Patel speaking to an animated crowd
Features & Articles

How should we teach kids about Thanksgiving?

  • Arts and Humanities
  • Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
  • School of Education

The Thanksgiving holiday is usually synonymous with gratitude, comfort food and family gatherings — if not also happy children’s drawings of turkeys, pilgrims and Native Americans.

School of Education Professor Leigh Patel’s earliest memories of the holiday don’t greatly differ, but she says she was always a bit dubious of the way the first Thanksgiving story was taught.

“From a very young age, something seemed off about it. I never bought that story that there was a nice meal where these two populations came together.”

She was a child of immigrants from Gujarat, India, and found even the language around the holiday confusing: Why did Americans use “Indian” to refer to Indigenous peoples and those in her family’s homeland?

“That has given me a vantage point that’s not quite in line with the white mainstream normative population.”

Today, Patel studies colonialism, social movements and education, with an emphasis on how schooling can both further inequity and be a tool for liberation. She’s also spent time as a middle school language arts teacher, a journalist and a state-level policymaker. Her most recent book, “No Study Without Struggle: Confronting Settler Colonialism in Higher Education,” grapples with questions of history, teaching and struggle.

Ahead of the pending holiday, Pittwire asked Patel to discuss how American educators could better tackle the story of Thanksgiving in K-12 classrooms and beyond.

First off, what misconceptions are taught about Thanksgiving? 

That this was a coming together and open celebration and sharing is the biggest and most pervasive misconception of this day that we still sell. There was a great deal of death, a great deal of murder.

Can you talk about why it’s important to acknowledge such history?

The foundational disservice we do to them is we don’t trust their ability to grapple with wrong things having happened and continuing to happen.

I’ve seen a kindergarten teacher explain what happened when European settlers arrived at this land in a way to the kindergarteners so they could engage: “These new people came, and the people there initially welcomed them. The new people who came took those people’s homes and even took some of their lives and made them move into places where they were restricted to stay.” And the kindergarteners said, “Well, that’s not right. You shouldn’t just take things from people; when somebody welcomes you, you should be thankful for that.”

So, we do a great disservice in thinking that children cannot handle the reality of people harming each other. And at a fundamental level, our youngest children understand so clearly that it’s not right to harm each other in ways that sometimes, when we develop vocabularies and ways of being in the world, we overcomplicate.

How should Indigenous history and settler history be taught?

We must trust that children and young people are capable of engaging with questions. Part of how to do that is by showing up when children ask about things that don’t line up. Young people are very good at saying, “Wait a minute, what about this? This doesn’t quite make sense.” We can surround it with all the turkey, the food and the football, but the core story still falters.

One of the ways we can do better is by accurately explaining the history and telling children that there are Indigenous people alive now, not in rural places only, not on a reservation, but in urban areas. These are not people who went kindly back into the woods. They have survived. They have thrived in many ways. It’s incredibly important for people of all ages to know that Indigenous peoples exist.

At its best, education provides us with better tools and language. People have not had an opportunity to know this history and ongoing reality. I find people want to know. I have never found that people have an oppositional stance in the classroom. It’s uncomfortable and sometimes it’s hard learning, but people want to go through that so they can be more responsible, be better and uphold histories and traditions that have continued to be attempted to be erased.

What responsibilities do instructors have to introduce diverse perspectives to their students?

We are obligated to know that there are many knowledge systems — ways of making knowledge, of being with knowledge. Every time we recenter Eurocentric ways of knowing that are very individualized, competitive, based on hierarchy and status, we are actively shutting out many other ways of knowing. At an educator level, that’s, to me, malfeasance if you’re presenting a slim way of knowing that only some people have shared experience with. It reproduces social inequities, in essence.

One thing that comes with Indigenous knowledge systems is that everything is relational, and we are all in relation. We lose a lot when we push Indigenous ways of knowing off to the side or don’t pay attention to them.

But there’s an opportunity to learn more about the Indigenous peoples. This holiday opens that opportunity for us to at least understand whose land it is we are uninvited guests upon. In fact, it can be learning more about the relations between Indigenous peoples and the lands we are uninvited guests upon that start to produce generativity and create a better relationship.

So, as professors from the School of Education, we are responsible for preparing educators who know about this history. If we don’t do that, we are perpetuating this inequity, this violence, this injustice.

Further learning

Patel suggests the following resources for those seeking to increase their historical knowledge of relations between Indigenous peoples and settlers:

  • The website for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, the first Indigenous peoples that the pilgrims encountered.
  • A more detailed look at the term Indigenous Survivance, which combines surviving and a resilience.
  • Anacaona” by Haitian author Edwidge Danticat — a book that explores the revolt of the eponymous Taîno princess who took her own life before she could be raped and killed by Columbus. 
  • The “This Land” podcast discusses the contentious adoption dispute of a Native toddler and contemporary efforts to dismantle American Indian tribes.
  • The National Day of Mourning is a yearly demonstration that happens every fourth Thursday of November and is designed to educate people about Native American heritage and suffering.
  • Read the White House’s Oct. 7, 2022, proclamation on National Indigenous Peoples’ Day


— Kara Henderson