Thanksgiving play mentioning savages and God: Perfectly fine or over the line on race, religion?

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Update: Arrowwood Elementary parent Rachel Drummond had objections to a play scheduled for her daughter's second-grade class today, due to references to Native Americans as "savages" and a speech that overtly referred to a higher power. However, Douglas County School District public information officer Randy Barber believes it's important to consider these complaints in context.

"This is more of a historical reference than an actual observance," Barber says about A Celebration of Thanksgiving, a 2008 readers-theater piece written by Lisa Frase. "The people are speaking as if they were the folks who lived back then. When they're referring to 'savages,' that's not how people refer to Native Americans today -- but it is relevant to the way Europeans who'd come to the New World saw those people. It's not politically correct, but it is the way it was said back then."

In regard to the proclamation at the end of the play, credited to George Washington, in which he tipped his tri-corner hat to "that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all that good that was, that is, or that will be," Barber says, "That was a proclamation made by our first President," and therefore also a historical reference rather than the sort of overtly religious endorsement that can be controversial if voiced in a public-schools setting.

Drummond doubts that second graders are mature enough to fully grasp such nuances unless they're specifically addressed -- and Barber says, "I would assume that's something that happened. But certainly there's an understanding that people in the past weren't politically correct. That's a fairly modern construct. People didn't view Native Americans in the way they should have. They were seen as savages at that point, and putting our modern lens on that is tricky."

Barber stresses that the district is looking into Drummond's complaint, even though she only contacted Arrowwood personnel about her concerns in advance of the play; she plans to get in touch with the district down the line. However, he says, "I think it's important to not only teach students about how we view the world as a country and a society today, but also the way it was viewed back then."

Update 2: Just heard from Rachel Drummond, who says the word "savages" was excised from the play as performed today following her complaints to Arrowwood's principal. However, the George Washington sequence remained, to her chagrin, on the basis of its historical accuracy. She still plans to contact the Douglas County School District about her concerns.

Look below for our earlier coverage.

Original item, 10:46 a.m. November 21: Religion in public schools is usually a hot-button topic around Christmastime due to the prevalence of faith-friendly imagery in songs of the season. But one Douglas County parent isn't waiting for December 25. She has problems with a play marking Thanksgiving, another holiday with sacred overtones -- and not only because of references to a higher power.

Rachel Drummond's daughter is a second-grader at Arrowwood Elementary in Douglas County. Today at 11 a.m., her child's class is slated to present A Celebration of Thanksgiving, a 2008 readers-theater piece written by Lisa Frase -- and when Drummond read it over, she had problems with several sections.

For instance, Native Americans are referred to as "savages" on several occasions, in lines such as "Papa says the savages are people just like us, except they don't know any better, that's all" and "Those savages kept dropping in and eating our food that we were saving for the winter!" In addition, the mini-play concludes with President George Washington's 1789 declaration of Thanksgiving as a national holiday, in which he says, "Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all that good that was, that is, or that will be."

In a letter to her child's teacher, Drummond took issue with these references.

"One of my primary objections are the presentation of Native Americans (not Indians)," she wrote. "Second graders are going to come away from this play with the idea that Indians = Savages. I know Lisa Frase is trying to put some nuance in there, but it's not accessable to elementary school kids. For instance, is there any discussion about what the word 'savage' means and who uses it and why? Is there any real discussion of the intentional germ warfare of the Europeans? I grew up in a population with a large percentage of Native Americans and just from that experience, this play has a lot of problems. We have a small population of Native Americans here, but maybe not large enough to feel comfortable saying anything."

On the second subject, Drummond noted that "George Washington may very well have declared Thanksgiving to be a National Holiday, but that speech at the end was way over the top for a group of kids who can't distinguish a historical speech versus an actual injunction to give thanks to a god."

The Arrowwood teacher politely responded to Drummond's note of complaint, but didn't directly address her concerns. So Drummond spoke with the principal, who "told me my compromise of committing equal time to the modern view" about Native Americans and the holiday in general "was not possible. She said she would address it with the teacher and look at it for next year." The principal also told Drummond she could pull her daughter out of the performance -- something she was reluctant to do for social reasons -- pointed out that the play, and particularly the Washington speech, is historically accurate.

At this writing, Drummond has not contacted the Douglas County School District about the play, but she says she plans to send personnel a video of the performance to enforce her point. Thus far, DCSD spokesman Randy Barber hasn't responded to a call for commen from Westword; when and if he does, we'll update this post.

In the meantime, Drummond isn't pleased. "I was put in a crappy position and completely disenfranchised," she writes via e-mail. "Being one of the few nonreligious people in the county, and maybe one of the few with even my little experience schooling with Native Americans (Navajo), it seems I have garnered little support and even less empathy, sympathy or understanding."

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More from our News archive: "Douglas County school allows parents to opt out of letting their kids watch President Obama's speech to the nation's schoolchildren."

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