Giving Thanks to Genocide

Controversy erupted this week in Claremont, California over a traditional Thanksgiving ritual. For 40 years kindergarteners from Condit and Mountain View elementary schools have participated in a holiday feast where students dress in traditional pilgrim and Native American costumes. Yet one parent launched a protest in recent weeks that caused the school district to rethink their custom.

Professor Michelle Raheja, my colleague here at UC Riverside and a specialist in Native American literature and visual culture, wrote to her daughter’s teacher outlining her opposition. Raheja’s point was clear and compelling. “I’m sure you can appreciate the inappropriateness of asking children to dress up like slaves (and kind slave masters), or Jews (and friendly Nazis), or members of any other racial minority group who has struggled in our nation’s history…There is nothing to be served by dressing up as a racist stereotype.”

After a contentious school district meeting last week, the two schools elected to continue the feast minus the paper costumes. But many parents accused administrators of “cowing down” to a liberal agenda and being dictated by “agenda-driven elitists.” A number even showed up at school on Tuesday donning their feathered headdresses and pilgrim hats. One quote in the LA Times seems to encapsulate the majority sentiment. Ignoring the validity of Professor Raheja’s argument or the revisionist history that undergirds the Pilgrim-Indian mythology, an obstinate mother declared, “She’s not going to tell us what we can and cannot wear.”

As a parent of kindergarteners, one who has been in “de-program” mode all week around this very subject, I celebrate Professor Raheja’s courage—even as I am ashamed of my own silence up to this point. More persons must actively resist oppressive narratives that only prove to indoctrinate another generation into the lies we live within. Reenacting this nation’s egregious history of European conquest and genocide as if it was an innocent gathering of ol’ friends amounts to intellectual child abuse. And like all forms of destructive behavior, we must name it and seek healing from it lest we normalize the absurd and reenact the abuse on another generation.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my son to be that idiot standing in front of a kindergarten in thirty years doing the tomahawk chop with construction paper taped to his brow. Some traditions we have no reason to be thankful for!

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