My heart sank the minute I saw the construction paper “Native American headband” in my son’s preschool cubby. Right away, I knew I’d have to say something about how offensive this was — but how to start this awkward but important conversation?
This month, myriad lessons about Native Americans are being taught across the country. Why now? Because this is the month we celebrate Thanksgiving and one of the few times of year when non-Native Americans think much at all about our indigenous population. It’s often under the guise of teaching history, as though Native Americans existed only to help pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving.
We live in a pretty progressive town. We have legal cannabis, a large LGBTQ+ population and more left-leaning political actions than anywhere else I’ve lived. I’d also never experienced this sort of problem at my son’s school. So when my son’s teachers sent over their lesson plan on Native American culture, I failed to look at what their crafts projects would entail. I simply assumed the lessons would be inclusive and culturally aware.
Yet here I was, holding this DIY and insensitive-as-heck headband, wondering what to do next. My son excitedly snatched it out of my hand and put it on. As he ran down the sidewalk, I hurried behind, struggling to find language that would explain to him, a 4-year-old, just how offensive this object was.
“This type of item belongs to certain groups of Native American people,” I began, taking the headband off his head.
“They have special meaning and significance, and we want to be respectful, so that’s why it’s not okay for us to wear these. Do you have any questions?”
He didn’t, but it made me realize how much more I need to prepare for such moments. How do you explain the horrific treatment of indigenous people at the hands of white European colonialists? How do you explain that it’s insensitive and offensive for a room full of mostly white folks (he may be the only student of color, as I am Latina and his father is white) to “wear” someone else’s culture, good intentions be damned?
Like most moms raised in the digital age do, I took to the Internet, posting a Facebook call-out for advice. Elizabeth Hawksworth, a Toronto-based Anishinaabe writer, was among the first to respond.
“Headdresses are given to warriors and chiefs. To have children make a headdress ignores this sacred meaning,” Hawksworth wrote. “It’d be like having them make their own Victoria Crosses. It’s the same as war medals, and to be honest, it’s disrespectful to our people.”
Misko Beaudrie, an Ojibwe mother, had the same struggle at her child’s school, walking into her son’s class and seeing construction paper Native American heads with headbands hung on the wall with students' names on them. She later saw a photo of students eating lunch while dressed up as Indians. “As an indigenous family, it’s disturbing and upsetting to see your culture boiled down to stereotypical images of what it means to be Native American. ... We are so much more diverse than that,” she wrote in an email.
Beaudrie is a research affiliate for the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development and the Native Nations Institute. She spoke with the head of her child’s school but was let down by her response. The administrator agreed to end the use of headdresses but, she says, didn’t seem to comprehend the reasons behind her argument.
“Her response was one of exasperation: ‘Soon we won’t be able to do anything because people are offended,’ ” Beaudrie says.
But that isn’t true. There are plenty of ways to teach children about Native American culture without being offensive. Beaudrie offers alternatives: “I’d encourage schools to reach out to local tribal nations and invite them to present lessons on their culture and heritage.” She also recommends teaching lessons on native cultures at a time other than Thanksgiving.
Educator Lindsey Passenger Wieck also recently put together a phenomenal resource on Medium for anyone looking to combat the racism that is entrenched in lessons about Thanksgiving and native people.
Armed with more information about decolonizing lessons on native cultures, I sent an email to my son’s school about why their craft project was so problematic. The response was less than thrilling: The headbands were a way for teachers to interest the kids in the unit by “making it fun.”
And this is exactly why I am calling out appropriation. To me, and to individuals who have ties to the Native American community, making headbands and headdresses just because kids think it’s “fun” is not a valid excuse.
As parents, we should all be angry when our schools fail to educate our children in a respectful manner. It doesn’t just end in my son’s classroom. Hours after I sent out a response reiterating just how offensive this “lesson” was, I happened upon a Facebook post featuring a teacher’s flier asking for students to create “Native American names” for themselves. Moments after that, a friend posted about how horrified she was that her daughter’s preschool classroom was singing the “Ten Little Indians” song for their Thanksgiving party, including overtly racist lines about them “shooting arrows.”
It shouldn’t lie on the shoulders of marginalized individuals to do this hard work. Parents and educators must be mindful in how we teach lessons on native cultures. And we need to remind our teachers and other school staff that they need to be mindful. Because while it may just be a “lesson” to some kids, it’s another’s way of life.
“Our culture and ceremonies run deep and proud. They are sacred, and our ancestors died to protect our rights to celebrate them,” Beaudrie says.
I haven’t given up hope that my son’s school will do better. One of his teachers apologized profusely at pickup a few days later.
“I’m on your side,” she told me.
But I know the years of calling things out are only just beginning. My son starts kindergarten next year, with a whole new set of teachers and administrators and, of course, challenges. All I can do is keep trying and hope that someday all of us are heard.