When I was a student in elementary school, and the Thanksgiving holiday approached, my teachers would lecture how the brave Pilgrims came to America and had a feast with the Indians. I was also sure to hear that the Indians were less intelligent, and how the Pilgrims helped them out.
As I became an educated adult, and pursued a degree in elementary education, I was astounded at the inaccuracies of what I was taught. I had to re-evaluate my belief system about Thanksgiving when I learned that if it weren’t for the Wampanoag Indian tribe, the Pilgrims probably wouldn’t have survived. I was also extremely upset when I learned that the same Pilgrims that had received help from the Indians, turned on various tribes in later years, and actually brutally murdered many of the neighboring Pequot tribe, and sent others into slavery in the West Indies. This was not the harmony that I thought existed between the two groups.
So where does this leave me as an educator of young children today? I am constantly striving to provide my students with accurate information as to what occurred in our nations’ history. By conducting my own research through books and the internet over the past 15 years, I have strived to present information that is factual to my students. It is a difficult barrier to breach, especially with many parents that refuse to believe the truth. That is how strong a teacher’s influence is on the students even to this day. We must begin to educate everyone about the truths that were never shared in schools before.
I usually start off any unit on Thanksgiving or Native Americans with the simple question, “What do you know about Native Americans?” Students’ hands shoot up, and I record their responses on the whiteboard. I tell the students that I am going to write down everything they see, and do not want comments from the class about anyone’s response. It is amazing to see the beliefs that students have. Click here to see common myths that students and adults have about Native Americans.
After the myths are dispelled, we are ready to talk about the actual Thanksgiving feast and the events that unfolded after the feast. I have used the book Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen and various websites (see below) to aid in my teaching of Native Americans and Thanksgiving. Since I am a 5th grade teacher, I can go into some of the details as to what happened to the Pequot and Wampanoag tribes, but I would be cautious when teaching younger grades.
I think it is still important to teach the students about the Pilgrims and their journey to America. I discuss what it was like to travel on the Mayflower, how they had to sign the Mayflower Compact, and how that document was important to self-government in the new land. It is also important to discuss how they received help from the Native Americans their first few years that allowed them to survive. When discussing the overall feast of Thanksgiving it is appropriate to teach that there was a three-day celebration between the Pilgrims and Wampanoag to celebrate the harvest together. It is also good to note that this was a time of thanks for the survival of the Pilgrims and their gratitude toward the Wampanoag tribe.
I hope that this information helps you become more informed about the truth behind Thanksgiving, and that you will share it with your students, family, and friends.