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An Authentic Look at Thanksgiving

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November’s annual Native American Heritage Month and the national holiday of Thanksgiving are times when many educators across the country turn their focus to lessons about Native peoples. At the National Museum of the American Indian, we receive many inquiries during November from teachers and parents looking for advice and resources to teach Native Americans appropriately. We welcome this opportunity to offer our perspectives and share the educational materials that we have developed to honor and celebrate the cultures, histories, and achievements of Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere.

The Truth About Thanksgiving

For millions of Americans, Thanksgiving is one of the most beloved holidays, an occasion with deep roots in the country’s history and a time to celebrate with family and friends. However, the historical association of Native Americans with this holiday and typical classroom activities used to commemorate Thanksgiving are problematic. The story and its associated imagery, perpetuated, and handed down for generations, are primarily mythological. Historians generally agree that the Pilgrim settlers benefitted from the agricultural knowledge, practices, and harvest of the Wampanoag peoples whose lands they occupied. Also, one short paragraph in a colonist’s journal seems to confirm that a feast of some kind did occur. Unfortunately, the more-or-less peaceful coexistence suggested by these events did not last. Distrust and conflict soon became the norm. Within a few decades, colonists and Native Americans of the New England region fought bloody wars that ultimately decimated Native populations and ways of life. English colonists slaughtered Native men, women, and children and sold many of the survivors into slavery in the Caribbean. Despite this upheaval, Wampanoag and other Native peoples survived and still occupy pieces of their original homelands today; they vividly remember their histories and even work to exercise and defend their sovereignty as Native nations within the United States.

Reenactments of the mythologized Thanksgiving story with construction-paper headdresses and children with war-painted cheeks are not an appropriate or accurate commemoration of this history. Such activities perpetuate harmful caricatures and stereotypes of Native peoples and cultures. For non-Native children, these activities may be one of their only remembered educational exposures to Native Americans. Thus, generation after generation of Americans will develop misinformed opinions at an early age. They learn little of the true diversity and richness of Native cultures. Instead, inaccurate, incomplete, and inappropriate understandings prevail, generation after generation. 

In the early twentieth century, the United States government forced many Native American children to attend boarding schools that operated to erase Native cultures and languages and replace them with white American culture. There are poignant photographs of Native American boarding school children dressed up as “Pilgrims and Indians” in Thanksgiving pageants. Still today, Native American students see little of themselves or their cultures in these activities, and the confusion and embarrassment they feel impact their sense of identity and self-worth.

How We Honor Our Native Americans

The National Museum of the American Indian is engaged in a national education initiative to transform teaching and learning about Native Americans. We call this initiative Native Knowledge 360˚. We invite all educators to visit our website’s resource pages to explore and use the online educational materials we have created for educators and students. There you will find classroom-ready, teacher-friendly resources that explore accurate and authentic stories of Native American histories, cultures, and contemporary lives. Our materials feature Native American perspectives as told through the voices of Native people themselves. They offer students a view of Native Americans as innovative, creative, and resourceful people who have always had agency in determining their own lives.

For teaching during the Thanksgiving season, we offer a variety of resources:

  • Native American Perspectives on Thanksgiving is a downloadable teaching poster designed for educators and students grades 4 through 8 that examines the deeper meaning of the Thanksgiving holiday for Native Americans. It looks at thankfulness as a traditional way of life among Native peoples. It explores the role of ceremony in expressing gratitude for the gifts of creation at various important times of the year and the role of traditional Native foods in contemporary Native communities.
  • Associated with this poster, we also provide the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address: Greetings to the Natural World. This is a translation and transcription of the words Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) people speak in their Native languages throughout the year at important events, celebrations, and ceremonies. The words acknowledge and express thanks for the gifts of the natural world.
  • Harvest Ceremony: Beyond the Thanksgiving Myth, a downloadable study guide examines the history of relationships between the Wampanoag people and the early English colonists.

While we appreciate the attention that Native Americans receive during Native American Heritage Month, we encourage educators to integrate Native content across the curriculum and all grade levels. Our materials and teacher training programs provide opportunities to view Native Americans in education about civics, history, geography, art, science, economics, and other disciplines. Join us as we work to erase the old misguided narratives and approaches and replace them with new, innovative, and culturally responsive education about Native Americans of the Western Hemisphere. Please visit our web pages and learn more about Native Knowledge 360°!

Edwin Schupman

Edwin Schupman Manager of National Education Smithsonian, National Museum of the American Indian

Edwin Schupman, a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma, is the manager of Native Knowledge 360° (NK360°), the National Museum of the American Indian’s national education initiative to inspire and promote improvement of education about American Indians. Ed completed a master’s degree in Music Theory at Miami University and doctoral coursework in ethnomusicology at the University of California, Los Angeles. After completing a repatriation project with early recordings of American Indian music at the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress, Ed began his long career in the field of American Indian education. Beginning in 1988 he worked for ORBIS Associates, an American Indian education firm, creating culture and standards-based lessons on American Indian topics, training teachers nationwide, and evaluating educational projects. At the Bureau of Indian Education, Ed co-wrote a culture-based health and wellness curriculum and developed a national teacher training program. In 2004, he joined the education staff at the National Museum of the American Indian. During Ed’s career, he has conducted education work in over 170 Native American reservation and non-reservation communities nationwide.

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