Prepare for Thanksgiving Stereotypes and Myths


The First Thanksgiving, Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863–1930)

It seems that once we finish dealing with racial caricatures on display for Halloween, we have the annual (U.S.) Thanksgiving-related caricatures of Native people. Rather than waiting until you need to correct the problems at your kid’s school (for those who have kids), you can be proactive in providing information about how harmful stereotypes are to both Native and non-Native children (and adults). It’s a lot easier to say, “I don’t know if you have any lessons or crafts planned for the Thanksgiving holiday, but I want to encourage you to avoid racial stereotypes that reinforce ahistorical myths” than to say, “This craft/decoration/story you presented to the class is a racist stereotype.” It’s just better for everyone.

Here are some resources to help you whether you want to educate yourself better, present some authorities to teachers, or run into others who don’t yet understand that, yes, stereotypes hurt people even if you intend it as a way to “honor” the stereotyped group.

Teaching Kids the Wonderful Diversity of American Indians, By Bernhard Michaelis, Founder, Native Child. Short article focuses on the impacts of stereotypes on preschoolers and dispelling some common stereotypes about feathers like tipis.

American Indian children who frequently encounter stereotypical images of their cultures are hindered in developing a feeling of pride in their heritage and a healthy self-image. When asked, there are American Indian preschoolers who will say they are not Indians. Why? Because they have already learned from popular movies and cartoons that Indians wear feathers and face paint and live in tipis and carry tomahawks. Preschoolers don’t look like that, so they don’t consider themselves Indians.

Deconstructing the Myths of “The First Thanksgiving”by Judy Dow (Abenaki). Deconstruction of 11 myths about Thanksgiving. Perfect for the history teacher. The website hosting the article,, also has other resources including book reviews.

Myth #11: Thanksgiving is a happy time.

Fact: For many Indian people, “Thanksgiving” is a time of mourning, of remembering how a gift of generosity was rewarded by theft of land and seed corn, extermination of many from disease and gun, and near total destruction of many more from forced assimilation. As currently celebrated in this country, “Thanksgiving” is a bitter reminder of 500 years of betrayal returned for friendship.

Of Warrior Chiefs and Indian Princesses: The Psychological Consequences of American Indian Mascots, by Stephanie A. Fryberg, Hazel Rose Markus, Daphna Oyserman & Joseph M. Stone. This academic journal article provides data to back up the assertion that stereotypes hurt Native people. While it focuses on mascots, I think the onus is on the other side to craft a coherent argument as to why this wouldn’t apply to stereotypes in other contexts. Here’s the abstract:

Four studies examined the consequences of American Indian mascots and other prevalent representations of American Indians on aspects of the self-concept for American Indian students. When exposed to Chief Wahoo, Chief Illinwek, Pocahontas, or other common American Indian images, American Indian students generated positive associations (Study 1, high school) but reported depressed state self-esteem (Study 2, high school), and community worth (Study 3, high school), and fewer achievement-related possible selves (Study 4, college). We suggest that American Indian mascots are harmful because they remind American Indians of the limited ways others see them and, in this way, constrain how they can see themselves.

And for the video-minded, the American Experience series We Shall Remain, presents a decolonizing history with dramatizations depicting five moments of U.S. Indigenous history. The first episode looks at the relationship between the Wampanoag and the English settlers that has given rise to the popular first Thanksgiving myth. You can watch the entire episode online through Hulu (free) or Amazon (free with Prime, or $5.99 to own the entire series).

At the heart of the project is a five-part television series that shows how Native peoples valiantly resisted expulsion from their lands and fought the extinction of their culture — from the Wampanoags of New England in the 1600s who used their alliance with the English to weaken rival tribes, to the bold new leaders of the 1970s who harnessed the momentum of the civil rights movement to forge a pan-Indian identity. WE SHALL REMAIN represents an unprecedented collaboration between Native and non-Native filmmakers and involves Native advisors and scholars at all levels of the project.

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