A few days after Thanksgiving, my daughter brought home a photocopied booklet from kindergarten. On the cover, smiling cartoon people in frilly bonnets stood side-by-side with and figures wearing moccasins and feathered headbands. One held a turkey on a platter.
The text presented the typical “master narrative”: “The pilgrims were from England. They came to America on a boat in 1620. The boat was called the Mayflower. The pilgrims did not have much. The winter was very cold and hard. They needed help. They met the Native Americans. The Native Americans taught the pilgrims how to farm and get food. The pilgrims were thankful for the food to eat. They had a feast!”
Like many sanitized versions of American history, the problem isn’t so much what’s there, but what’s not. The pilgrims who settled the place they called Plymouth didn’t meet a generic group called “the Native Americans”—they met the Wampanoag and the Pequot, nations with their own particular histories and traditions who continue to exist today. And the pilgrims didn’t just show thankfulness to the indigenous peoples they encountered. They also massacred Pequot people, who saw them as invaders.
But we shouldn’t tell that to kindergarteners, right? Adults have different comfort levels with telling children the darker side of history, but I did not hesitate to fill in the details for my daughter, in words she could understand: The pilgrims weren’t always nice to the Native Americans. They killed many of them, and took their land. It was a good opportunity for me to explain to her that what you learn in school is not always the whole story, and that you should always ask questions.
But my concern was not only for my own child, but also for the culture that produced and circulates “The Story of Thanksgiving.” The booklet was a free download from the site Teachers Pay Teachers, and it was copyrighted by Cahill’s Creations, which produces hundreds of printables for the early grades. So many teachers rely on these suppliers, and I understand why: the pictures are cute, the content is straightforward, and they’re easy to access. I call it the Pinterest-ization of teaching: cuteness triumphs over critical thinking.
As an educator in a teacher preparation program, I have to ask myself if we are giving teachers the skills to evaluate the materials they will encounter on the Internet. 392 teachers apparently reviewed “The Story of Thanksgiving” booklet, and nearly all of them gave it four out of four stars for accuracy, clarity, and thoroughness.
When the question of how to teach Thanksgiving came up in my elementary-level social studies methods class, I encouraged my students to seek out materials created by Native American people. The National Museum of the American Indian has great ideas for teaching about the thanks-giving traditions of specific nations. One group of students put together a phenomenal set of lessons deconstructing the Thanksgiving myth, using some of the children’s books mentioned in this blog post. Teaching Tolerance always has great suggestions, too.
One of my favorite texts is the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address, a traditional prayer also known as the “Words Before All Else,” which is spoken when people gather together for a meal. It begins with thanks to the Earth Mother: “We are all thankful to our Mother, the Earth, for she gives us all that we need for life. She supports our feet as we walk about upon her. It gives us joy that she continues to care for us as she has from the beginning of time. To our mother, we send greetings and thanks. Now our minds are one.”
Also thanked are Waters, Fish, Food Plants, Medicine Herbs, Animals, and the Four Winds. This document teaches children about the Haudenosaunee people’s way of life—for instance, “Grandmother Moon” was known to control the ocean’s tides, and was also thought to watch over the birth of children. They learn that Haudenosaunee people are thankful to the stars because they base their navigation methods on them. They learn what these people might eat at a Thanksgiving feast: “grains, vegetables, beans, and berries,” and fish and other animals who “give up their lives so we may use their bodies as food.” (“Enlightened Teachers” are also thanked—another selling point!)
I became aware of this text when the Wildfolk Learning Community, an amazing educational program in my town, started selling these beautiful booklets containing the address in English and Mohawk (buy one, proceeds benefit their program!).
Next year in early November, I’ll be ready to share this resource with my daughter’s teacher. Hopefully what comes home will be a little less two-dimensional.