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Knoxville mom strives to teach daughter historically accurate lessons about Thanksgiving

"I think we do a discredit to our kids when we think that they can't grasp that things are complicated," Sara Hill said

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Thanksgiving is often viewed as a 'feel-good' holiday to take note of the things you're grateful for, but it's also riddled with controversy as inaccurate narratives and insensitive traditions remain part of the curriculum for many students. 

Sara Hill, a former second-grade teacher who's homeschooling her daughter during the pandemic, was overwhelmed by this when she started developing a lesson plan to do before the holidays. 

"Things like making a feathered head headdress or decorating a paper bag vest or even having a cutesy little play where they act out being Indians and pilgrims. I'm really pretty shocked about the level to which all of that is going on," Hill said. 

She wrote an article about her experience for Knoxville Moms; sharing indigenous resources she found online to help with her teaching and some of the knowledge she acquired throughout the process. 

"I think we do a discredit to our kids when we think that they can't grasp that things are complicated," Hill said, adding that her second-grader easily picked up on the lessons and would often correct her when she mistakenly used the term 'pilgrim' instead of 'English settlers' after learning that it was misleading.

Hill said she chose to make the historical lessons somber in tone but came up with a number of different fun, interactive activities that highlighted more modern-day Thanksgiving traditions.

"We made a couple of little mini pies and the kids got to taste and compare and contrast them. We did a thing where they decorated a turkey to look like something else because it was trying to escape the farmer who'd kill it for Thanksgiving. So, you can still do fun things like that but focus more on the present-day traditions for the crafts and leave the history as something that's,  you know, to be respected," Hill said. 

Amanda Funk, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and Executive Director of the Widoktadwen Center for Native Knowledge in Pennsylvania, said the most important thing parents can do is reintroduce Native American voices into the narrative. 

"Centering native people over this made-up narrative that's been retold to our children over the years, my children included, and I grew up that way. That tends to be the experience for a lot of us," Funk said, remembering a time when her daughter brought a decorated paper vest home from school. 

Funk recommends starting with sites like the Smithsonian's Native Knowledge 360. 

"There are lesson plans that are ready to go, and there are interactive exhibits for different grade levels, and there are a lot of different options for engaging children around these topics at every level," Funk said, emphasizing the importance of learning directly from indigenous sources. 

Funk said gratitude and gathering as a community are values that are important to her heritage and said those are great aspects of the holiday to focus on as a family. 

More resources:

Native Knowledge 360

Teaching Tolerance

Oklahoma City Schools, Native American Student Services