

For Keeler, understanding why Native American people don’t share the same version of Thanksgiving history means a deeper understanding of Native history. Do students today know what a sovereign nation under international law is, she asks?

“I’m a citizen of the Navajo nation, the largest tribe in the United States," Keeler said. "We have a population equal to Iceland…and we are a country within the US, and yet most Americans don’t understand that. My husband’s tribe – Six Nations -- they issues their own passport, they travel under their own passport."

“Part of the problem with the [Thanksgiving] story as told is that it makes it seems like we all kind of came to terms in Massachusetts all those years ago and Native people sort of disappeared into the American soup, and that’s simply not true,” Keeler said.

So if you want to give your child a different narrative to the standard pilgrim-Indian feast this Thanksgiving, start simple, Keeler said.  There are some children’s books that offer this different history, but there's a need for more, Keeler said.

Native American children's author Debbie Reese has a blog where she keeps track of what's available in the world of children's literature that features Native children and storylines.

If Keeler is talking to children directly, “first I would ask them what they know about Native people,” she said. “I think that we start with the idea of a more clear understanding of who and what Native people are."

“I think it is a very serious topic, [but] if is given in a hopeful way, children understand it,” she said.