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Beyond Thanksgiving

How educators can authentically honor and engage with Indigenous heritage and perspectives — all year long

November 25, 2020
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As an educator committed to equity and social justice work, I acknowledge that teaching about certain groups of people within a given month in the calendar year is problematic. Yet curriculum across the United States often consolidates Indigenous knowledges and histories into a single month, day, or even a chapter in a history book. I’d like to make it clear: Indigenous peoples are still here, and we're thriving. Indigenous peoples exist in the future. We are not relics of the past.

The first “American Indian Day” was celebrated in May 1916 in New York. The event culminated an effort by Red Fox James, a member of the Blackfeet Nation who rode across the United States on horseback seeking approval from 24 state governments to have a day to honor the contributions of American Indians. In 1990, then-President George H.W. Bush signed a joint congressional resolution recognizing the month of November as “National American Indian Heritage Month.” Similar proclamations have been issued every year since 1994 to recognize what is now called "Native American Heritage Month.”

Indigenous knowledges and histories transcend the month of November, and belong in spaces beyond Thanksgiving Day lessons. The same sentiment applies to other cultural groups as well. Nonetheless, we can use this month as a time to reflect, to interrogate, and to call ourselves into action to ensure Indigenous perspectives are honored in our classrooms.

I recently joined LaTrice Lyle, Ed.M.’19, founder of EDquity Consulting, for a live conversation in her #DecolonizeThanksgiving series, focusing on decolonizing our work in the classroom. Here are three high-level takeaways from that conversation that I invite educators to reflect on:

1. To authentically include Indigenous knowledges and history in your classroom, start by interrogating yourself.

As educators, it is important that we recognize how we have engaged with the histories and modern lives of Indigenous peoples, and how some — perhaps a lot — of that learning can be problematic. To ensure meaningful integration of these knowledges, we must become more knowledgeable ourselves and work to not perpetuate the harm, misrepresentation, erasure, and appropriation we may have experiences as students ourselves.

  • Think back to your own upbringing. What is the earliest memory you have learning about Indigenous people? How did you acquire that knowledge? What are other learning moments you can pinpoint?
  • We must engage in unlearning and relearning the history of the United States, including the Doctrine of Discovery. We must open our hearts and our minds to learn from Indigenous authorsand we must reflect on our own positionalities in relation to the land we walk on. 

2. Indigenous Nations are Nations, and their diversity must be honored. But Indigenous practices don't always need to be experienced to be honored.

Too often, we think of Indigenous peoples as subgroups existing under the umbrella of ”Indigenous,” which exist under an even broader umbrella of ”American.” We must work to change this narrative in our own minds and in our classrooms.

  • Indigenous Nations are Nations, and among these nations, there is an incredible amount of diversity. Be sure not to lose this point in curriculum development.
  • Educators should adopt the practice of learning about the Indigenous peoples who have stewarded the land that their school sits on. What is the history of the territory you are on? How do you benefit from that history? Who are the traditional caretakers of the territory? What are the stories of these peoples? A great resource to jump into this learning is Native-Landwhere you can map Indigenous territories, treaties, and languages across the world.
  • While experiential learning is an effective way to understand new information, we must be aware that not all Indigenous customs, traditions, and practice are up for public consumption. So, for example, the Pinterest lessons where students decorate their own headdresses are cultural appropriation and should not be practiced in schools.

3. Engage in meaningful relationships with Indigenous communities early, and often.

In order to ensure Indigenous knowledges and histories transcend the month of November, we need to begin cultivating relationships with local Indigenous communities early. At the end of a school year, or perhaps over the summer, begin your research of local Indigenous communities and organizations, and reach out!

  • Avoid the trap of having only transactional relationships with Indigenous communities. Take time to listen to the stories that are shared with you, invite communities to participate in more than just keynote sessions or in advisory councils. 
  • Ask the important question: How might local Indigenous communities become a part of the wider school community?

This month is an opportunity — an opportunity for growth, for learning, and for change. As the leaves have fallen and the temperature drops, let us let go of our misrepresentations of Indigenous peoples and work to be in relationship with one another.

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About the Author

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Heather Watts
Heather Watts is a Haudenosaunee woman from Six Nations of the Grand River Territory with family ties to the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation. She is from the bear clan. Watts received an Ed.M. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2019, and is currently pursuing a doctorate at the University of Toronto, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Her research interests lie at the intersection of reconciliation and education.
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Diversity and Inclusion K-12