After reading through a debate regarding a parent's complaint about pre-k students making construction paper feather headbands in November, I came across this post at Education World, "Are You Teaching the 'Real' Story of the 'First Thanksgiving?'" The article and debate made me realize how lucky I am to have been brought up the way I was as the child of both native and non-native parents.
Born in Kentucky and raised for the first ten years of my life in Texas, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to be exposed to (and for five years, immersed in) Inupiat culture, and live for over two decades in a state where Native peoples' culture, mythology, values, history, and art aren't merely on display for one month out of the year: Alaska. I learned about the good, the bad, the historical cruelties suffered by, and remarkable achievements of Indigenous Peoples. I have been a witness to the prejudices that remain and feel pride in the accomplishments and contributions of my Native family and friends today. Endurance, strength, resilience, community, love for family, pride, skill and artistry are all traits worthy of being shared, respected, and celebrated, no matter a person's ethnic or cultural background.
To develop empathy, children must be encouraged to walk a mile in another's shoes, to imagine how they might feel when meeting strangers for the first time, when deciding who and HOW to trust. Young children try on the clothing and garb of others every day, from their mom's high heels to their dad's Army cap, to sister's riding boots and brother's varsity jacket, developing their personal identity by trying on the markers of others. They also emulate family members, friends, sports heroes, celebrated musicians, actors, historical figures, community helpers and those blessed with a special talent or gift.
Can children create feathered headbands without the kitsch or racist connotations that instantly pop into their parents' minds upon viewing? Absolutely, but it's up to the teacher to share culturally relevant and accurate information about the earning of feathers (or wearing of a blanket, mask, or story belt) with students AND families. It's also a family's responsibility to try to understand the intentions behind a lesson or activity before rushing to judgment and labeling a teacher as racist or insensitive. Do I find it offensive if children emulate respected chiefs, warriors, healers, or shamans, just as they do ballerinas, astronauts, painters, singers, veterinarians, or teachers? No. Just as teachers, family and society expose children to other professions and roles worthy of respect through literature, history lessons, field trips, guest speakers, arts and crafts, so too can we teach children about Native Americans and Indigenous Peoples. Native AND non-Native teachers need quality non-fiction materials and resources, or know how and where to find them. It's also up to teachers and parents to be aware of what's not only culturally sensitive, but developmentally appropriate for young children.
Three, four, five and six year olds do not need to be exposed to and master the vocabulary of genocide because of the gut reaction of the adults around them. Rather, children should be gently guided as they broaden the scope of their universe from their immediate selves and family to their neighborhood, community, state, nation, and world.