Published on November 18th, 2016 | by Ezra Stone0
ASK A MUTHA: Kristen Stone ASKS AN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL TEACHER—How do I teach my child about the first Thanksgiving?
Interview with Melissa Skidmore, first-grade teacher
In our leftist, quasi-Christian, two-mom family, we’ve struggled with how to explain indigenous history in a way that’s consistent with our values. Last week, at Boy Scout Sign Up Night (another essay all on its own) my son’s teacher began talking to me about how she teaches the history of the American Thanksgiving story. She shared with me she’s part Native and that she loves this time of year because she gets to counteract the whitewashed story most elementary schools transmit to our kids.
Ms. Skidmore graciously allowed me to pick her brain about her experiences and perspective.
Kristen: What tribe or tribes are you affiliated with?
Ms. Skidmore: I am not officially part of any tribe. I have family that are Cherokee, and I worked for several years on a South Florida Native American reservation.
Kristen: Can you tell me about working on the reservation?
Ms. Skidmore: After high school, I started tutoring, then I taught at the school there as well. I loved it. We ate traditional food in the cafeteria, and the teachers wore traditional clothing for uniforms. This tribe allows students to opt out of English language education, so many students leave formal school around age eight or so, to take on family trades. It was a small school and went from pre-k through high school. I taught several subjects. I lived 40 miles from the school. Many of the students lived on the reservation, but others lived in town and had to travel 40 or 50 miles to school.
Kristen: The other day J came home talking about pipes exploding under the ground. How did you explain Standing Rock to the children?
Ms. Skidmore: We were reading The Star People by S. D. Nelson, so I connected it back to the story. I told them that on the reservation—I had to tell them what a reservation is—it’s not an easy place to live. The Native Americans have a lot of strength, to survive there. I told them that the oil companies are greedy and are trying to get more oil in the wrong way. They are not respecting people’s land. The company is not listening. Then I had to explain protests, because they didn’t know what that means. We watched a video. Protests can be scary but these are peaceful. People are praying and chanting or just standing together.
Then we connected it to the springs, where construction is underway to build the Sabal Trail Pipeline. I asked them who’s been to the springs, and they all have. The springs and our drinking water are at risk. In Alabama a gas pipeline exploded, so we talked about that too. They are angry. And I’m glad.
Kristen: Have you received any pushback from the school?
Ms. Skidmore: At first other teachers kind of made fun of me. like, okay, Melissa, we get it, you want to teach Native American stuff. But they saw how much the kids enjoyed it and now they want me to come talk to their students too.
Kristen: What about parents?
Ms. Skidmore: No, in four years teaching I’ve never gotten negative feedback from parents. Working in this [predominantly African American] school, a lot of the families have their own stories about discrimination and slavery. Some of the kids may have directly experienced racism. They’ve heard from their parents and grandparents about the past, the things black people experienced, and they are able to draw a connection.
Kristen: You jokingly told me, I don’t want them to go on and question everything they know! We struggle with this a lot, especially given J’s history [being adopted out of foster care], that on the one hand we want him to feel really secure and safe, like the adults in his life are telling the truth and taking care of him, and on the other hand to have a really socially engaged and critical understanding of the world. How do you balance talking about injustice with their developmental need, as young children, to feel safe and secure?
Ms. Skidmore: I tell them that the land was taken and a lot of people were killed. They had to fight or run. It’s like, fight or flight. It’s shocking them and they’re having an emotional reaction. A lot of the teachers don’t even know this history. But I’m honest with them. I do want them to question things! You think the government is going to take care of you, but it won’t. They need to be critical and stand up for what they believe in. Some laws are silly and some laws are wrong. It’s hard, though, I do think I scared them.
Kristen: When I was in grade school, at Thanksgiving we made paper bag vests and construction paper headdresses. This vague idea of like, “Indian stuff.” When I was visiting the classroom the other day you were showing pictures of the reservation. Photographs of people and places you know.
Ms. Skidmore: I’d like to do more crafts, but I don’t have the resources to do the things I want well, like making beadwork or building a chickee. The kids are so interested in the discussion, though, they kind of just want to talk.
Ms. Skidmore, thank you for letting me pick your brain—during your planning period, no less! If you get arrested protesting the pipeline, I will start the bail fund.