Why is it we can never have a holiday in this country without somebody whining about it?
Our latest tale of woe, dear reader, comes to us from Claremont, California, which for those of you unfamiliar with the area, is like the Cambridge of Cali – an uber-liberal university town. Apparently, there is a long-standing tradition in Claremont that during Thanksgiving Week, the students at the town’s elementary schools dress up in Thanksgiving costumes – Pilgrims and Indians – and get together for a holiday feast.
Of course, it was only a matter of time before some parents decided to rain on the kids’ parade. They objected to the wearing of “Indian” costumes by the children as sterotypical and demeaning to Native American culture:
“It’s demeaning,” Michelle Raheja, the mother of a kindergartner at Condit Elementary School, wrote to her daughter’s teacher. “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,” she said. Raheja, whose mother is a Seneca….an English professor at UC Riverside who specializes in Native American literature, said she met with teachers and administrators in hopes that the district could hold a public forum to discuss alternatives that celebrate thankfulness without “dehumanizing” her daughter’s ancestry.
Naturally, other parents, some of whom have Native American ancestry themselves, objected to their objection, and there was a fun school board meeting at which the school board did what school boards always do in these situations – they caved in and agreed to hold the event sans costumes.
I don’t even know where to start with this one. First of all, someone who is a recognized expert on Native American culture should know better than to lump all Native American tribes together. Thanksgiving commemorates the cooperation between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe. Thus, it has absolutely nothing to do with Ms. Raheja’s family ancestry as a Seneca.
Secondly, comparing the interaction between Europeans and Native Americans to slavery or the Holocaust is a gross and insulting distortion. In the latter cases, a helpless group was systematically persecuted and tortured. Native Americans were far from helpless against the European settlers, and often gave as nasty as they got. There were atrocities and betrayals committed on both sides, but also periods of peace and even friendship. It is historical fact that the Europeans and Native Americans commemorated in the Thanksgiving story did, at least for a time, succeed in getting along peacefully with each other. Isn’t that worth celebrating?
As for the costumes, why is it inherently “demeaning” to dress up like a Native American? Is it demeaning to dress up like a Pilgrim, too? Some Native Americans did indeed wear feather headdresses and beads, and were quite proud to do so. Imagine if Ms. Raheja, instead of going on the warpath (am I allowed to say that?), had offered her expertise in helping to design authentic Wampanoag costumes that reflect positive aspects of Native American culture and leave out the tomahawks or whatever it may be that causes offense? Use the occasion to teach the kids about the troubled history of the relationship between settlers and Indians. The sad story of Squanto, who was kidnapped by Europeans and brought back to live as an outsider among the Wampanoags who were not his tribe, is a microcosm for many lessons.
But instead, the solution is always to eliminate anything that might be controversial – let the children suffer because of the squabbling of the parents. In the immortal words of National Lampoon’s Dean Vernon Wormer: “No more fun of any kind!”