The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of activity on the Thanksgiving front, as we head into the holidays and the first big break for students. From all of the webinars popping up in my inbox offering to help me teach about Pilgrims and Native Americans to the wild turkeys roaming serenely through my front yard, the opportunities are vast and varied out there. And this is a good thing. Maybe not for the turkeys.
As part of my ongoing mission to present a balanced Thanksgiving story to the kids, I’ve hopped on the zoom several nights to learn again from the National Museum of the America Indian and from Shelburne Farms and the Tarrant Institute at the University of Vermont. So many good options are out there at this time of year. Teachers looking to sharpen their skills and knowledge on this topic will find the resources to be even more robust and engaging this year.
What I especially appreciate about recent programming is the inclusion of more indigenous voices, from Judy Dow leading the Shelburne Farms program highlighting harmful stereotypes to Marissa Corwin talking about food crops and the importance of the three sisters ethnobotanically and historically. The variety of speakers and tangential topics spun out from the Thanksgiving theme has been impressive. The story is starting to do good work, acting as a catalyst for questioning our assumptions and building knowledge around the two-sided narrative that this early colonizing history has always been, giving space to the underrepresented voices in the written record.
The other morning I awoke with three takeaways swirling about in my mind. Such is the life of a teacher. If we are not having teacher nightmares about students setting fire to our filing cabinets, we might just as easily be dreaming about what our work really means. These dreams tend to trend based on the time of year. For now, I’d like to share three somewhat dissimilar ideas about where I am as an educator trying to decolonize Thanksgiving in my teaching.
My thoughts and decolonizing dreams…
- Scrub the word tribe. So many good things happen when you focus on the indigenous groups that live in your particular area and use their names. Adopt words like peoples and communities. Drop Squanto for Tisquantum and use Ousamequin instead of Massasoit. These may seem like small switches, but the thinking behind them, and the thinking you ask students to do because you have made these priorities, can teach them much about honor and respect.
- Release the primary sources into the classroom. Students need the skills we teach with primary sources, the skills of discernment and comparative analysis, even though these documents can be challenging to analyze. Present them with voiceovers. How is your colonial English accent? It doesn’t really matter. When students examine sources from a time period, they feel that they are solving the puzzles of the past, so they often come to realizations in authentic and deeply felt ways. Give them the time and space to do this work.
- Talk about the difference between inaccurate and inappropriate. Talk about how an inaccuracy can start a conversation, but inappropriateness can often shut one down. Bring in the mascot debate, even when it’s hard to talk about or you can’t find an easy counter argument for every justification. Use examples with white people. Talk about pain. These are important conversations that bring up hard historical truths that need unpacking today. You are in a position to do this.
- Finally, just keep doing the work. It took years for our educational system to look like it does today. It’s not a bad system, but we know how to break through some of the most damaging remnants of our colonial past, as long as we keep doing the work.
This week, my students will finish up writing their poems based on the lives of English and Wampanoag historical figures in the 1600s. Students are taking on the voices of Weetamoo, Tisquantum, Myles Standish, and Eleanor Billington (mother to a band of hooligan sons who do things like shoot off muskets belowdecks on the Mayflower). They are exploring the internal and external conflicts people of both cultures faced in this colonizing history. I’ll share some of their writing next time because I think it speaks to the ongoing work of breaking down the mythology of this moment while drawing on creativity and empathy.
What would it be like to teach in a world where these narratives come to us already balanced, where 12,000 years of indigenous history is recognized next to a meager 400? Where students see themselves as part of a richly woven fabric stretching back far further than Plimoth Rock? I look forward to that world. In the meantime, I will try to teach toward it.