What are some of the intentional ways in which schools are updating lessons about Thanksgiving?
Hint: It's NOT only about teaching gratitude!

It may come as little surprise that many schools are now actively searching for alternative ways to present lessons about Thanksgiving that do not perpetuate harmful myths about "benevolent pilgrims" and ugly stereotypes of "grateful Indians". Despite this,  more work is needed for careful planning and intentionality for lessons in the lead up to the national holiday.

One worrying trend is a movement to simply replace outdated lessons with lessons that center social emotional learning (SEL) about gratitude and empathy in the run up to this important national holiday.  Only centering lessons of social emotional learning around Thanksgiving is a disingenuous move from harmful lessons, and a continuation of depriving generations of school children from truthful teachings about Thanksgiving. 

Instead,  schools that embrace Thanksgiving lessons that are both inclusive of land acknowledgments, and the retelling of historical truths, may be on the right track to better serving school children.  Here we center Native writings and retellings of Thanksgiving as a starting point. Below we offer a compiled resource of background reading for school administrators,  educators and staff.  

First, what are land acknowledgments? If you are unsure, Kevin Abourezk, a Native writer and managing editor at Indianz.Com contextualizes land acknowledgements as a Native tradition and urges Americans to go beyond the recent trends of verbal acknowledgment. Read his article "Is it time to move beyond land acknowledgments?" to learn more.

Second, many educators in US schools are replacing lessons featuring the myth of “The first Thanksgiving” from their early years of schooling. Listen here for a conversation about "Teaching Thanksgiving" broadcast on NPR (National Public Radio) in 2020, which includes Native and non-Native voices in this discussion.

Replacing lessons is often a journey of unlearning stories. Harmful stories feature English colonizers "the piligrims" who are portrayed as kindly inviting "Indians"   --Natives from the Wampanoag Nation -- to share in their bountiful harvest. In some retellings of this myth the colonizers are honoring their indigenous hosts by sitting together and offering the feast as a gesture of peace and cooperation. Indigenous Americans know this story to be untrue and see it only as a painful false narrative serving to cover-up historical fact. Instead some schools have begun to point to genuine historical accounts about the lives of Indigenous people before and following the arrival of English and European colonizers. Children's books by Native authors can fill the spaces where harmful curricula once sat. "The People Shall Continue" by Simon Ortiz, provides a starting point for many educators.

Educators may incorporate Dennis W. Zotigh's work into their professional development and background reading. Zotigh is a Wampanoag citizen, who is actively working to dispel Thanksgiving myths. One article by Zotigh "Do American Indians Celebrate Thanksgiving?  is a retelling of a meal attended by English settlers and Indigenous people. In this article he also describes his own childhood encounters of common mockeries of Indigenous people that are typically included in school-based Thanksgiving day reenactments. These actions, often codified in school lessons have served to solidify stereotypes among many young Americans. Indeed, many children may have little contact with Native Nations or their indigenous populations and their cultures. All too often the indigenous cultures of North America are taught as something that once existed. However, many indigenous cultures and the Native people continuing them are celebrating survival while acknowledging the historical trauma that deeply affects their communities.  Zotigh’s retelling of Squanto’s encounters is eye opening because it is history that has been hidden for generations of American school children.

Here are some more resources for educators and schools addressing thanksgiving myths.  Doug George-Kanentio of the Akwesasne Mohawk Nation wrote "A True Native American Thanksgiving", in which he recites the Ohenten Kariwatekwehm, ‘or words which come before all else’. "Thanksgiving offers a way forward: Indigenous connections to the earth provide blueprint for halting climate change " was written by Mary Annette Pember, a citizen of the Red Cliff Ojibwe Nation. An excellent interview between Gale Courey Toensing and Ramona Peters, The Tribal Historic Preservation Officer of the Mashpee Wampanoag Nation, can be found in this archived piece, "What really happened at the First Thanksgiving? The Wampanoag side of the tale". Vincent Schilling, a member of the Akwesasne Mohawk Nation wrote this article in 2017,  "Six Thanksgiving Myths and the Wampanoag Side of the Story."
The fully Native-owned and operated award-winning news media platform Indian Country Today offers an excellent source of Native news articles and editorial opinion pieces, which can be a starting point for educators. Classrooms may visit this news site regularly and incorporate this reporting into current events curricula. For STEM teachers guiding lessons touching on environmental science or climate change there are dozens of relevant topics which also feature the human impact of environmental degradation that may be referenced throughout the school year.

There are many ways to begin a journey of education and engagement with the historical past while tackling harmful myths that directly affect all classrooms. THENCE.us not only provides SEL training readiness for educators and professionals working with children, we also wish to amplify culturally responsive teaching and center the truthful historical retellings of history by BIPOC voices through our children's book curation module SABAR Books. Our mentors hail from diverse backgrounds representing many cultures and areas of subject matter expertise that support inclusive classrooms and school belonging. This results in excellence for teacher coaching that is unparalleled in the world of professional development for building culturally responsive classrooms, mentored curricula workshops, activities achieving mindfulness and metacognition, which together all support and enhance school infrastructure.

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