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What Michigan Kids Learn About Thanksgiving

November 23, 2010

Every year about this time, Michigan children trail home with construction-paper turkeys and coloring pages of the “first Thanksgiving.” Their heads have been stuffed with stories about Pilgrims putting on a big party for their Indian friends.

But in the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) curriculum standards, only Grade 5 students might have Thanksgiving as a required lesson.  Fifth grade is the year that Michigan students learn about American Indian life across the continent, and then abruptly switch over to White history when they reach 1620. You might think that they’d kick off with the feast at Plymouth Rock. But the curriculum notes state, “study relations with American Indians: King Phillip’s War,” starting out, as it were, with a bang.

So why is Thanksgiving a universal feature of November class work? Because teachers find that holiday lessons provide one way to handle student excitement over an upcoming vacation. In other words, it’s a behavior-modifier. A child tracing his hand to make a picture of a turkey isn’t going to be dancing around in anticipation of freedom from school.

Teachers seek out their own lessons and activities for this type of teaching…and the overall quality of canned, downloadable Thanksgiving materials is awful. Many of the Thanksgiving “stories” available on teachers’ resource sites are overtly racist. Most of them provide no true American Indian perspective of the holiday. And the accompanying materials—such as coloring pages—are wildly inaccurate, like the one shown here of a young Indian girl at the first Thanksgiving feast.

Is a White perspective justified? Some teachers might tell you that it is. After all, the primary documents for this event come from two White men: Governor Bradford and Edward Winslow.

But here’s something interesting: when you actually read the accounts, you’ll find that Bradford makes no mention of a feast at all. He just notes that the harvest was successful and that the colony has enough provisions to winter over. Winslow describes how the men went on a hunting trip for turkeys so that “we might after a more special manner rejoice together.” He tells how they “exercised” their arms in target shooting, and “many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoyt, with some nintie men, whom for three dayes we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deere, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed upon our Governour…”

And that’s the entire first-hand story. No planned joint celebration; no intention of including Indians as guests; no mention of a religious intent for the feast. Today, almost all of the Thanksgiving stories for elementary school children offer about a chronology that’s much embroidered and expanded from the real account. The Pilgrims landed. The first winter was hard, although they did find ten large baskets of corn and other items to sustain them as they built their houses. Illness swept through the colony, along with hunger. The next spring, Samoset suddenly appeared. Along with Squanto, he befriended the Pilgrims, taught them some farming tricks and gave them other advice that helped them have a good harvest. The Pilgrims decided to hold a big feast to celebrate. They invited their Indian friends to share in their bounty.

Here’s an excerpt from one story that teachers can download and ask students to read. It’s written with an old-fashioned style, to make it sound like a first-hand account:

So they had the first Thanksgiving party, and a grand one it was! Four men went out shooting one whole day, and brought back so many wild ducks and geese and great wild turkeys that there was enough for almost a week. There was deer meat also, of course, for there were plenty of fine deer in the forest. Then the Pilgrim mothers made the corn and wheat into bread and cakes, and they had fish and clams from the sea besides.

The friendly Indians all came with their chief Massasoit. Every one came that was invited, and more, I dare say, for there were ninety of them altogether. Kind as the Indians were, you would have been very much frightened if you had seen them.

They were dressed in deerskins…They had their faces painted in all kinds of strange ways, some with black stripes as broad as your finger all up and down them. But whatever they wore, it was their very best, and they had put it on for the Thanksgiving party. Each meal, before they ate anything, the Pilgrims and the Indians thanked God together for all his goodness

Here’s another story from a Thanksgiving teaching unit, complete with dialogue but using the same general information:

“Let us gather the fruits of our first harvest and rejoice together,” said Governor Bradford.

“Yes,” said Elder Brewster, “let us take a day upon which we may thank God for all our blessings and invite to it our Indian friends who have been so kind to us.”

The Pilgrims said that one day was not enough; so they planned to have a celebration for a whole week. The great Indian chief, Massasoit, came with ninety of his bravest warriors, all gaily dressed in deerskins, feathers, and fox tails, with their faces smeared with red, white, and yellow paint. As a sign of rank, Massasoit wore a string of bones and a bag of tobacco around his neck. In his belt he carried a long knife. His face was painted red, and his hair was daubed with oil.

There were only eleven buildings in the whole of Plymouth village, four log storehouses, and seven little log dwelling-houses, so the Indian guests ate and slept out of doors. This did not matter for it was one of those warm weeks in the season that we call Indian summer.

To supply meat for the occasion four men had already been sent out to hunt wild turkeys. They killed enough in one day to last the company almost a week. Massasoit helped the feast along by sending some of his best hunters into the woods. They brought back five deer which they gave to their pale face friends, that all might have enough to eat. Under the trees were built long, rude tables on which were piled baked clams, broiled fish, roasted turkey, and venison. The young Pilgrim women helped serve the food to the hungry redskins.

The first things you probably notice in reading these two stories are the incredibly racist descriptions of the Indians: they are frightening in appearance; they wear scary clothing and are armed; they are referred to as “redskins” in one of the accounts.

But in fact, these are actually the less offensive details of the accounts. The underlying White subtext is a much more effective tool in demeaning the Indians and advancing a sense of White superiority. It’s the Puritans who plan the feast and do the bulk of the work in these accounts. They have cooked an entire range of delicacies, from turkey to geese to fish clams to bread and cakes. The Indians show up as guests, bringing a token gift of five deer, and it’s implied that they bring the deer mainly so that they themselves will have enough to eat. The Indians give thanks to the White men’s god along with the Puritans, as if they obviously recognize the superiority of the White man’s religion. The Indians had made a big effort to dress in their finest clothing because it was such an honor to eat with the Puritans. It was not a problem for the Indians to sleep outdoors because the weather was warm—no breach of hospitality was intended. One story also introduces the racist term “Indian summer.”

Many Michigan teachers might object that they would never use one of these reading selections in their classrooms. But these two stories are posted on one of the most popular teaching-unit sites. Some teachers might insist that they do present an Indian perspective by teaching more about the Wampanoag culture and offering an explanation that the good will between the Puritans and the Indians was short-lived. (That brings us to the Pequot Massacre and then King Phillip’s War, which occurred only a generation later).

In one of these more “Indian-centric” teaching units, the story does explain more about the Wampanoag culture and credits the Indians with the colonists’ survival. But the Thanksgiving story feels oddly similar:

“Captain Miles Standish, the leader of the Pilgrims, invited Squanto, Samoset, Massasoot (the leader of the Wampanoags), and their immediate families to join them for a celebration, but they had no idea how big Indian families could be. As the Thanksgiving feast began, the Pilgrims were overwhelmed at the large turnout of ninety relatives that Squanto and Samoset brought with them. The Pilgrims were not prepared to feed a gathering of people that large for three days. Seeing this, Massasoit gave orders to his men within the first hour of his arrival to go home and get more food. Thus it happened that the Indians supplied more food, some of which we still eat today: Five deer, wild turkey, fish, beans, squash soup and berries. Captain Standish sat at one end of the long table and the Clan Chief Massosoit sat at the other end. For the first time the Wampanoag were sitting at a table to eat instead of on mats or furs spread on the ground.”

Here again is the invitation initiated by the White colonists…the feeling of White superiority (the Indians get to eat at a table for the first time!)…and as for the large group of Indians, the explanation was that they were overly enthusiastic and brought too many relatives and friends with them.

But to understand how twisted our White perspective is, it’s necessary to get a true Indian explanation of the event. One excellent example can be found at Oyate, a site dedicated to offering an Indian perspective so “that our lives and histories are portrayed honestly, and so that all people will know our stories belong to us.” In an article titled “Deconstructing the Myths of ‘The First Thanksgiving’,” authors Judy Dow and Beverly Slapin give an account drawn on their knowledge from their own nations. Dow, an Abenaki, offers a unique perspective because a direct account of Samoset’s exists in the oral traditions of this people.

Here are just a few of the points the authors address:

• The term “Pilgrim” was not in use until the American Revolution, in a first-wave effort to infuse this entire story with a sense of Christian morality.

• The corn that the Puritan hunting party brought back to their settlement was seed corn belonging to the Wampanoag. It was stolen, not “found.”  The scouting party also stole items from homes, according to their own account. Worst of all, they robbed graves, taking beads and important spiritual objects that had been buried with a child.

• Samoset didn’t appear out of nowhere. The Abenaki often played a diplomatic role among the Eastern woodland tribes, and Samoset, an Abenaki chief, had been asked by Massasoit to discover the intentions of the colonists at Plymouth. Squanto (real name: Tisquantum), who had been enslaved by an English crew and later escaped, offered to live with the colonists so he could send reports back to Massasoit.

• And as for that “invitation” to a great feast, Winslow’s account turns out to be exactly accurate, although it’s not complete without the Indian side of the story. The colonists’ gunshots indicated to the nearby Wampanoag that the White men were forming a war party. Massasoit assembled a party of 90 men—dressed in war gear (not party clothes) and with no women and children with them—to approach the settlement. When the chief saw a celebration was underway, he ordered some of his hunters to bring deer, turkeys, and other food as gifts. It was the Indians who provided the bulk of the food for the harvest feast, not the Puritans.

It’s well worth reading the entire article, found here. It’s too bad that more Michigan teachers don’t use this material. The instruction of the “Thanksgiving story” in Michigan as well as across the United States, despite some pasted-over attempts to update the information, remains a perfect expression of White supremacy and is infused with an expression of American imperialism. That’s not a lesson that any child should learn.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Carma permalink
    November 23, 2010 6:38 pm

    Great Thanksgiving article!

  2. Susan permalink
    November 14, 2015 6:42 pm

    I believe that there is a primary source document in which Bradford referred to the group as Pilgrims. There is a primary source document in which Edward Winslow a member of the group tells of the plans and invitations and guests that is in keeping with the traditions.


  1. This Day in Resistance History: Colonists vs Indians 2.0 « Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy

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