If there’s one thing I’ve learned from researching the history of Thanksgiving, it’s that more misconceptions abound than I realized. These misconceptions and oversimplifications (usually) taught in childhood are frequently left unchecked as children grow into adults.
My 6 year old has already had his toes dipped in the romanticized Thanksgiving story. He already knows the characteristic “Pilgrim and Native” imagery from well intentioned, but insufficient, coloring sheets and videos. As a parent deeply desiring to teach culture and history well, where do I go from here?
Picking a Focus and Running With it
After a flurry of research I decided that this year my focus would be on helping my kids understand the Wampanoag people:
That their history began long before the English settlers arrived.
That they had deep knowledge of the land.
That their generosity and instruction helped the settlers survive.
That they are alive today, not just a figment of history.
Another lesson we’re focusing on is how the Thanksgiving story teaches us that we need other people to survive. We aren’t made to do life on our own. And, an important way God provides for us is through other people. When the settlers were hungry, God didn’t cause corn to rain out of the sky. He used a people of a different ethnic group to generously extend their knowledge of the planting and harvesting. That is a picture that we can give thanks for and seek to emulate more and more each day. So Thanksgiving really is something we both celebrate and something we strive for.
While some oversimplification is hard to avoid when teaching complex history to small humans, I wanted to be extra careful to avoid planting the following, fundamental misconceptions about the first Thanksgiving:
-The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth.
The Wampanoag people called their land “Patuxet.” It was renamed Plymouth. And that order is key in teaching/learning with humility not superiority. The name Patuxet is so important that the official Plimouth (not a typo) historical site just this year renamed themselves as “Plimouth-Patuxet” rather than Plymouth Plantation. It’s all a part of uplifting the indigenous voices in history that we’ve long diminished.
–The Pilgrims met Native Americans when they landed in Plymouth.
Ok, even though the term “Native American” is better than “Indian” it’s still not ideal. In 1620, there wasn’t yet an America to be native to! The people the settlers met were the Wampanoag and, if there’s one thing I want my kids to take away from our lessons this year, it is that name. Wampanoag (and other tribes) came first. America came second. And their generosity was key to there even being a future America. We owe them thanks and gratitude.
-The settlers called themselves Pilgrims.
The term “Pilgrim” didn’t come into effect until the 1800s. I’m trying to help my kids understand that at first the English were “settlers” and “colonists” and then later became known to us as Pilgrims.
The Natives wore feathers in their hair.
This wasn’t a common practice for the Wampanoag people. However, this image that is commonplace in coloring-pages and other illustrations of Native Americans perpetuates the idea that they are a single, homogenous group rather than a people of thousands of tribes with diverse traditions. Showing our kids accurate pictures of Wampanoag clothing will give them a foundation for understanding this diversity and not making harmful generalizations that can persist through adulthood. I’ve included some images in my resource list at the end of the post.
Onward (or backward?) to 1620 we go!
Armed with these facts, the kids and I have authentically journeyed into 1620 to the best of our abilities. I’ve encouraged them to respond to the stories we watch and read, and then I expand on their observations by adding in more historical facts. This keeps them engaged but also makes sure that there is some direct instruction.
The resources we used to study the Wampanoag and Thanksgiving story are listed below. I hope they’ll be helpful to you as you embark on teaching your own kids or even just reeducating yourself. Teaching history is hard, but the more excellence we pursue as parents the more we prepare this little generation to grow into adults that are more culturally aware, empathetic, and reconciled. Isn’t that a beautiful thought?
I Present to You… the Resources
This is 7 minutes of very quality, kid-friendly content filmed on site at Plimouth-Patuxet. During the video my son exclaimed, “I wish I was a Wampanoag! That looks fun!” And my daughter sighed, “Oh…they are very beautiful.” Not gonna lie, my heart gave a little cheer when I heard that!
These pages are hand drawn by women who are lovingly dedicated to bringing accuracy to the Thanksgiving story. There are coloring pages of both English and Wampanoag. The whole website is dedicated to accurate information about the first Thanksgiving, so it’s worth exploring!
3. Historical Clothing
This is a good kid-oriented page that features some images of both Wampanoag and English in accurate clothing.
4. How and Why to Teach About Thanksgiving
Tolerance.org is fantastic site dedicated to equipping teachers to teach in culturally responsible ways. I’ve read a couple articles on there recently, and the one that was most helpful to me as a parent was this one: Teaching Thanksgiving in a Socially Responsible Way . It also gives resources for further study at the end.
5. Everything you Learned About Thanksgiving is Wrong
Might as well end on an uplifting note, right? Banter aside, this is a great New York Times piece that gets straight to the uncomfortable facts, nothing held back.
How are you celebrating Thanksgiving with your kids this year? Will you be doing it differently?