Id like to offer my perspective as a Wampanoag Elder and
as an educator on the subject of American Thanksgiving holiday.
Each grade level opens the minds of students to greater understanding.
I have never been invited to Thanksgiving dinner outside of my Native
community so my comments are based on what Ive read or seen
on TV about how American people celebrate Thanksgiving. It is often
depicted as an extended family gathering with a major feast. Sometime
during the celebration members of the family express what they feel
thankful for and about. Children attending are introduced to the
idea of publically expressing thankfulness. Im unaware if
anyone in the families mentions my ancestors during their festivities.
Ever since President Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday
American teachers were comfortable just saying Indians ate dinner
with the Pilgrims at the first thanksgiving. I do know that pre-school
children hear for perhaps the first time about the Indians
who met the Pilgrims. They are unlikely to learn the name
of which indigenous nation hosted the first English settlers.
Rather than addressing the myth of the first thanksgiving to
the younger grades Id recommend teachers focus more on the
sentiment of being thankful. Gratitude is the most powerful thanksgiving
story, from my perspective as a Wampanoag. When young children grasp
gratitude in a real way beyond ritual our country will be greater.
Dressing children up as pilgrims, Indians, and turkeys is far removed
from what our children should learn about thanksgiving ceremony.
In Wampanoag culture we have four major thanksgiving ceremonies
for each season with several smaller thanksgivings together for
greeting such things as strawberries, green corn, and spawning fish.
Nothing in our ancestors world was taken for granted.
Middle school students can not only grasp the sentiment of gratitude
/ thankfulness they can learn about the Wampanoag as a nation of
people that were friendly enough to accept refugees/pilgrims into
their territory. The Wampanoag also saw to it they were fed and
left in peace at the village of Pawtuxet. We taught them not only
to plant but which foods (fish, plants, and game) were healthy to
harvest at what time of the year. This part of the world is totally
different than England and Holland. Each village in Wampanoag territory
was expected to feed its own people including the new English village.
The first English harvest was indeed cause for celebration and thanks.
High school students are hopefully mature enough to understand
the myth of the socalled first thanksgiving. The Wampanoag leadership
accepted the encampment of English as friends through treaty. The
Mayflower ship sailed away without them. Twenty three men, women,
and children left in a strange land across the Atlantic Ocean surviving
at the goodness of our tolerance. The first settlement of English
was an eccentric group trying to figure out what their god wanted
of them. Not all the settlers were Puritans/pilgrims. Others were
Quakers, Separatists, Loyalists, and entrepreneurs willing to sail
to Virginia to settle at Jamestown. The Puritan religion died out
after only one generation. One could actually consider it a cult.
High school and college students can conduct research around the
early relationship between the Wampanoag and colonists. Yet again
I return to the spirit of thanksgiving as expressing gratitude.
We can all be proud that our country has a national holiday centered
upon simply being thankful.
Ramona Peters is the historic preservation officer for Mashpee