The Feathers Came to My House . . .

Here’s something we do during the winter months: have elementary kids make construction paper menorahs. In stronger curriculums we do this while teaching them some history of the Jewish people and something about Jewish traditions.

Here’s something we don’t do: have these kids make construction paper yarmulkes to wear home.

Now some of us may not know much about or the difference between a menorah and a yarmulke. These are different kinds of objects, with different kinds of significance for Jewish people and within Judaism. But there is one easy way to mark the distinction between these two construction paper projects.

  1. Making a menorah is an invitation to learn more about Judaism and Jewish cultures and traditions.
  1. Making a yarmulke is an invitation to pretend to “be Jewish.”

Even if you are not yourself Jewish, don’t know anyone who is, or know nothing about Judaism, I’m willing to bet the second of these invitations makes you cringe.

We know enough about difference and respecting differences to know there are some lines we shouldn’t cross. We know this, even if we don’t always know what all the lines are, or can’t exactly explain why we shouldn’t cross them. Awareness of certain kinds of lines is often enough for us to at least exercise caution.

So my kids have never brought home construction paper yarmulkes.

But this year, when November’s crafts came home the feathers in my daughter’s school bag weren’t only those found on a construction paper turkey. This year she also came home with a construction paper headdress, the kind that does invite her to pretend to “be Native American” or (more accurate) to “play indian.”

Damn. I wrote about this the last two years. Now I have to figure out how to respond real, live and in person.

I want to be constructive. I adore my daughter’s teacher and school. And I recognize this “kids’ project” as the manifestation of a larger, very common expression of U.S.-American culture. This is not an isolated incident of a uniquely problematic classroom. This is simply business-as-usual, normal U.S.-American culture.

Actually the fact that it’s not isolated makes it much more difficult.

Native people are so not on the radar of non-Native U.S.-Americans that the offense of this construction paper project can be really difficult for many folks to understand. Even as I’ve tried to envision my response I’ve found myself struggling for the rights words to explain why it’s so wrong.

So, I’m hoping the menorah and yarmulke analogy helps me do that. It’s an imperfect analogy that’s helped me better understand this. It at least points toward a need for caution that’s pretty easy to recognize. Even if we can’t all explain it yet all the way.

Actually, it also suddenly makes this situation feel much less hard.

We can and should teach our non-Native kids about Native Americans, just like we should teach our non-Jewish kids about Judaism.

We don’t and should never send our non-Native kids home in a headdress, just like we shouldn’t send our non-Jewish kids home in a yarmulke.

Of course, ceasing to make headdresses doesn’t solve the problem of how we teach about Native Americans and diverse, native cultures more generally. We’ve got quite a genocidal narrative blanketing us in this nation. It has to be unraveled at many different points to get anywhere. And, because it’s still being knit that unraveling has to happen over and over again.

But that’s not completely a unique problem (even if the blanket feels more massive). Sending our kids home with construction paper menorahs doesn’t mean we’re adequately teaching them—in demographically and culturally christian-dominant environments—about traditions other than Christianity or Christmas.

In fact, when we asked my other daughter last year about the menorah she brought home, she launched into a relatively accurate and lovely description of the account of the miracle of oil that burned for eight days.

But she also started off her enthusiastic telling with this, “You see, there were these Hanukah people . . .”

This was pretty funny. But then, of course, we got to help her connect the dots between “Hanukah people” (which sounded more like imaginary elves to me) and actual, real live Jewish people and Jewish friends who are important in her life and in regard to whom she might, then, learn a healthy curiosity and interest relative to their distinct experiences and traditions.

Adequate diversity education is for the long haul. So even a description of “Hanukah people” by a then five year-old invited a deeper and respectful conversation. (So did making potato latkes.)

We haven’t yet developed a lot of great ways yet to teach Native American histories, cultures, traditions (land rights, current land struggles, relationships to the U.S. government, etc.—these dimensions of Native life being precisely the reason that we don’t talk very well in public school classrooms about actual Native peoples). And getting rid of the headdress won’t solve all of this.

But it’s a critical start. As one Native writer puts it, non-Natives need to “Try celebration instead of appropriation.” Before we can even come near an attempt to celebrate though  (which is, I suspect, what my kids’ school probably thinks it’s trying to do), we whose children come home with feathers in the backpack have to figure out how to explain why they shouldn’t.

So, at the end of the day, this entry is honestly about a moment of accountability for me. A blog is pretty easy. Face-to-face conversation is much harder.

Have you face-to-faced this already at your kids school successfully? If so, I’d really love to hear from you. What worked? What didn’t?

If you haven’t, but need to because your kids’ backpack looks like mine, consider yourself tagged. You’ve just been presented with a more difficult version of “the bucket challenge.” I’m going to do it. And I challenge you to do it too.


In the posture of team player trying to make better education (we have so far to go on this one) for all of our children.

Perhaps with an analogy about menorahs and yarmulkes in your backpack.

Let me know how it goes and I’ll let you know too.

2 Responses to “The Feathers Came to My House . . .”
  1. janeecharvey says:

    i am sure your stomach seized at least a little when you saw the feathers emerging from the backpack. Tough conversation(s). You aren’t alone in this conversation though. Much love!

  2. category10 says:

    Again, I am not even sure what the students are/were learning about Native Americans because when I asked our 3 (almost 4 year old) about her work, the headdress, she said she thought it looked like a bunny. It is seems as though a “traditional” holiday them was being used to reinforce Montessori practices; cutting, pasting, and tracing. Thankful we have Jen Harvey on our side.

    P.S. This is not a judgement of our child’s teacher, it is just a statement about a common issue.

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