In honor of National Native American Heritage Month, we have a guest post from an instructor at Arkansas State University.
Every year children around the country dress up like Pilgrims and Indians to celebrate the first Thanksgiving. By now most of us know that the story we have been taught about the peaceful Thanksgiving dinner at Plymouth Rock between the European settlers (“Pilgrims”) and Wampanoag (wamp-a-NO-ag or WAMP-ah-nog) Native Peoples (“Indians”) is a mostly concocted legend. Unfortunately, textbooks are slow to correct misinformation that has become a rich part of our national and cultural identity. Aside from the fact that Thanksgiving, as most of us have been taught, is full of myths, exaggerations, and outright lies, there are additional reasons why it is not appropriate to dress children as “Indians.”
1. Dressing up as a member of another culture is cultural appropriation, which is culturally insensitive and inappropriate.
Cultural appropriation is defined as members of one group adopting specific aspects of a culture that is not their own. Usually the ones appropriating from other cultures (i.e., those dressing as “Indians”) are part of the dominant culture, and typically the ones being appropriated from (i.e., the Wampanoag) have been historically and systematically oppressed by the dominant group. This oppression has a lengthy history that usually includes the dominant group stealing parts of another culture only when it benefits them. An individual of the dominant group, at any time, can take off the “costume” and not have to live with the oppression and marginalization that people of that culture have had to, and oftentimes continue to, endure.
2. Cultural costumes promote stereotypes.
Dressing up like an “Indian” not only reinforces a fictitious account of history, but it also promotes dangerous stereotypes of Native Peoples. It reduces their culture to a caricature, their history to a mythical story, and the violence and oppression committed against them to a footnote. You may think, “It’s just kids. Why do you want to ruin all the fun?” Or, “It’s just play. What’s the big deal?” However, children learn life lessons and expectations through play. Stories and lessons that we teach our children at a very young age begin to shape the way they see the world.
3. This really isn’t your decision.
It is not up to you whether dressing like an “Indian” is offensive if you are not of that culture. So, your aunt is half Cherokee and thinks your homemade Indian costume is adorable? Awesome – but in reality, if she is your aunt, she would probably think you wearing a potato sack is equally adorable. One person cannot speak for an entire culture. Who am I to claim it’s offensive if I, myself, am not a Native Person? There are, in fact, a multitude of resources created by or curated by Native People that support this. Changing this one thing is a start toward addressing the oppression these marginalized groups face every day.
4. There are still ways to “have fun.”
There is not another holiday in the United States where we expect children to dress up as a member of another culture. When studying slavery we don’t ask our children to come to school in blackface. It is unacceptable. Instead, let’s center Thanksgiving on truly being a time of giving thanks. We can strive to move toward a more inclusive celebration – like a Fall Festival. Instead of reading books that promote the traditional story of Thanksgiving, find resources that tell a more accurate history, in an age appropriate way. Let’s teach our children to respect diversity and value cultural differences. Just because something is “the way we have always done it,” doesn’t mean it’s the best way. We should be constantly challenging our own traditions. If we truly want our children to be the most accepting, empathic, and respectful generation, then we need to start here and start now.
This Thanksgiving, if your child has been asked to dress as an “Indian,” consider talking to the teacher or to the school. Usually the school or teacher has no idea that this practice is culturally insensitive. If they are truly invested in your child’s education, then they will be open to change. Below are some links that provide additional resources to help create a more culturally sensitive environment for everyone.
What’s the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation? http://interruptmag.com/article/appropriation-vs-appreciation
For more information on American Indians in children’s literature: http://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/p/about.html
Alternatives to the traditional Thanksgiving lessons for young children:
If you would like to read more about some of the myths of Thanksgiving, here is a valuable resource: http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2013/11/28/6-thanksgiving-myths-share-them-someone-you-know-152475
Sarah Mayberry Scott is an Instructor of Communication Studies at Arkansas State University and a doctoral student in Rhetoric and Communication at the University of Memphis. Sarah is a disability and sport scholar. She resides in Northeast Arkansas with her husband and two children.