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Teaching Thanksgiving in the Classroom: Truth Vs. Myth
As a young child, I was fairly sure Christopher Columbus crashed into Plymouth Rock and hosted the first Thanksgiving. In middle school, I learned that the Plymouth colonists shared a meal with the Wampanoag tribe, having what was considered the first Thanksgiving. In college, I learned that early colonies celebrated a variety of Thanksgiving dates, that one of the first occurred in Texas in 1597, and that Abraham Lincoln codified Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863 during the Civil War.
As a graduate student in Native American studies and increasingly active with local tribes, Thanksgiving was a source of frustration, particularly because so much information I had been taught was incorrect and important details had been omitted entirely. Unraveling the myth of the first Thanksgiving is essential to helping students understand modern and historical Native America — and America overall.
For school-aged children, November generally brings a variety of generic Indian-themed projects. Schools celebrate Thanksgiving Day with a feast of Pilgrims clad in black with buckle-hats and Indians in headdresses leaving their tipis carrying corn and turkeys to their feast with their new friends. At home, I unpack such projects with trepidation, wondering what sort of teaching — or unteaching — we should do in order to help our children understand the complex history of Thanksgiving and the indigenous people of North America.
Thanksgiving stories: Untangling popular depiction and historical fact
Education World’s article Are You Teaching the Real Story of the ‘First Thanksgiving’? advises teachers that one of the best ways to teach the truth of the first Thanksgiving is to learn it ourselves. The article cites Chuck Larsen, whose Introduction for Teachers points out that what we’ve learned about Thanksgiving is a mixture of myth and truth — but the general theme of Thanksgiving is important.
Larsen shares the Plymouth Thanksgiving Story, a worthy read that outlines the events of the first Thanksgiving while including the history and culture of the Wampanoag tribe. This more complex account of the Thanksgiving story recognizes that the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags were unique people who didn’t quite fit the caricatures we’ve come to know — and can be great for sharing with students because it carefully balances some of the troubled history of early colonization with a positive story.
Edutopia author Gary Hopkins acknowledges that Larsen has some detractors who disagree with his version of the First Thanksgiving, but Larsen makes solid points that Hopkins extends into advice for teaching Thanksgiving in the classroom.
Learning about the real Wampanoag and Pilgrims
As Hopkins points out, educators should strive for accurate depictions of the Wampanoag tribe and the Pilgrims, avoiding classical stereotypes. Educators should also encourage children to critically examine cultural stereotypes that still survive in historical accounts of the first Thanksgiving and they should present a balanced historical account from a positive point of view.
To avoid classical stereotypes, educators should seek to understand the Wampanoag’s specific tribal identity. At one point, the United States was home to over five hundred nations or tribes of Native American people. While some tribes wore headdresses and slept in the tipis of a typical Thanksgiving account, the Wampanoag tribe did not.
The Plymouth Thanksgiving Story explains that the Wampanoag tribe lived in wigwams, wore deerskin, and that their standard hairstyle included a braid with a single feather. Larsen warns that educators should consider these tribal differences if enacting any Thanksgiving story in the classroom and that cultural expressions specific to the Wampanoag should be used. The same respect should be extended to the Plymouth Pilgrims as well. For example, Pilgrim women would not be seated at the table, but would eat after the Pilgrim men had shared their meal with the tribe.
Modern celebrations and the first Thanksgiving: Compare and contrast
After teaching these specific cultural expressions of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags, Hopkins suggests that students, particularly middle-school age or older, should compare modern depictions of Thanksgiving and to the history and culture discussed in class. From the Native Americans’ dress to the Pilgrim women’s placement at the table, there are a variety of differences between the historically accurate Thanksgiving and the modern myth.
Ultimately, it is important to remember that wherever the story of expansion and settlement went afterwards, the Wampanoag tribe shared an intimate piece of tribal culture with Pilgrims on our celebrated first Thanksgiving. That story of hospitality and sharing is worthy of study.
Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current adjunct faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.