• Allison Lee Pillinger Choi

What We Tell Our Kids about Native American Heritage Day

Updated: Jan 15


We LOVE Thanksgiving for many reasons, including the family, the food, and the reflection. While our 2020 style Thanksgiving is nothing like the first Thanksgiving in 1621 (well, given COVID, it’s probably not like our Thanksgiving in 2019, either), we can still appreciate many of our traditions that took root in that first famous meal with Native Americans and English Pilgrims. It’s a delicious time to talk with our kids about the positive aspects of their relationships.


We also LOVE the day after Thanksgiving for more family time, more (leftover) food, and more reflection. The day following Thanksgiving is Native American Heritage Day, a time to specifically reflect on the Native American people and cultures. This day honors the hundreds of Native American tribes for their contributions to the United States – including the time predating America’s founding. In addition to Native American contributions, the good, bad, and tragic experiences with pre-American settlers and early American expansion are also present in these reflections.


How and when a parent chooses to talk about these complexities with their young kids are as unique as the individual child and his or her stage of development. At Primerrily, we highlight "the uglier sides of history at older ages -- when [kids are] cognitively developed enough to digest complexities, compartmentalize concepts, as well as process nuance. . . able to understand that good and bad traits are not necessarily mutually exclusive. . . understanding the complexities of history, building on the good, and improving from the bad" is just one way we can contribute to some element of justice to a difficult part of history. Like the Thanksgiving holiday, at Primerrily we observe this holiday with our kids in a positive light -- emphasizing the amazing accomplishments, and wonderful wisdom, generosity, bravery of Native Americans.


Signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2008, the federal holiday of Native American Heritage Day was endorsed by the National Indian Gaming Association and 184 federally recognized tribes. On this day, all Americans are encouraged to observe the date, and public schools are encouraged in the week prior to and after Thanksgiving to promote student understanding of Native Americans with lesson plans focused on their history, achievements, and contributions. President Trump issued a proclamation designating this month of November as National Native American Heritage Month:

"During National Native American Heritage Month, we honor the storied legacy of American Indians and Alaska Natives in our Nation. Their cherished legacy, rich cultures, and heroic history of military service inspire us all. This month, as we recommit to supporting Native American Tribes and people, we resolve to work side-by-side with their leaders to secure stronger, safer communities and preserve their sacred heritage for future generations. . . As business owners, artists, teachers, writers, courageous members of our Armed Forces, and so much more, their contributions to our society are cause for celebration and appreciation by all Americans."



Well our kids are thrilled to learn about yet another reason to celebrate our country’s history. And we love taking any opportunity – especially a national holiday -- to introduce the wonderful aspects of America’s unique, complex, and exceptional past. A few Native American facts and icons from First Facts About American Heroes and Britannica.com to kick off the conversations with your kids:


· Colonial America: Between 1607 and 1730, thousands of European settlers braved a dangerous ocean crossing in sailing ships constructed in ways which would definitely not meet today’s standard. They came to a “New World” that was a wilderness to them. This untamed land claimed the lives of many. Of course, this so-called New World was not new to all the people of the Native American tribes who had lived here for so many centuries. Survival was second nature to them, and they helped the first settlers at Jamestown (Virginia) and Plymouth (Massachusetts) get through the hardest years of settlement. The first true American heroes included both these settlers and the Native Americans who helped them.

· Squanto: Born around 1585 in the New England area into the Pawtuxet tribe, Squanto spent time in England after befriending English explorers in 1605. There, he learned English, which enabled him to arrange the first treaty between colonists and Native Americans. He, Samoset, and other fellow tribesmen and women helped the Pilgrims survive by showing them how to fish and how to grow newly introduced crops. The Pilgrims were so grateful to him and his tribe for their help that they held a great harvest festival: the first Thanksgiving!


· Pocahontas: Born around 1596, in the Virginia area, she was a Powhatan Indian woman who fostered peace between English colonists and Native Americans by befriending the settlers at the Jamestown Colony and eventually marrying one of them (John Rolfe). Among her several native names, the one best known to the English was Pocahontas (translated at the time as “little wanton” or “mischievous one”).

· Tecumseh: Born in 1768 in the Ohio area into the Shawnee tribe, Chief Tecumseh was respected for his kindness, intelligence, courage, and influence. He organized a union of tribes to try to stop the settlers advancing westward, which he saw as threatening to the Native American way of life.

· Sacagawea: born around 1788, near the Idaho-Montana area, she was a member of the Shoshone tribe. She was an interpreter who traveled thousands of wilderness miles with the Lewis and Clark Expedition, from the Mandan-Hidatsa villages in the Dakotas to the Pacific Northwest.

· Chief Joseph: Born around 1840 in Oregon, Chief Joseph led a group from the Nez Perce tribe to try to escape the U.S. Army after attempts to take over his tribe’s land. His heroism created sympathy for the Native American cause of preservation.


· Crazy Horse: Born in 1842 around the South Dakota area, he was a chief of the Oglala band of the Lakota tribe. He was an able tactician and a determined warrior in the Sioux resistance against European Americans’ invasion of the northern Great Plains. He is among the most notable and iconic Native Americans and was honored in 1982 with a postage stamp that is part of the Great Americans series of the USPS.

· Jim Thorpe: Born in 1888 in Oklahoma and a member of the Sac and Fox Nation, he became the first man ever to win both the decathlon and pentathlon in the Olympics. He is one of the most amazing athletes in history – particularly in football and baseball -- and was the first Native American to win an Olympic gold medal for the United States.




Note that we intentionally highlight Native Americans without lumping them in with the newly mainstreamed and loosely labeled term of “indigenous people,” meaning members of cultures native to an area of land, pre-dating a settlement takeover by outside colonists. We celebrate the heritage of Native Americans specifically, for a few reasons, including: 1) Primerrily’s mission is focused on the American community, including its multifaceted history, and 2) indigenous cultures span many geographies -- from Canada to Brazil to New Zealand (to name only a few) and everywhere in between -- each with its own identity and unique history. To label as an international monolith does not serve the purpose of this federal holiday observing Native American heritage.


As this relates to the Columbus Day federal holiday from last month, we find it unfortunate that “Indigenous People's Day” was decided by the woke to be a distraction from / takedown of Columbus Day, rather than its own celebration in its own right -- as Native American Heritage Day actually is. Indigenous People’s Day may claim to be proclaimed in the spirit of justice for historically oppressed people. While we want nothing less than justice for all (after all, it's in our country's pledge of allegiance, which we cherish!), discarding Columbus Day does not achieve justice for Native Americans.

Pushing for an “Indigenous People’s Day” on Columbus Day seems nothing more than distraction or tokenism. Rather, we see justice and socioeconomic mobility achieved in many other ways -- via social and policy approaches -- such as those addressed here in The New Trail of Tears, researched and written by Naomi Schaefer Riley, one of our favorite moms and public policy scholars. While this book is a little mature for the Primerrily Bookshelf, you bet it’s on the Primerrily Parent bookshelf ready for our kids when they’re of age. ;)

Primerrily encourages us all to take every holiday and every “everyday” opportunities to embrace American celebration, history, and reflection with our kids. We celebrate in ways ranging from immersing in activity together (like a world mapping activity to explain the "Indian" misnomer since adopted by many tribes), to visiting local monuments around our towns. Enjoy reading more Primerrily ways to introduce Native American cultural activity for young kids and Native American icons (like asking the Tooth Fairy to leave a Sacagawea dollar for a coin-sized history lesson the next morning!).

No matter what activity you choose, this month is a wonderful time to introduce Native American culture. And we are even more thrilled to celebrate when our country does it together as a national holiday. Happy Native American Heritage Day!