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Children in typical, construction-paper Thanksgiving costume
Following protests from offended parents, district officials have told kindergarteners from two schools that they cannot wear construction-paper Pilgrim and Native American costumes to their Thanksgiving festivities.
Over the past four decades, children at the Condit and Mountain View elementary schools in Claremont, Calif., have alternated visiting each other to share a Thanksgiving feast and play day. The visitors dress as Native Americans, the host class as Pilgrims.
After a letter from an angered parent and a heated school board meeting, however, the costumes are no longer allowed.
“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.”
Raheja, an English professor who specializes in Native American literature and whose mother is a Seneca, says kindergartners wearing fringed, brown vests and feathers constitutes “dressing up as a racist stereotype.”
Other parents in Claremont, however, are outraged, contending adults should not use kindergarteners to make political statements.
“I was really upset with what is going on with the Thanksgiving feast,” said Rose Ruth, a Mountain View grandparent, as reported by the Claremont Courier. “I am part Native American, and I am not offended because the children are dressing up. What offends me is that one percent can come in and dictate to the rest of us what we can do and what we cannot do.
“And now the kindergarten costumes that they made now have to go home, and they can’t wear them,” said Ruth. “This is about the children, and they’re only 5 years old. They’re not adults; they’re not trying to do anything wrong.”
Kathleen Lucas, a Condit parent of Choctaw heritage, told the Los Angeles Times her son – now a first-grader – still wears the vest and feathered headband he made for last year’s Thanksgiving.
“My son was so proud,” she said. “In his eyes, he thinks that’s what it looks like to be Indian.”
At a heated meeting last week of the Claremont Unified School District board, however, the parents objecting to the costumes succeeded in making their case.
“I found it to be surprising that in 2008 that we still would ask children to dress up in racist stereotypes,” said Raheja. “There are no other holidays in the school system where we are required to dress up as an ethnic or racial group. It’s a cartoonish image and I think they can come up with alternatives to this dress-up while at the same time retaining the beautiful and meaningful spirit of the event.”
Despite a vocal crowd in favor of the traditional costumes, the school board opted to ban the costumes from this year’s joint Thanksgiving celebration.
The issue, however, may not be resolved. The Times reports some parents plan to send their children to school in costume anyway, doubting that administrators will force the children to take them off.
“She’s not going to tell us what we can and cannot wear,” Dena Murphy, whose 5-year-old son attends Mountain View, told the Times. “We’re tired of [district officials] cowing down to people. It’s not right.”
Parent Stephanie Wilbur, a supporter of the costumes who said she was of Yaki descent and noted that her grandmother wore feathers, told the school board compromise might be possible but that the children who made their costumes for this year should not be disappointed by a sudden reversal of policy.
“I think the approach of this year with the cancellation and alteration was not done correctly,” Wilbur said. “I think [the feast] should be followed through for this year. Next year, we should go back to the round table and sit with all the kindergarten teachers and then we can find something in between.”