I took one look at the note the teacher sent home last week and sighed. It outlined the upcoming Thanksgiving event for the kindergarten class and stated that each student was expected to dress up. My daughter was assigned to dress up as a native, complete with a feather headband and a beaded necklace. Now, I’m not OK with having my blonde, blue-eyed daughter of European descent wearing a stereotype of someone else’s race and culture as a costume. But I had no idea what I should do next.
Should she go to the event, but not dress up? Should she stay home from school? Do I write a letter to the newspaper? Do I dress her as a pilgrim instead? Do I ask the teacher if it should be a Patuxet costume or Pokanoket costume, in order to subtly point out that they are erasing the differences between hundreds of native tribes? How do I explain to a five-year-old why she’s going to do something different? Letting her dress up was out of the question. But how do I protect my daughter from exclusion, isolation or retribution at school while still doing something that approaches “the right thing”?
I immediately texted friends and family for advice. My coworker was shocked and appalled, and friends’ reactions varied from “Alert the media!” to “Pretend that you don’t have a problem with it, but point out that others might have a problem with it and ask them to change it.” One friend who is Indigenous, said, “Do not let her dress up as a Native American no matter what.” My mother-in-law responded, “She’d make a lovely Indian girl with her fair hair and grace.” (This response baffled me. Was she saying that native girls are graceful and have fair hair and so my very blonde daughter would be an authentic-looking example? Or was she saying that my daughter is an improvement on dark-haired native girls? I decided to leave that one well alone—I’m sure the answer isn’t one I’d like.)
Then the self-doubt started to creep in—was I overreacting? Aren’t they just cute kids? Well, yes, but they’re cute no matter how they’re dressed. Part of my job is to set an example for her. So, I wrote a note to her teacher explaining why she won’t be attending the special Thanksgiving event. Instead, I took her to the local Native American museum, and then we’re reading two books on Thanksgiving written from a Native perspective. And I can think about how to explain a complex history full of nuance, contradictions and horror to a five-year-old.
Clearly, there are still plenty of adults who don’t understand.