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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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How Should Thanksgiving Be Taught In Schools?
by Ramona Peters

I’d like to offer my perspective as a Wampanoag Elder and as an educator on the subject of American Thanksgiving holiday. Each grade level opens the minds of students to greater understanding. I have never been invited to Thanksgiving dinner outside of my Native community so my comments are based on what I’ve read or seen on TV about how American people celebrate Thanksgiving. It is often depicted as an extended family gathering with a major feast. Sometime during the celebration members of the family express what they feel thankful for and about. Children attending are introduced to the idea of publically expressing thankfulness. I’m unaware if anyone in the families mentions my ancestors during their festivities. Ever since President Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday American teachers were comfortable just saying Indians ate dinner with the Pilgrims at the first thanksgiving. I do know that pre-school children hear for perhaps the first time about “the Indians who met the Pilgrims”. They are unlikely to learn the name of which indigenous nation hosted the first English settlers.

Rather than addressing the myth of the first thanksgiving to the younger grades I’d recommend teachers focus more on the sentiment of being thankful. Gratitude is the most powerful thanksgiving story, from my perspective as a Wampanoag. When young children grasp gratitude in a real way beyond ritual our country will be greater. Dressing children up as pilgrims, Indians, and turkeys is far removed from what our children should learn about thanksgiving ceremony. In Wampanoag culture we have four major thanksgiving ceremonies for each season with several smaller thanksgivings together for greeting such things as strawberries, green corn, and spawning fish. Nothing in our ancestors’ world was taken for granted.

Middle school students can not only grasp the sentiment of gratitude / thankfulness they can learn about the Wampanoag as a nation of people that were friendly enough to accept refugees/pilgrims into their territory. The Wampanoag also saw to it they were fed and left in peace at the village of Pawtuxet. We taught them not only to plant but which foods (fish, plants, and game) were healthy to harvest at what time of the year. This part of the world is totally different than England and Holland. Each village in Wampanoag territory was expected to feed its own people including the new English village. The first English harvest was indeed cause for celebration and thanks.

High school students are hopefully mature enough to understand the myth of the socalled first thanksgiving. The Wampanoag leadership accepted the encampment of English as friends through treaty. The Mayflower ship sailed away without them. Twenty three men, women, and children left in a strange land across the Atlantic Ocean surviving at the goodness of our tolerance. The first settlement of English was an eccentric group trying to figure out what their god wanted of them. Not all the settlers were Puritans/pilgrims. Others were Quakers, Separatists, Loyalists, and entrepreneurs willing to sail to Virginia to settle at Jamestown. The Puritan religion died out after only one generation. One could actually consider it a cult. High school and college students can conduct research around the early relationship between the Wampanoag and colonists. Yet again I return to the spirit of thanksgiving as expressing gratitude. We can all be proud that our country has a national holiday centered upon simply being thankful.

Ramona Peters is the historic preservation officer for Mashpee Wampanoag tribe.

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