Pilgrims & Indians

As the assistant pre-K teacher and I are bundling up my son to leave daycare the week before Thanksgiving, she mentions that “the three-year-olds are usually Pilgrims and the four-year-olds are Indians,” but this year they have way more four-year-olds than three-year-olds.

Noted but not digested. Tuck that away. Come back to it later, the night before the big daycare Thanksgiving feast.

I’m wide awake thinking about Pilgrims and Indians, thinking about members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe being sprayed with water in freezing temperatures as they protest the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Thinking about the Cleveland Indians and the pre-World Series protests over the team’s mascot, the fictional and caricatured “Chief Wahoo.” Remembering my award-winning Halloween costume back in third grade, complete with moccasins and beads. Thinking about the name of the football team in our nation’s capital, the city from which I just moved back to Pittsburgh after about ten years. Thinking about the pact I made a few years ago – with myself (a white woman), with my husband (a white man): call people out on racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. Try to engage people in tough conversations.

But, how do I “engage” when I’m volunteering at the Thanksgiving feast and my son’s wearing a feather?

Maybe they won’t actually dress up.

Day of the feast. Scan the room. Yep – construction paper feathers, headbands, vests. In typical three-year-old fashion, my son refuses to wear the Pilgrim hat he made. Immediate crisis avoided – at least my son’s opting out of the thing altogether. The kids are lined up to wash hands, the teachers and handful of parent volunteers are focused on the tasks at hand – food mainly.

I’m assigned heating up mashed potatoes and gravy, I divvy out the Jell-O molds, I move a baby from one room into the other. I start talking to one of the other moms, who is African American. Her children are part of a small minority of non-white kids at the daycare. She asks me what I do. I say I’m a sociologist and confess that I’m not sure what I think about the kids dressing up as Indians, that I want to say something to the head teacher. “Will you, please?” she says.

Yes. But where to begin? How do I say something without seeming like I’m telling the teacher how to do her job? How can I communicate in short conversations over drop-off or pick-up what’s taken me years to learn? Do I say that dressing kids up like “Indians” runs the risk of simplifying and freezing in time complex cultures and people and leave it at that? Or that it teaches kids a mythical version of history and culture perpetuated by Hollywood? Or that it lays the groundwork for education that whitewashes a long and violent history?

The next day I scour the internet for resources on progressive ways to teach about Thanksgiving. Still, I couldn’t find much guidance for teachers of very young children, especially on dressing up as Pilgrims and Indians. I try out my concern on a trusted 60-something (white) friend who was a long-time elementary school teacher. She pushes back a bit, and I realize I don’t know how to approach this conversation. I’m using words like “problematic.” She uses words like, “sharing a meal” and “role-playing” and other lessons from a three- and four-year-old curriculum. I come off as unnecessarily critical. I stumble down a few different avenues. I talk about the misguided notion of Indian as a single entity; we end up on historical accuracy of costumes and not on the act of dressing up. What’s an analogy she can relate to? Has she followed the news about mascots? Can she see how dressing up might be offensive? I cut the conversation short by saying that I’ll send her something I found from the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

So I have some materials printed and ready to share with my son’s teacher. But how do I begin the conversation? I’m still working on the language.

About the author: Colleen Cain is a Sr. Research & Policy Analyst at UrbanKind Institute. A sociologist by training, her work has focused on regional demographic trends, the revitalization of older cities, federal funding to states and cities, and Community Benefits Agreements.

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