Thanksgiving: Exploring Perspectives

November 22, 2013

Students consider facts, myths and perspectives about Thanksgiving Day, including Native American perspectives.   


November is Native American Heritage Month, a time to recognize the many contributions the first Americans have made to this country. It's also a good time to take a critical look at some popular myths about the first interactions between the European pilgrims and the Native American peoples they found living in the "new world."
On Thursday, people across the country will celebrate "Thanksgiving Day."  The lesson plan that follows explores historical facts, myths and perspectives about Thanksgiving Day, including both the happiness and the sorrow associated with this tradition. 

NOTE: This lesson can easily be adapted to use in a Talking Circle.  Please see the bottom of the lesson for suggestions on how to do this.


Gathering: Thanksgiving Day Web

Write "Thanksgiving Day" in the center of the board and circle it. Ask students for their associations with it, and record their ideas graphically by writing words so that they radiate out from the center. Related ideas can be grouped. Encourage associations while energy is high. Ask open-ended questions to simulate groups that are having a hard time getting going. As energy tapers off, ask students to read what's on the web and ask some or all of the following debrief questions:

  • What do you notice about the web?

  • Is there anything that surprises you?

  • Do you see any word clusters that are related?

  • Are there any generalizations you can make at this point? 


 What is a "myth"?

Share with your students that in today's lesson you'll explore both the myths and facts surrounding the American Thanksgiving Day celebration coming up next week. 
According to the RaceBridges for Schools website, "Thanksgiving is a time to remember our country's beginnings and to celebrate our rich history of welcoming the stranger. But in many ways, our idea of the original Thanksgiving table—a table we want to believe was about peace and fellowship between two peoples—is a myth."  
Elicit and explain what a myth is.  The definition according to Merriam Webster Online is:
1a : a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon ...
2a : a popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone; especially : one embodying the ideals and institutions of a society or segment of society ...
3: a person or thing having only an imaginary or unverifiable existence
For our lesson today, we'll go back in history to look at the origins of the Thanksgiving holiday.

The Original Thanksgiving

Use the following as background for a discussion with students:
It wasn't till the nineteenth century that the American Thanksgiving holiday we know today became widely celebrated. It has since become a broader symbol of the American experience, celebrated with communities coming together at dinner tables across the country, every fourth Thursday of November.
In many American homes, Thanksgiving Day celebrations emphasize positive relations between the Pilgrims and their Native neighbors in the early 17th century. But these celebrations don't usually acknowledge the subsequent history of violence and oppression of Native peoples across the United States. 
Many Americans have been taught that the first Thanksgiving was held in Plymouth, MA, in 1621. According to this story, the Pilgrims, who had recently arrived from Europe, invited their Native neighbors, the Wampanoag, to celebrate their harvest by sharing in a bountiful feast. 
Historians agree that when the Pilgrims first settled in New England, however, they struggled to survive.  The crops they brought from Europe failed and as a result many pilgrims died from hunger and disease as winter set in. 
Another version of events, told from the Native perspective, is that the Wampanoag helped the Pilgrims through the winter and taught them how to grow their food. 
What really happened in those early years of Pilgrim settlement is unclear. Did the two groups come together in 1621 to celebrate anything or give thanks? We don't know. However, we do know that the Wampanoag participated in their own seasonal thanksgivings long before the Pilgrims arrived.


Three Native American views of Thanksgiving

Many Native people have their own perspective on Thanksgiving, which is what we'll be exploring next.
Ask students to read the following descriptions of Native American celebrations and observations of Thanksgiving.
Jacqueline Keeler:
In a widely circulated editorial from December 1999, Jacqueline Keeler, a member of the Dineh Nation and Yankton Dakota Sioux, takes issue with how one-dimensionally Natives are portrayed in commercialized Thanksgiving celebrations.
The Wampanoag, she writes, "were not merely ‘friendly Indians.' They had already experienced European slave traders raiding their villages for a hundred years or so, and they were wary—but it was their way to give freely to those who had nothing. Among many of our peoples, showing that you can give without holding back is the way to earn respect."
Keeler views herself as "a very select group of survivors." The fact that Natives managed to survive mass murder, forced relocation, theft of land and other injustices "with our ability to share and to give intact" gives Keeler hope that healing is possible.
Sherman Alexie: 
Award-winning author Sherman Alexie, who is Spokane and Coeur d'Alene, also celebrates Thanksgiving by recognizing the contributions the Wampanoag people made to the Pilgrims. Asked in a Sadie Magazine interview if he celebrates the holiday, Alexie humorously answered:
 "We live up to the spirit of Thanksgiving cuz we invite all of our most desperately lonely white [friends] to come eat with us. We always end up with the recently broken up, the recently divorced, the brokenhearted. From the very beginning, Indians have been taking care of brokenhearted white people. ...We just extend that tradition."

National Day of Mourning: 
Every November 28, a group of Native Americans and their supporters gather at the top of Coles Hill, overlooking Plymouth Rock, for a day of mourning.  They see the National Day of Mourning as a reminder of the oppression and suffering that was inflicted upon Native Americans by European explorers and settlers over time. 
The National Day of Mourning tradition began in 1970. In that year, as part of the 350-year anniversary of the Pilgrims starting a new life in the Americas, the commonwealth of Massachusetts invited Wampanoag leader Frank James, also known as Wamsutta, to deliver a speech at its celebratory state dinner.  When it became clear, however, that James' speech did not conform to the European American myths surrounding their Pilgrim forefathers, James was disinvited.
The disinviting of Frank James and silencing of his voice lead to the National Day of Mourning.  An excerpt of his speech is below. (See the full speech here.)

This is a time of celebration for you - celebrating an anniversary of a beginning for the white man in America. A time of looking back, of reflection. It is with a heavy heart that I look back upon what happened to my People.

Even before the Pilgrims landed it was common practice for explorers to capture Indians, take them to Europe and sell them as slaves for 220 shillings apiece. The Pilgrims had hardly explored the shores of Cape Cod for four days before they had robbed the graves of my ancestors and stolen their corn and beans...

Massasoit, the great Sachem of the Wampanoag, knew these facts, yet he and his People welcomed and befriended the settlers of the Plymouth Plantation. Perhaps he did this because his Tribe had been depleted by an epidemic. Or his knowledge of the harsh oncoming winter was the reason for his peaceful acceptance of these acts. This action by Massasoit was perhaps our biggest mistake. We, the Wampanoag, welcomed you, the white man, with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end; that before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoag would no longer be a free people."

Ask students to discuss: What are your thoughts and feelings about these Native American views of Thanksgiving?

Sharing in Pairs

Tell students that while many Americans celebrate Thanksgiving with their families and friends, not everyone does. And of course, Thanksgiving is not a happy time for everyone - especially for those whose families are divided, or who are facing other challenges or loss.
Ask students to get into pairs to share and discuss:

  • Are you planning to celebrate Thanksgiving with family or friends? If so, how?
  • What might you (or others who are celebrating Thanksgiving) do on that day to acknowledge the true history of this holiday, and what followed for Native Americans? 

Ask a few volunteers to share what they talked about in their small groups.



Go back to the Thanksgiving Day web from earlier in the lesson.  Ask students if there is anything else they'd like to add at this time. 


Using this lesson in a Talking Circle

This lesson can easily be transformed into a talking circle in the following way:
For the gathering, hand out index cards and markers asking students to write on their index card one word they associate with Thanksgiving Day.  

Send the talking piece around as you ask students to share their one word, contribute their index card to the center piece, then pass the talking piece to their neighbor.  

When everyone has shared their word, ask students to take a moment to look at the words they contributed to the center piece.  Send the talking piece around again asking students to reflect on the words they see in the center piece using the prompts in the lesson plan. 
Check the agenda and elicit and explain what a myth is, popcorn style. 
Explain that in today's circle, we'll go back in history to look at the origins of the Thanksgiving holiday. 
Send the talking piece around again asking students what they know about the history of the Thanksgiving Day holiday.  Summarize and add information to provide a more complete picture of the original interaction between the Pilgrims and Wampanoag. 
Either ask students to read the descriptions of Native American celebrations and observations of Thanksgiving in the lesson quietly by themselves, or get three volunteers to read the three descriptions out loud.
Send the talking piece around asking students:

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about these Native American views of Thanksgiving?
  • Does it affect your thinking about your own Thanksgiving plans, if you have them? 

Closing: Ask students to go back to the words in the center piece.  Have blank index cards available as you send the talking piece around asking students if they feel any words are missing.  Add them to the center piece.