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How to talk to little kids about Thanksgiving, explained by a Native American children's author

Traci Sorell with a class of third graders at the Cherokee Nation Immersion School on the tribe's reservation in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. The school is a Cherokee language immersion school for K-6th grade students. (Courtesy)
Traci Sorell with a class of third graders at the Cherokee Nation Immersion School on the tribe's reservation in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. The school is a Cherokee language immersion school for K-6th grade students. (Courtesy)

Traci Sorell thinks now is as good a time as any to reframe how we talk with young children about Thanksgiving.

She wrote the children’s book “We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga” and is a citizen of the Cherokee nation.

Being a children’s book author — and a Native American woman — who writes about gratitude, this is a busy time of year for her going out to schools to talk with groups of children

Interview Highlights

On what Americans get generally right and wrong 

“Certainly people are thinking about abundance, sharing meals with family, celebrating time together and being grateful for those things. And I think that comes through in many people’s thoughts around the holiday.

“What is less positive is that a myth created in the 1800s during the time of the Civil War with wanting to unite the country — which is in battle — is still being shared with young children today. Often through the schools, sometimes through popular culture, cartoons, etc … And that myth is that, in essence, the Wampanoag people were there providing food, and there’s this wonderful celebratory meal between them and the Pilgrims, and then they exit stage left — when the Wampanoag people are very much still here. There are several Wampanoag nations within what is now the state of Massachusetts and by perpetuating that myth, we just reinforce the erasure and invisibility of not just the Wampanoag nations, but Native nations in general.

“And stories are what connect us. So as an author, I am always focused on: How do we choose connection, in addition to facts and visibility, to help our kids become informed community members? Especially when we have books for young people that do share the reality with them, and children are able to take that in and understand that.”

On talking to little kids ages 3 to 7 

“I would certainly put an emphasis on what Wampanoag people use as the stories. And we have a contemporary book that just came out “Keepunumuk: Weeâchumun’s Thanksgiving Story” (by Danielle Greendeer) that shares about the Wampanoag storytelling tradition, their harvest feast, how they give things, and even has a recipe (for Nasamp, which is made from corn meal, nuts, berries and maple syrup) that families can incorporate into their Thanksgiving that is a traditional dish made by Wampanoag people that they have a the end of their harvest.”

On talking to older kids ages 7 to 10

“Again, we’re in a time where we have wonderful books. And I always recommend that they read ‘If You Lived During the Plimoth Thanksgiving’ by Chris Newell. Or ‘History Smashers: The Mayflower’ by Kate Messner. Both of those books really break down what actually happened and bring the facts to them so that they can enjoy the holiday from an informed perspective and not from perpetuating the myth.”

On advice for parents who have lived with  the Thanksgiving story they learned as children 

“I was raised with the same story. And even my son, who’s now in middle school, has come through and had that same story shared in school. But ultimately, kids want to know the truth and they’re not happy when they don’t know it. It’s not like a made up character, [such as] let’s say Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy, or something like that. This is erasure and invisibility of your fellow humans, people that are also citizens of the United States, but they’re citizens of their native nations first. And so think about that connection and how when we don’t take action, we are contributing to the erasure and invisibility. And that’s not, I don’t think, what most parents want to do in terms of modeling behavior for their children.”

On helping preschool teachers have meaningful discussions beyond just talking about turkey: 

“You can share foods that were eaten. And it wasn’t just turkey — duck, rabbit, deer, succotash, fish, lobster. I mean, you have to think about where the meal is taking place. So there [are] other things you can share that were eaten during that time. But ultimately, you do want to talk about: how did those foods come to be on the table? Who gathered those foods, who hunted those foods … which would be the Wampanoag people [who] helped those people from Europe that showed up to to survive. They were not familiar with the terrain. They were not familiar with the plants. So it is an opportunity for a history lesson. And at the same time, if you want to focus on foods, then [focus on] foods that didn’t exist across the ocean … in a celebration of those things that are on this continent.”

On writing in her own book about the Cherokee worldview on gratitude 

“As the book starts, it talks about being grateful not just for wonderful things, but also difficulties. And that plays out into our Cherokee worldview of dohi, which is the concept of keeping things in balance. So not all things are wonderful in our life, and not all things are fantastic. We have that balance of things. And so for me, on a daily basis, it starts with that expression of gratitude. First thing, when I wake up, I’ve got yet another day and I can make a series of choices throughout the day to work in balance, be a source of support for others, take care of myself. And that’s really what I try to do in terms of sharing books with young people, you know, giving them — whether it’s fiction or nonfiction — that sense of here [are] Native nations and their citizens in our full humanity. And that’s really what we need to do around the Thanksgiving holiday: Are Native nations presented in their full humanity? Not just from historical contributions, but also that they’re still here.”

On how she personally observes Thanksgiving 

“We have time off together as a family. My son has the week off of school. And so for us, we do use it as an opportunity to get together  with extended family and have a meal. But it’s nothing framed in terms of the pilgrims. But we certainly do give thanks for the Wampanoag Nation and others who have contributed to us still being here. YAnd very much our ancestors — as Cherokee people — and the fact that they existed and persisted so that we could be here today and that we need to do the same for those that come after us.”

Book list from Traci Sorell:


Beyond just Thanksgiving, we would love to know what’s behind your favorite holiday traditions this season. You can send us a voice memo and we might even use it on air! Whether you’re a kid or a kid at heart, please share your memories with us.


Ashley Locke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Gabe Bullard. Locke adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.