An Unexpected Thanksgiving Discussion: Where American History and 4-Year-Olds Collide

by upatnight1432

My 4-year-old keeps saying: “We learned about Americans in preschool and they wear dresses on their heads!” I am slightly worried about what they are teaching her about early American history. I am going with: she is learning about Native American’s and headdresses (I think).

It sounds kind of cute and innocent when she says it, but I am oddly sensitive about how children are taught about Native Americans. I feel like there is an over simplification of the image we present to children as “Native American.” I worry that there are certain images that children are given to explain Native Americans, like pictures of headdresses. That bothers me. There are so many customs that are tribe specific and so much more to this history than ceremonial clothing. I don’t pretend to know nearly as much as I should about history, but I do know that the images from my childhood of Native Americans were exactly those expected stereotypical shots. I was a lot older before I began to have a broader picture of early American History and more specifically, of Native Americans.

I remember feeling disillusionment at the idea that the history I was being taught in school was often times biased and told from a specific racial perspective, namely a white perspective. I remember the moment I realized that there were versions of history. I remember looking at pictures of Native Americans taken by Edward Curtis and learning that he staged many of them, and even removed some modern items to make things seem more primitive. I remember reading that he would carry around a trunk of ceremonial clothing and have those he photographed put on the items- at times garments that were not even from the same tribe.

I get that Aimee is 4 and that on some level it is adorable that she understands Americans to be people who wear dresses on their heads, but I worry what she is learning. Of course, she only reports certain parts of the story, so it is hard to say what they are all teaching. Ultimately, it is my responsibility to make sure my little girl has a well-rounded understanding of history- I cannot just rely on what she is taught at school ( though it is also my responsibility to know what they are teaching). I want her to have an understanding of history where culturally diverse perspectives are honored. I want her to love and engage with history in a way that I was never given the opportunity to.

Dear friends I think this is a particularly fitting discussion given that Thanksgiving is fast approaching and I hope you will engage in the discussion with me. I am interested in your perspective:

What do you think? Did you have a moment where you realized there were different “versions” of history? Do you know the work of Edward Curtis? On one hand he gave visibility to Native Americans through photography, on the other hand, he created images that were not culturally authentic- images that shaped our understanding of Native Americans. What is your perspective on this? How can we be sure that each generation has a better understanding of history and a greater reverence for cultures? Parents, have you ever run into a similar situation where you questioned what was being taught at your child’s school? What did you do? Do you have any book suggestions for my daughter’s age range that are historically accurate and culturally sensitive that begin the discussion about the lives of Native Americans?