How to Celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day With Your Family

by Erika McLemore

On the second Monday in October, many cities and states across the country observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day. This day is set aside to honor the cultures and histories of the original inhabitants of this land. 

It also has personal significance for me. My three children and I are Muscogee Creek and citizens of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. We enjoy learning about our own and other cultures and, as a mom, I especially want my children to fall in love with the many Indigenous peoples, cultures, nations and stories of our country.

Learning and sharing about Indigenous cultures also supports my work as an educator. I’m a Tinkergarten Leader and lover of outdoor play, so I’m always looking for ways to find deeper connections to the natural spaces we enjoy every day. Learning the Indigenous history of the beautiful places around us is one of those ways. 

Our land and surrounding natural resources connect back to the rich history and vibrant cultures of the first inhabitants of these lands in so many ways. But it can sometimes be hard to find quality resources to help parents make these connections, especially in a way that really engages our children. Here are a few that I have used with my children, as well as some ideas that you can use with your family, too.

First, what does the term Indigenous People mean?

The United Nations estimates that there are hundreds of millions of indgenous people around the world. The UN also offers a “common definition” of Indigenous People as “the descendants of those who inhabited a country or a geographical region at the time when people of different cultures or ethnic origins arrived. The new arrivals later became dominant through conquest, occupation, settlement or other means.” They also acknowledge that, given the diversity among “Indigenous People,” a modern definition is nuanced and, as such, they offer several ways to better understand this term. 

Spark curiosity about the land you live on.

If you are just getting started, apps like allow you to find out which Indigenous People live, or historically lived, in your area. This is a place to begin to learn about the land you live on if you’re not already familiar with this part of its history.

My family lives, explores, and finds joy playing outdoors on the ancestral homeland of the Tonkawa people. Through this app, my family learned that the Coahuitecan, Jumanos, Comanche, and Apache are also part of the story of this land. My family’s Creek and Seminole ancestors lived and thrived on what is now the southeastern United States and, through forced relocation, we have come to call other lands home. 

Once you know whose land you live on, what’s next? 

  • Share what you have learned with friends. We made a mud pie sharing about the Tonkawa people and posted the photo on Instagram, sparking genuine curiosity, conversation and similar action among our friends.
  • Search using the specific names of the tribal nations and the name of your city, state, or even local park. Review the returns to seek out historically accurate accounts of how each of these peoples lived and stories that celebrate how the members and/or culture live on today. 
  • Wonder together with your children about how these Indigenous peoples may have used the land around you. What about today?
  • Search for local places to visit that were important to these people and help bring  history to life! For example, I’ve chosen to lead  Tinkergarten classes in my city along Brushy Creek. The Tonkawa were nomadic hunter-gatherers and built temporary villages along the same banks as far back as 10,000 years ago — wow! It’s incredible to hike local trails and reflect with deep respect on the many stories and people of the land that came before us.

“Reclaiming our landscape narratives—the stories past and present told about the Land, People, and Cultures of our Indigenous communities‚is critical to the well-being of Indigenous youth and communities.” -Souta Calling Last & Tyler Walls, Indigenous Vision

Make it a regular part of your outdoor adventures.

Whenever you are exploring outdoors, wonder about the beauty around you and which people have come before you. I am endlessly inspired by Jaylyn Gough, founder of Native Women’s Wilderness, and her work to increase awareness about whose land we’re exploring on. When we visit local parks, trails and bodies of water, there are so many things we can appreciate and research to honor the full history of these outdoors spaces. 

For example:

  • Ask, who or what is this place named after? What names are used by the local Indigenous People for nearby rivers? The beautiful mountain range? What cultural significance do they hold? More often than not, the names we use today are not the same words used by the first caretakers of the land — and, if you can find the names they use, this can be a wonderful, on-going family research project! Perhaps you can keep a list of the places you’ve been, including both names. Or, get a map of your local area and start to write in the original names of important spaces and features as you learn them. 
  • Wonder and find out about the plants that are native to your area. Take in the beauty of your local park and use an app like Seek by iNaturalist to identify the trees, flowers, and even wildlife that you find. Later, investigate how these connect back to the cultures of tribal nations. Were those kinds of trees used to build homes? Were the flowers used as medicine? Are they still used today? 
  • When you do an internet search about the history of the greenspace or city where it’s located, stop to ask, “Does this reflect a full history that includes Indigenous People? If not, whose story is missing? Why?” Wonder and talk about this together with your children. For now, written accounts about the history of my own city begin with colonization, but we hope to change that as we learn more!

As often as possible, listen to and learn from “own voices.”

The phrase own voices was coined in 2015 by writer and activist Corrine Duyvis on Twitter. It refers to books in which “the protagonist and the author share a marginalized identity” whether that's a racial, cultural, or gender identity or a disability. It’s not only important that we hear stories about marginalized groups but that we hear them in their own voices, from their own perspectives, with all of the authenticity and truth that brings. Supporting authors and illustrators from marginalized groups also increases the likelihood that they will continue to be able to write and share their stories.

Want some places to start? As we try to balance screen time with “green” time, PBS’s Molly of Denali is one screen experience that my daughter loves and that I feel great about as a parent — we’ve learned so much together! The podcast and the television show are developed with a team of Indigenous creators and feature contemporary Alaskan Indigenous culture

The Conscious Kid compiled a wonderful #IndigenousReads by Indigenous Authors children’s reading list

Finally, here are a few books about two Indigenous cultures, stories and traditions as they look today that have inspired wonderful conversation with my own children.

Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee Creek), illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu

“Jenna, a contemporary Muscogee (Creek) girl in Oklahoma, wants to honor a family tradition by jingle dancing at the next powwow. But where will she find enough jingles for her dress?”

We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom (Anishinabe/Metis), illustrated by Michaela Goade (Tlingit & Haida)

“When a black snake threatens to destroy the Earth and poison her people’s water, one young water protector takes a stand to defend Earth’s most sacred resource.”

We cannot change history, but we can work toward a more inclusive future each and everyday. We also know that we each have a role to play in undoing stereotypes that diminish native peoples in our culture—especially in conversations with our young people. Knowing, sharing and passing the rich history and strong present of each, unique native people is a critical part of doing that. 

Curious to learn more about how to support Indigenous Youth?   Indigenous Vision created this action guide for Building Inclusive Communities and Strong Indigenous Youth.  

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