So much depends upon November. The deepening chill, the afternoon darkness stretching into long nights, the scent of pumpkin spice wafting (over everything, especially if you find yourself in a Trader Joe’s), the sight of rain-flattened, brightly colored leaves on asphalt, the cornucopias and turkeys (or Tofurkies), the promise-threat of family, and the chance to celebrate that uniquely North American holiday—Thanksgiving.
One of the most important takeaways from my experience talking about Thanksgiving in the classroom from a Native Studies perspective is the importance of talking about Thanksgiving. You don’t have to be a humanities instructor to initiate a conversation with your students about this most American of holidays. Even in a math or chemistry classroom, you have to do deal with the scheduling disruptions of Thanksgiving week. Why not also use this as time to reach out engage your students in a conversation about the significance of T-day? And you don’t have to do it without resources.
What we are told
Did the first Thanksgiving actually occur in 1621? Did the “Pilgrims” actually call themselves “Pilgrims”? What food was really served at the first Thanksgiving? Who invited whom to the famous meal? Were the Pilgrims and “Indians” united in friendship after breaking (fry)bread together?
To learn @therealThanksgiving truths and share with your students, feast your eyes on
An excerpted preview:
“What is it about the story of “The First Thanksgiving” that makes it essential to be taught in virtually every grade from preschool through high school? What is it about the story that is so seductive? Why has it become an annual elementary school tradition to hold Thanksgiving pageants, with young children dressing up in paper-bag costumes and feather-duster headdresses and marching around the schoolyard? Why is it seen as necessary for fake “pilgrims” and fake “Indians” (portrayed by real children, many of whom are Indian) to sit down every year to a fake feast, acting out fake scenarios and reciting fake dialogue about friendship? And why do teachers all over the country continue (for the most part, unknowingly) to perpetuate this myth year after year after year?
Is it because as Americans we have a deep need to believe that the soil we live on and the country on which it is based was founded on integrity and cooperation? This belief would help contradict any feelings of guilt that could haunt us when we look at our role in more recent history in dealing with other indigenous peoples in other countries. If we dare to give up the “myth” we may have to take responsibility for our actions both concerning indigenous peoples of this land as well as those brought to this land in violation of everything that makes us human. The realization of these truths untold might crumble the foundation of what many believe is a true democracy. As good people, can we be strong enough to learn the truths of our collective past? Can we learn from our mistakes? This would be our hope.
Myth #9 (of many):
The Pilgrims and Indians feasted on turkey, potatoes, berries, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and popcorn.
Both written and oral evidence show that what was actually consumed at the harvest festival in 1621 included venison (since Massasoit and his people brought five deer), wild fowl, and quite possibly nasaump-dried corn pounded and boiled into a thick porridge, and pompion-cooked, mashed pumpkin.
Among the other food that would have been available, fresh fruits such as plums, grapes, berries and melons would have been out of season.
It would have been too cold to dig for clams or fish for eels or small fish. There were no boats to fish for lobsters in rough water that was about 60 fathoms deep.
There was not enough of the barley crop to make a batch of beer, nor was there a wheat crop.
Potatoes and sweet potatoes didn’t get from the south up to New England until the 18th century, nor did sweet corn.
Cranberries would have been too tart to eat without sugar to sweeten them, and that’s probably why they wouldn’t have had pumpkin pie, either. Since the corn of the time could not be successfully popped, there was no popcorn. (12)”
How to use this resource?
If you want to use Thanksgiving directly, you might begin by asking students what they know about Thanksgiving—its history, celebration, etc. You can also ask what Thanksgiving means to each of them. Ask them to list Thanksgiving traditions (for example, the staple elements of Thanksgiving dinner). Ask them what they know (or guess) about the origin of these traditions. You could even assign a research project to investigate the origins of the Thanksgiving dinner menu.
Collect this collective knowledge and put it somewhere—on the whiteboard, on Canvas, etc.
And then share Dow & Slapin’s article. Compare and contrast. Where do students’ knowledge and experiences overlap with Dow and Slapin? Where are the largest gaps? Ask students to consider why there might be gaps between what we know, what we’ve been told, what we’ve experienced, and an Indigenous perspective. Remind students that the point of this exercise is not to make anyone feel guilty—feeling guilty doesn’t help anyone. Point out that a fuller understanding of the history of Thanksgiving doesn’t mean that they can’t enjoy the holiday. Consider asking them to research which indigenous tribe called the territory on which their family home is located home—not to feel guilty, but simply to be aware.
These indoctrinated beliefs are not bogarted by Thanksgiving alone, but many areas in your realm of expertise are shrouded in misinformation, often in an attempt to make us feel better about a less-than-optimal past. I’m sure you can point to specific examples of topics students typically have misconceptions about. Don’t consider this their fault, the indoctrinated individual didn’t have all the tools to collect the right data. And even if so, may have to repress that new information as to not upset those around them. So take a moment, a teaching moment, and think about the good that you are doing by freeing your students of their toxic misconceptions about the world.
And when it’s time to go around the table and tell the family what it is we are thankful for, we might consider giving thanks to the survival, resistance and persistence of America’s indigenous people.
From occupied Ohlone territory,
Jennifer A. Reimer Recio