Thanksgiving was not some warm fuzzy moment between the oppressors and the oppressed.
The Wampanoag people were proud and brave. Why on earth would they be bowing to the people that they were rescuing? The settlers didn’t know how to do a thing for themselves. Local tribes taught them how to build homes, how to grow crops, how to forage for food, how to treat common illnesses with roots and herbs. They were basically like children trying to live in the forest. Yet, the narrative we see out in the ‘real world’ is vastly different. Teachers, I ask you…why is that? Who does this narrative benefit? The answers to those questions are key to understanding how these myths persist.
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Why do we not do research on it more and teach this topic with more fidelity?
Because we’ve EXPERIENCED it.
If you celebrate Thanksgiving, it really DOES feel like a happy time where families can get together, eat a meal, and talk about things that they are grateful for. For many Native American families this time of year is a time of mourning for all that was taken from them.
As a primary teacher, teaching the warm and fuzzy Disney-fied Pochahontas version of the relationships between Indians and settlers is the easy way out. Making paper bag vests with a bazillion symbols on them is NOT teaching Native American culture. Primary students are going into the intermediate grades thinking THAT is what Native People are all about. They are so much more! Their history and heritage is rich and full of amazing triumphs.
Finding a way to teach the tough stuff to littles requires more introspection and research.
That’s just HARD.
Here are some thoughts to keep in mind as you move forward with teaching this topic.
1.) Thanksgiving wasn’t something that started as a result of the settlers landing.
For generations before, indigenous people were having celebrations of thanks. They were not inspired to do this by the landing of the Mayflower. They still have traditions and celebrations that include ‘thanksgiving’ even today.
2.) Not all native people are alike.
Each tribe is unique. If you’re teaching about Native Americans who are part of the Thanksgiving story, long feathered headdresses and tepees are not part of the cultural dress of Wampanoag people. Make sure that if you’re creating things for your classroom to use that the images reflect the way that the Indians really looked.
3.) Honor the ethic realities of the time.
Don’t be afraid to confront the reality of the indigenous people.
Many Indians were killed or died from disease due to the arrival of the settlers.
Talk about the differences between the two cultures…and the problems that arose from those differences. Have students think about the story from the perspective of the indigenous people and the settlers. The stereotypes of Thanksgiving always benefit the oppressor rather than the oppressed.
Remember that our primary responsibility as teachers is to guide students to seeking out the answers. This is a great time to support their discovery of the truth.
I used parts of these two books to teach my students about the Wampanoag people and the Seminoles, which are the Native Americans closest to where we live. The students were really excited to learn about them. Our new favorite word is ‘chickees’. That’s the name of the homes that the earliest Seminoles built. I was so excited to hear my students discussing why the homes had no walls! Many recognized right away that it would be a great way to catch a cool breeze in the Florida heat!