Americans all know about Thanksgiving. Didn't it involve the Pilgrims, a big feast with the Native Americans, and lots of turkey and pumpkin pie?
In actuality, the Thanksgiving story is neither as straightforward nor as simplistic as it first appears. While no one, it seems, could possibly complain about a tradition that has us give thanks, the story is a bit more complicated. Thanksgiving may seem benign or joyful to some, yet it raises conflicting emotions in others. Recent books for children, as well as the Internet, offer new opportunities for teachers to explore these complexities.
For some years now I've done an in-depth study of the Pilgrims, focusing my fourth-grade students on these long-ago immigrants to America with primary sources and a wide range of excellent books for children. Read about how I begin the unit in an excerpt from my book, Far Away and Long Ago: Young Historians in the Classroom (with Stephanie Fins, Stenhouse, 1998).
One of the best sources for accurate information about the Pilgrims is Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts, a living history museum which carefully re-creates the seventeenth century settlement. Find excellent background on the first Thanksgiving and much more.
The Native Americans of the story were — and still are — the Wampanoags. You can learn more about the "people of the dawn" — as their name means — at the Plimoth Plantation's Wampanoag site. As part of my unit on this era, I read aloud Guests by Michael Dorris, a moving work of fiction about the first Thanksgiving told from a Wampanoag boy's point of view.
Native Americans have a very different perspective on Thanksgiving. Many do not view the traditional American holiday in a positive light at all, considering it more an unpleasant reminder of the negative experiences of Native Americans in history. Thanksgiving: A Native Perspective is a source book for teachers available through Oyate. This Native organization works "to see that our lives and histories are portrayed honestly, and so that all people will know our stories belong to us." Also offered are annotated book lists for different age groups, as well as videos and other resources for teaching accurately about Native Americans.
The fourth edition of Through Indian Eyes: The Native Experience in Books for Children, recently published by the American Indian Studies Center of University of California at Los Angeles, is also available through this site. It's a good resource for essays, critical reviews of children's books by and about Native Americans, strategies for how to evaluate children's books for anti-Indian bias, and other information from a Native-American perspective.
Would you like to get inside tales of the lives of both Pilgrim and Wampanoag children from a writer who has researched both? Children's book author Kate Waters answers students' questions about the Mayflower voyage and life in Plimoth.