US Schools Look to Expand Teachings of Thanksgiving History

25 November 2020

More American schools are rethinking the ways they teach the history of Thanksgiving.

Students often learn that the holiday dates back to 1621, when English settlers in the present-day United States shared a thanksgiving meal with Native Americans.

But in some schools, teachings about the history of this major U.S. holiday have become more complex. Lessons now include issues of conflict and injustice. They also include greater attention to the people who lived on the land long before European settlers arrived and named it "New England."

Schools in New England and other places are beginning to hear more about what some experts call "hard history" - shameful events of the past.

The students may still learn about the meal that is said to have taken place in 1621. But they also learn that relations between white settlers and Native Americans were uneasy. And they learn about the resulting years of conflict.

Language arts teacher Susannah Remillard had noticed that her sixth-grade students had been taught much more about the English settlers than the Wampanoag people, the Native Americans who sat down with them to eat. She said she now tries to add more balance to her lessons.

"We carry this Colonial view of how we teach, and now we have a moment to step outside that and think about whether that is harmful for kids, and if there isn't a better way," said Remillard, who teaches at Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School in East Harwich, Massachusetts. "I think we are at a point where people are now ready to listen."

A painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris titled 'The First Thanksgiving' shows pilgrims and Native Americans gathering to share a meal.
A painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris titled 'The First Thanksgiving' shows pilgrims and Native Americans gathering to share a meal.

Arlington Public Schools near Boston, Massachusetts is working to expand its lessons on Native Americans. This includes pointing out what educators and other experts call Thanksgiving "myths" -- untrue stories and ideas.

Students as young as 5 years old learn that harvest feasts and thanksgiving were part of Wampanoag life long before 1621. They are also taught that the early settlers - known as Pilgrims -- and the Wampanoag were not friends.

School officials believe it is important to, in their words, "unlearn" false ideas about the Thanksgiving holiday feast.

"We don't want the coloring books of the Pilgrims and the Native Americans," said Crystal Power, a social studies teacher with Arlington Public Schools. "We want students to engage with what really happened, with who lived here first, and to understand that there was no such thing as the New World."

Groups that support Native American education welcome the recent wave of action at schools in Massachusetts and other states. But they also say that progress has been slow and uneven. Schools in many places, they say, still teach insensitive, outdated lessons.

"Progress seems to be gaining momentum, but there's still a lot of work to do," said Ed Schupman. He oversees Native Knowledge 360, the national education effort at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. He is also a citizen of the Muscogee Creek Nation of Oklahoma.

Schupman and the museum have worked with states as they create new lessons on Native American cultures. Some states now require schools to teach such histories. Even in states where such lessons are not required, however, classrooms are becoming more inclusive.

School officials say they are not changing history, but adding parts that have been left out. Usual social studies school books have included little about Native Americans. And, classroom materials that included more about Native Americans were hard to find. Teachers say that is changing, thanks to native experts who have written children's books, lesson plans and other materials.

In Massachusetts this year, every public school is getting copies of a new state history book that a Wampanoag writer and historian helped create. The book was published in time for the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower -- the ship that carried a group of European settlers to North America. But the book tells about the history of the Wampanoag people, and includes information from thousands of years before the Pilgrims' arrival.

Before the coronavirus crisis, schools around Boston organized yearly visits from Annawon Weeden, a performing artist and member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe.

Weeden chooses to arrive in classrooms wearing modern clothes. He aims to push back against false ideas about Indigenous people today. After taking questions from students, he changes into traditional clothing and demonstrates tribal dances.

"A lot of the kids think we're only in the past. A lot of the kids think we live in a longhouse or a teepee or whatever," Weeden said. "Stereotypes like those are very hard to defeat."

I'm Caty Weaver.

The Associated Press reported this story. Ashley Thompson adapted it for VOA Learning English. Bryan Lynn was the editor.


Words in This Story

feast - n. a special meal with large amounts of food and drink

engage - v. to get and keep (someone's attention, interest, etc.)

momentum - n. the strength or force that allows something to continue or to grow stronger or faster as time passes

insensitive - adj. showing that you do not know or care about the feelings of other people

longhouse - n. the traditional homes of the Iroquois and some other North American groups

tepee - n. a tent that is shaped like a cone and that was used in the past by some Native Americans as a house