Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving Controversy

Are kindergartners racist when they dress in costumes as Indians or Pilgrims celebrating Thanksgiving? That's been the question at these two Claremont, California public schools.

"It's demeaning," Michelle Raheja, the mother of a kindergartner at Condit Elementary School, wrote to her daughter's teacher. "I'm sure you can appreciate the inappropriateness of asking children to dress up like slaves (and kind slave masters), or Jews (and friendly Nazis), or members of any other racial minority group who has struggled in our nation's history."

That is an excerpt from a recent Los Angeles Times article, "Claremont Parents Clash Over Kindergarten Thanksgiving Costumes." Staff writer Seema Mehta explains the beginnings of this controversy. The article states "Raheja is an English professor at the University of California at Riverside who specializes in Native American literature ... Her mother is a Seneca" – a Native American Indian tribe. (See photos and video on link above.)

A comment from another parent, John Garabedian, whose son is a kindergartner at Mountain View Elementary School, to the cities Claremont Courier local newspaper expressed an opposite view: "This woman compared Thanksgiving festivities to the Holocaust, I am sorry but I just do not see the comparison. However, I am offended by her remarks and her insensitivity by this comparison. I am an Armenian and my relatives were killed during the Armenian Genocide in 1915. How dare you compare the Thanksgiving festivities with the Holocaust!"

I have first hand familiarity with this Thanksgiving tradition since my children participated in the event decades ago. My recollection is that the kindergartners highly anticipated this experience. They had been preparing for many days at school while also discussing the history of our country. Students generally made simple headbands with a few multi-colored feathers from construction paper if they were to be Indians. Those who were to be Pilgrims cut out and glued together classic black hats trimmed in white. They may have created additional paper clothing type items, but that is all I recall after so many years have passed.

Alternating years each schools kindergartners would be either Indians or Pilgrims. One school or the other would provide a real turkey dinner to the visitors. The schools are located on the same street several blocks from each other so this was the trek one classroom group would walk each year for their annual Thanksgiving gathering before the actual holiday.

National Public Radio's program "Air Talk" devoted a portion of their show, Weds., Nov. 26th to discussion of these issues by phone callers, and e-mailers. One caller reporting to be a full blood Native American Indian from a tribe whose name I was unfamiliar with described her home environment when she was young. She said her Indian parents taught that Thanksgiving was the beginning of "the big lie." The lies persisted in how Pilgrims and others treated the Native American Indian from that day forward in their view. Her school had a similar Indian Pilgrim Thanksgiving celebration and as a Native American Indian she said she felt embarrassed, ashamed and humiliated over how she and her people were portrayed in this pageant. She believes the experience traumatized her for life.

A few calls later a woman identified herself as a kindergarten teacher at Condit School years ago who engaged her students in this Thanksgiving event. I recognized her name and voice, recalling my son had been in her class. I know first hand her teaching skills, compassion and humanity. She has been a highly exceptional teacher. I am confident every child in her classroom, real Indian, pilgrim or pretending, would have experienced this activity feeling great pride. I'm sure she explained the feelings of gratitude the Pilgrims had toward the Indians. Symbolically, she said she had the Indians carry kernels of corn to the Pilgrims, a generous Native American act that actually had been the foundation enabling these newcomers to this continent to survive. Historians studying actual records agree to the significance of planting corn in the Pilgrims lives.

The Thanksgiving costume controversy continued with television news coverage. Subsequent news items in another area newspaper, The Inland Valley Daily Bulletin featured an article with pictures "Thanksgiving feast draws protesters to Condit Elementary School" by Wes Woods II, Staff Writer, published 11/25/08. He noted parent emotions were strong on both sides of this issue with local police called to place the groups on opposite sides of the street. Each could see the others signs and listen to not always calmly stated opposing points of view.

Unsettling rumors had spread a few days before school district officials determined to allow the kindergartners to continue this decades old tradition. The proviso was the students could not wear Indian and Pilgrim costumes. The timing of when this decision was made and whether or not the choice was correct continues to be in question and may well resonate in the community in the future. This is likely to be especially so, come school board election time, and/or whenever consideration of renewal of the current Superintendent's contract occurs.

Maybe we should all give more thought to the real historic facts surrounding the colonization of this continent. Perhaps a little less romanticizing might be appropriate. But just how much, at what age and how do we reveal to our children some of the more brutal facts, some of which we Americans cannot be proud? I think we're long overdue for a little more realism and truth.

I wonder what others think about all this? Meanwhile, I'll celebrate Native Americans and Pilgrims coming together on what we years later designated as Thanksgiving Day. I know their eating fare was probably quite different than what many of us will have. I hope this holiday is enjoyable for all as some will likely have long four day weekends. Many will enjoy family gatherings.


  1. As a person whose paternal line dates back to the colonial days and has both English and Native American (and much more) blood in her heritage, I'll join you, Jo! Happy Thanksgiving, my friend!

  2. I hope you had a good Thanksgiving.

    To me, this hullaballoo over the feast was ludicrous. I am sure that the teachers approached it with compassion for those who felt trod upon. This is one way for children to learn without realizing it, and I don't understand what the problem is, as long as it is done with care and respect.