Thinking on Education: Approaching Thanksgiving Lessons Differently

November is famously the month for football, turkey, and the kick-off to holiday shopping.

But November is also Native American Heritage Month. And many educators today are becoming more culturally responsive in their teaching and changing the way they address Native American, or American Indian, history. They also are changing the way they teach about November’s main holiday: Thanksgiving Day.

Many generations of Americans grew up with a Eurocentric education about the history of the first Thanksgiving — lessons that celebrated the early Pilgrims of the 1600s, but almost completely ignored the Indigenous Peoples who were already inhabiting the Americas before white people landed on their shores. These narratives are not fair to the many tribes and nations of American Indians, and they are not a fair and accurate critical study of history.

History is messy. It always has been. And too much of our written history tries to “clean it up,” ignoring diverse voices and experiences silenced because of race, religion, gender and language barriers.

The history of the first Thanksgiving is no different. Even current historians debate who invited whom, the real motivations behind the feasting and camaraderie, and how long the “peacefulness” lasted between the local tribes and settlers.

Historians can agree, though, that many, many native peoples died as Europeans colonized America. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz estimated in a 2015 paper that the “population areas of the Americas were reduced by 90 percent following the onset of colonizing projects, decreasing the targeted Indigenous populations of the Americas from 100 million to 10 million.” Historians point to evidence that shows these deaths were due to different causes, including disease passed from the Europeans to native peoples, germs from the rats on the boats from Europe, and violence between the settlers and indigenous people.

As the team at Native Hope explains through their website, teaching about Thanksgiving without diverse voices damages all students. Those crafty turkey hands we all grew up making in our early elementary years do not share an accurate story about the many peoples and cultures that occupy our country today.

“Very few teachers realize that construction headdresses and school re-enactments create a lump stereotype that Native Americans all wear the same regalia. These school activities also encourage young students to think it is okay to wear culture as a costume. This makes it hard for students to recognize the diversity of Native American tribes and makes students believe it’s okay to mimic Native American traditional wear, without having an understanding of its spiritual significance,” the Native Hope team said.

We can move beyond pilgrim hats and turkey hands and replace “superficial craft activities with powerful and engaging social studies lessons,” said Erica Christie and Sarah Montgomery in their 2010 Social Studies and the Young Learner article.

Here are some suggestions, culled from multiple sources, to help all educators with this effort:

1. Research your Region

Lead students in research about specific tribes indigenous to your local region. Students can find information to get them started at Native Land, according to Leila Ettachfini in a 2018 Vice article. Students then can do projects that highlight those local nations, remembering that many American Indians prefer to be identified by their tribe or nation’s name, rather than just “Native American.”

2. Celebrate the Contributions of Indigenous People to our Collective History

Too often we talk about American Indians from the 1600 and 1700s, and then nothing after that time. But they continue to be a part of history and events from then to present day. Here are just a few indigenous people sometimes missed by regular textbooks:

– In 1889, Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte of the Omaha Tribe, was the first Native American woman to earn a medical degree.

Charles Curtis of the Kaw Indian Tribe, was an early lawyer and politician, and was the Vice President of the United States from 1928 to 1932.

– Hailing from different American Indian tribes, the Code Talkers of World War II sent coded military messages for the Allies. Their code, based on their native languages, was never broken, and they helped win important battles, including at Utah Beach during the D-Day invasion in France, and at Iwo Jima.

Mary G. Ross of the Cherokee Nation, was an early mathematician at NASA.

3. Discuss and Reflect on Celebrating the Harvest

“Discussions honoring the bounty of a harvest need not be limited to today’s stereotypical Thanksgiving menu or even what the colonists and Wampanoag actually ate,” said Jalissa Corrie in a 2017 Lee and Low blog.

Many different cultures around the world have historically held harvest celebrations — which is what Thanksgiving originally was. Children’s books can be a great tool to explore how different people gather their harvest and gather together.

Here are just a few book suggestions:

Sweet Potato Pie by Kathleen D. Lindsey shares the story of a family who sells pies at the local Harvest Festival to save their farm.

Plant a Little Seed by Bonnie Christensen shares how two friends plant a community garden and reap its benefits.

Rice Is Life by Rita Golden Gelman tells how life in Bali revolves around planting, growing, and harvesting rice — a food staple for the people there.

As we all expand our vision of the many diverse voices of history, it deepens our study and understanding of America’s collective history and our place in it. Celebrating Native American Heritage Month is a great way to start, or even continue with, that effort. This month, especially, we also can be more inclusive in how we approach and teach Thanksgiving.

We all can do better in recognizing, honoring, and celebrating Native American voices, stories, and experiences — not only during Native American Heritage Month, but throughout the school year.

To learn about more American Indian tribes, sign up for a 30-day free trial of Studies Weekly Online.

*Blog header image is the Iroquois Confederacy Flag created circa 1980. The pattern on the flag represents the peace created between five warring tribes when they buried their weapons of war under the Great Tree of Peace. To learn more, watch this PBS video.

1 Comment

  • Will Benner says:

    In their 2010 Social Studies and the Young Learner article, Erica Christie and Sarah Montgomery bring light to some aspects surrounding Thanksgiving without shedding any light on the motivation for the Pilgrims fleeing to America. The pilgrims were not profiteers as the settlers of Jamestown were. They wanted to be free, as we all hope to be free. Slavery was brought to Jamestown while the roots of abolition can be traced to Plymouth.
    The writer of the Vice article linked in this resource seemed to oppose the celebration of Thanksgiving altogether. Let’s learn about the history of the diverse native populations of America but it’s not necessary to vilify or omit the pilgrims in so doing. Perhaps we can take from the Thanksgiving story is that it is possible for people that are different from one another to not only tolerate one another, but be willing to commune with each other.

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