A Child's First P.C. Thanksgiving
By: Rex W. Huppke
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, November 24, 2003
A group of Skokie 1st graders got an unexpected lesson in cultural sensitivity Friday when their principal wouldn't let them dress as American Indians for their annual Thanksgiving celebration.
After a parent complained that the costumes the children had made might be offensive, the principal told the kids to leave their construction-paper headdresses on the classroom shelves.
Those who had opted to be pilgrims fared no better. Their paper black hats and bonnets also were banned, and for the first time in more than two decades, the 1st graders at Madison School commemorated the events of October 1621 in their school clothes.
American Indian groups in Chicago applauded Principal Pete Davis' decision. Leonard Malatare of the American Indian Center said generic Indian outfits tend to promote Hollywood-style stereotypes of American Indians.
"At this age level, you let them dress up in feathers and do the little Indian thing, they'll grow up with that image in their head," Malatare said. "I've had people come up and ask me if I was born in a teepee. We need to start getting away from these stereotypes."
But the parents of youngsters who had worked on costumes for the last month didn't appreciate the school changing its Thanksgiving tradition on short notice.
"I'm a little disgusted," said Terri Lefler, whose son, Matthew, 6, didn't understand why he couldn't wear the costume he'd made. "I think we could have let the children wear the costumes and still taught them to respect the differences and the importance of Native American culture."
Davis said two American Indian organizations he consulted told him it would be offensive for any child to dress up in stereotypical outfits.
"They advised us very strongly not to do it," Davis said. "After I understood the Native American perspective, I just did not feel like we could go ahead with that part of our feast."
The situation at Madison School is not unusual, said David Spencer, director of development at the American Indian Center. School officials often call the center asking how to handle Thanksgiving celebrations, Spencer said.
"The things schools are doing is they are representing Native Americans as one group of people, not a diverse community," Spencer said. "It's incredible how many Chicago public school teachers don't know anything about indigenous culture."
The center has started holding training sessions for teachers to bring them up to speed on American Indian culture, he said.
Davis said he was surprised to learn that what Madison School had done for so many years could be construed as offensive.
"I had a fair amount of confidence that our traditions here were based in good teaching and good learning, and that we were not doing any harm in any way," the principal said. "I thought what we were doing was a pretty good way to recognize this holiday."
School officials across the country mistakenly believe the same thing, said Faith Smith, the president of the Native American Educational Services College in Chicago. Part of the problem, she said, is that Thanksgiving is one of the few times during the year when teachers and administrators think about American Indians.
"Nothing else happens through the year," Smith said. "It's as though we don't exist for 364 days, and then for one day we appear. That just isn't appropriate."
On Friday, when the Madison School 1st graders gathered for their Thanksgiving celebration, they got a lesson in American Indian culture.
In place of the kids' traditional costumed re-enactment, the school invited Malatare to tell the children about his culture. Malatare taught the pupils a few words in the Oglala Lakota language and led them in a traditional blessing.
The 6- and 7-year-olds seemed more concerned with the content of their juice boxes than with the broader societal issues at play, however, and many parents said the school overreacted.
"I don't think it had anything to do with Thanksgiving," parent Keith Liscio said of Malatare's presentation. "I think it kind of just hijacked the whole purpose of today's program."
Liscio said he couldn't find a way to make his daughter understand why she couldn't wear her pilgrim outfit.
"She and her friend came home from a Brownie meeting last night, and they were in tears," Liscio said Friday after visiting the school with other parents to watch the assembly. "This is a tradition that was changed in the blink of an eyelid because one person complained. We're just bent over so far backward to be politically correct that we're doing things that are almost nonsensical."
Jennifer Miller-Davis questioned whether her daughter, Emma, understood much of what Malatare said.
"What does a 6- or 7-year-old know about stereotyping?" Miller-Davis said. "There was no discussion about how this should be handled. The school just made the decision so fast."
Pete Davis said the school will continue to examine how it handles Thanksgiving, but the costumes won't return. The angry parents who were on hand expressed their disapproval but recognized there was little they could do to rekindle the tradition.
The 1st graders seemed unfazed, screeching out songs, giggling and gobbling up squares of pumpkin cake.
"It was still fun this way," said Emma Davis, 6.
Her mother smiled and concurred that the whole controversy had rolled off the children's backs.
"They're just going to remember the food," Miller-Davis said. "It's going to be, `Yeah, the cake, the cake!'"
She paused a moment and looked around the room at the chortling youngsters.
"It's us adults, really," she said. "We're the ones that need to get our act together."
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