No one, not one single person or family or toddler, is going to storm the doors of your library — be it public or school — and demand that you do a special Thanksgiving storytime. Literally no one. And yet. And yet you, as a librarian, might feel compelled to offer a program along these lines. Maybe because you’ve always done it. Maybe because it’s easy and quick to pull together. Maybe because all the teachers in your school are doing units on it and you want to support them. Maybe because you think your patrons, the majority of your patrons that is, don’t really think about it as a “holiday” but as a more secular tradition. But I want to urge you to stop and consider why you’re doing these programs and the messages they send to all your patrons, especially your Native/First Nations patrons.
Chances are pretty good that, unless you are reading this from a reservation, you are reading this from occupied and stolen land. In many cases, even if you are reading it from a reservation you are not on the true ancestral homes of the people who reside there but on government-created settlements. You are on land that people were killed for. Can you sit with that for a few seconds? Can you really?
This is something I am acutely aware of in New Mexico, where we have 22 recognized tribes. I grew up playing with Native kids, I work with Native people, I serve Native children. Maybe, in other places, it’s a lesson you don’t have to think about as much. But it’s still true.
Many years ago, I decided my library would stop putting up grinning turkeys and making displays with puns about FEASTS and GOBBLE. We don’t have pilgrim coloring pages, we don’t make stacks of books that look like turkeys. Let me assure you we still have piles of Thanksgiving books — picture books and non-fiction too.
But November is also Native American Heritage Month. So at my library, instead of another story about sharing maize, we make a conscious effort to spotlight and celebrate books by Native American authors. You can too — and you can even tie it in with that “classic” Thanksgiving you might be reluctant to let go of.
What do you think of when you think of Thanksgiving?
I am sure many will have the same answers about family, community, and tradition. If those are the things that are truly important to you about Thanksgiving, why not share messages about that through the works of Native authors? This is a way you can help your patrons understand that Native Americans are still with us today — not just forgotten noble savages of the long-gone past bringing white people corn.
If Thanksgiving makes you think about tradition and community, why not share Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith? This picture book is about a young Muscogee Creek girl who is trying to find enough tin jingles to make her jingle dress special at a powwow. Readers get to meet the people in Jenna’s life and community and learn about the specialness of the Ojibway tradition of jingle dancing.
If Thanksgiving makes you think about family and tradition, why not share Kunu’s Basket by Lee DeCora Francis? In this picture book, Kunu becomes frustrated when he finds making a pack basket isn’t as easy as he imagined. All the men on Indian Island do it, why can’t Kunu? His grandfather helps him learn patience and practice in this story about Penobscot Indian Nation in Maine.
If Thanksgiving makes you think about happiness and family togetherness, why not share Sweetest Kulu by Celina Kalluk? Throat singer Kalluk shares an Inuit welcome for a baby in this tender, wondrous picture book full of arctic animals and Inuit traditions.
If Thanksgiving makes you think about cooperation and people coming together in peace and forgiveness, why not share with a class Hiawatha and the Peacemaker by Robbie Robertson? This longer picture book tells the story of how Hiawatha and the Peacemaker brought peace and united the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy in a model that would inspire the formation of the early American government.
If Thanksgiving makes you think about thankfulness and gratitude, why not share Thanks to the Animals by Allen Sockabasin? Little Zoo Sap has fallen off the sled in the cold winter forest, but the animals all keep him warm. When his father Joo Tum finds him, he thanks the animals for saving Zoo Sap in this story from Passamaquoddy storyteller Sockabasin.
I’ve read Thanks to the Animals to kids several times during the Thanksgiving season and taken it to school visits when teachers requested a “Thanksgiving storytime” as outreach. Not once ever has a kid or teacher said, “But this isn’t Thanksgiving! I demand more pilgrims!” Instead, they love hearing about Zoo Sap and all the animals. Children understand the message of thanksgiving in the book and, like Joo Tum, they enjoy thanking the animals. I also get a chance to discuss the Passamaquoddy tribe with the kids, which can be a great way to encourage adults to remember that Thanksgiving isn’t just about the same old story.
We, as librarians and educators, can be leaders in changing and expanding that story. We shouldn’t only celebrate and promote these works for one month. We should make them fundamental texts we are excited to share with patrons all the time. The works of Native authors and illustrators are worth our spotlight every month but, particularly in November, we can use this month, this holiday we “celebrate” without a second thought, to really help our patrons go beyond the same old story, the same old displays, the same old lies.
American Indian Perspectives on Thanksgiving from the National Museum of the American Indian
Harvest Ceremony: Beyond the Thanksgiving Myth from the National Museum of the American Indian
Classroom Lessons from the National Museum of the American Indian
Curriculum Guide for Jingle Dancer from Cynthia Leitich Smith
Teaching Guide for Kunu’s Basket
More info on Celina Kalluk, including a video of her throat singing
Excerpt from the song and book Hiawatha and the Peacemaker
Allen Sockabasin reading Thanks to the Animals in Passamaquoddy