Equity & Diversity

American Indians Recast Thanksgiving Lessons

By Sean Cavanagh — November 27, 2002 6 min read
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The classroom scenes are unfolding once again with the seasonal rhythm of autumn colors: teachers leading students through tales of Pilgrims and Indians, roast turkeys and pumpkin pies, Thanksgiving traditions and Colonial history.

But it’s only one version of history.

As scholars have grown more knowledgeable about the evolution of the Thanksgiving holiday, some teachers and school systems have encouraged what they see as a more accurate retelling of that famous feast in Plymouth, nearly four centuries ago.

That effort is particularly strong in schools with sizable American Indian populations, where instructors and administrators try to talk about the celebration in ways that dispel stereotypes and add the context of tribal culture and tradition.

“To tell the tale of the Pilgrims, you also have to tell the story of the people who were already here before them,” said Chris Mosner, who teaches 4th and 5th grade at Rosebud Elementary School on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. His classes are 100 percent American Indian. “I try to present the truth from as many perspectives as I can.”

Chris Mosner, a teacher on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, talks to his 4th and 5th graders about the book Squanto as part of his effort to accurately portray Thanksgiving.
—Mina Witt for Education Week

Eight years ago, Mr. Mosner moved from his native Baltimore to the landscape of high bluffs and prairie horizons, taking a job in the school district of 200 students, where teachers are asked to incorporate tribal culture into everyday classroom study. The young instructor was looking for creative, and historically accurate, ways of making that connection near Thanksgiving and found one in an unlikely source.

One day he heard a recording of the late novelist Graham Greene recounting the story of Tisquantum, or Squanto, a native of the Patuxet tribe whose lifelong journey from guide to white traders, to captured slave, then to freedom and participation in the 1621 Plymouth celebration has become a part of American folklore.

Some history buffs have questioned Squanto’s motives in helping both colonists and Indians, saying he may have manipulated both sides. Still, Mr. Mosner’s students were transfixed. In the days before Thanksgiving, the teacher spent part of his class reading about Squanto’s life. He asked his students to keep a journal, writing observations on the early-17th-century world as Squanto might have seen it.

To some historians and advocates for preserving American Indian history, far too few schools have equaled Mr. Mosner’s efforts. They say that too often, schools and instructors are content to rehash historical fallacies, many of which demean Native Americans.

Centuries of Thanksgiving

The myths those critics see are numerous.

They say the Wampanoag Indians are too often depicted as relying on the colonists’ generosity during the feast, when in fact the tribe had lived off the local land for generations.

The feast typically is presented as open and welcoming event, critics say, when there was probably plenty of suspicion and fear on both sides. In fact, the Wampanoag probably hoped to bond with the colonists partly for political reasons: Weakened by plague, the tribe may have feared the power of the neighboring Narragansett tribe. They saw the colonists as potential allies.

A Thanksgiving drawing by a Rosebud Elementary School student.
—Mina Witt for Education Week

Others say that depictions of the Wampanoags’ food, clothing, and behavior fall short of the facts. Some kind of pumpkin dish probably was served, but it may not have been pie, said Kim VanWormer, an education associate at Plimoth Plantation (the spelling adheres to some historical texts) a living-history museum in Plymouth, Mass., devoted to research and education about events of that era. Some kind of fowl was eaten, though it may not have been turkey, she noted.

And referring to the colonists as “Pilgrims,” which has many definitions, isn’t precise enough, either, she said. Those settlers were most likely English of several different religious beliefs, including Puritans and members of the Church of England.

Those perceived gaffes in how the holiday is often taught give way to larger misunderstandings of American Indian culture, some experts say.

The Thanksgiving holiday itself typically has little historical meaning to many American Indians.

“We had Thanksgivings that had gone on for centuries,” said Linda Coombs, an associate director at the Plimoth Plantation, who is of the Aquinnah and Wahmpanoag descent. According to a history published by her organization this year, “giving thanks for the Creator’s gifts” has long been part of everyday life in Wampanoag tradition.

Some instructors and American Indian advocates pointed out as well that, given the eventual domination of native cultures by the new arrivals from another continent, Thanksgiving does not leave much for American Indians to celebrate.

Historical Accuracy

The roots of the national holiday Americans now celebrate extend as far back as the Continental Congress, which in 1777 declared the first national Thanksgiving. It didn’t take hold.

Only later, in 1841, did the modern holiday become associated with the harvest festival of 1621, according to Plimoth’s historical account. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln fixed the date as a holiday in late November, and Congress permanently established it in 1941.

Some school districts actively push for a more complete account of American Indians’ role in Thanksgiving history.

At the Rough Rock Community Schools in northeastern Arizona, where almost all of the 600 students are American Indian, the curriculum strongly encourages teachers to incorporate elements of tribal culture into classroom study. Students are also required to take Navajo- language classes.

“If they’re going to teach about Thanksgiving, my expectation is they’re going to get the correct story,” said Gloria Grant, the director of curriculum and instruction for the district, located on the Navajo Nation reservation. “We try to uphold our own oral accounts.”

To that end, teachers are encouraged to talk about the foods and dress of the Wampanoag, and the meaning of giving thanks in their culture, said Ms. Grant, who taught at predominantly American Indian schools for 15 years and is of Navajo and Omaha descent.

Approaches to teaching about the holiday to American Indian students vary by school, teacher, and grade level.

Gloria L. Matthews, a teacher of Native American history at Sequoyha High School in Tahlequah, Okla., uses the holiday to focus on tribal heritage, rather than the celebration itself.

In her 12 years in the classroom, Ms. Matthews has taught about the history of how the holiday evolved in this country, and contrasted it with traditional Native American perspectives on giving thanks. The school, which has 330 students, also stages cultural activities for the entire student body.

“I want the students to understand the Native American custom of giving thanks,” said Ms. Matthews, who is of Cherokee descent.

Debates about the best way to teach Thanksgiving and American Indian issues gained momentum in the 1970s, said Susan A. Adler, the past president of the National Council for the Social Studies, based in Silver Spring, Md.

Ms. Adler, the director of teacher education at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, has seen an improvement in teachers’ efforts to describe historical events accurately. “If kids could leave school with a knowledge of how different people see history and cultural events differently, they would gain a lot,” she said.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 27, 2002 edition of Education Week as American Indians Recast Thanksgiving Lessons

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