Mashpee Schools Tread Lightly Around Thanksgiving Stories
By: Michael C. Bailey
THANKSGIVING: A festive holiday, based on traditional English harvest festivals, observed on the fourth Thursday in November as a commemoration of English settlers’ survival of their first year in Plymouth Colony. First observed as a federal holiday in 1941.
NATIONAL DAY OF MOURNING: A somber holiday observed on the fourth Thursday in November, a commemoration of what Native American people view as the beginning of the white man’s domination over their lands. First observed in 1970.
The dual history of Thanksgiving is especially relevant in the home of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, and teachers in the Mashpee schools navigate these controversial waters carefully, striking a balance between teaching the traditional origins and repercussions of the holiday and how many Native Americans view it.
“It’s such a sensitive topic for younger ages,” Shani Turner, director of the district’s Indian Education Program, said. But even teachers in the Mashpee High and Middle schools are intimidated by the topic of English settlement of America and its impact on its indigenous people, she said. “A lot of people just don’t know what to say.”
Ms. Turner noted that the Indian education department itself has in the past only skimmed the surface of the subject. “Not so many people want to hear the hard facts,” she said. “Personally, I want to give people that knowledge but also play it safe.”
To help raise awareness in the schools, Ms. Turner said she wants to establish the final day of school before Thanksgiving break as a day of remembrance. This day, on which students and faculty would wear red, is intended not to dwell on the negative but to simply acknowledge history while simultaneously celebrating Native American culture “and the lives that we did have.”
Ms. Turner hopes to eventually expand this day to a townwide observance.
In the meantime, Ms. Turner continues to personally conduct presentations on the history of Thanksgiving in the Mashpee elementary schools, and she is planning to create a seminar for teachers interested in expanding their lessons on the holiday and its history.
According to Ms. Turner, the seminar would be a step toward addressing an overarching problem: teachers are generally left to craft their own approach to educating their students about Thanksgiving, since there are no specific standards for teaching alternate viewpoints at either the state or local level.
The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s History and Social Science Curriculum Framework calls for general education about the major holidays, including Thanksgiving, and why they are celebrated at the kindergarten level. First graders explore the reasons for celebrating Thanksgiving and notable historical figures attached to the holiday, and grade 3 gets into the events leading up to the first Thanksgiving. There are no guidelines after that.
Ellen S. Bankston, the district’s director of curriculum, instruction, and assessment, said there is “no specific district-wide standard or guideline” for discussing Thanksgiving in the Mashpee schools.
In the lower grades, “we include information on all perspectives, discuss the history, and celebrate fall or the harvest,” Ms. Bankston said, but teachers do not delve into the repercussions of English colonization. Instead, “The focus in the schools always is to respect and appreciate the rich culture the Wampanoag add to our community and to respect and celebrate all diversity.”
According to Matthew Triveri, a United States history teacher at Mashpee High School, “There is some discussion of the modern perspectives” on Thanksgiving at the middle and high school levels. Those discussions include how those modern perspectives all spin out of the events preceding and following the first Thanksgiving celebration.
“If Thanksgiving Day does come up as a discussion issue in our classes,” Dana Smith, MHS history teacher, said, “we do not necessarily offer an ‘opposing’ view so much as an alternative view in addition to the view often portrayed in history books of the past.”
The greatly streamlined version of the first Thanksgiving is perhaps the most widely known and accepted version: after they arrived in the New World and settled in what is now Plymouth, English Pilgrims received instruction from early Wampanoag natives on how to plant crops and catch local wildlife for meat.
This aid essentially saved the Pilgrims’ lives. “I think both sides agree that the English probably wouldn’t have survived that first winter without the Natives’ help,” Mr. Triveri said. In celebration of their successful harvest, the Pilgrims in 1621 held the so-called “First Thanksgiving,” a feast for the 53 surviving Pilgrims and 90 of their Native American neighbors.
For the Pilgrims, this feast was based on a traditional British fall harvest festival, but Mr. Smith noted that the Wampanoag had similar observances.
“We often point to the Wampanoag traditional view that every day is a day for thanks giving, and that our local Native American culture celebrated many thanksgivings formally,” Mr. Smith said. “For example, I believe that there were thanks given at the end of the herring season in the spring, for wild berries in the summer, for corn and bean harvests in the late summer and early fall, and for the cranberry harvests in the later fall.”
Mr. Triveri said his grade 10 students come in with an understanding of this backstory, as well as the factors that led the Pilgrims to leave England for the New World, “and what’s more interesting for the kids are the events leading up to that first Thanksgiving,” but the lessons do explore the fallout from that historic event.
The Patuxet Tisquantum—better known as Squanto—who was living with the Wampanoag at the time, is considered a key figure in the period as he served as an interpreter between the Wampanoag and the settlers—a skill Squanto picked up as an English slave, one of the first dark cracks in what many Native Americans refer to as “the Thanksgiving myth.”
The settlers also resorted to robbing the graves of deceased Native Americans, stealing their stores of corn and beans, and eventually selling them as slaves. “No good deed goes unpunished,” Mr. Triveri remarked, adding that later Thanksgiving celebrations actually commemorated the English driving Native Americans out and taking their land.
In a speech delivered in June 1676 Edward Rawson, clerk of the governing council of Charlestown, thanked God for His blessing on the settlers in their quest to conquer the “Heathen Natives of this land.”
“I do think it opens their eyes to the history of the Wampanoags’ relationship with the English,” Mr. Triveri said. “They’re generally very unaware of that history when they come into my class.”
Not so for Mashpee Wampanoag students, according to Ms. Turner. “They do have that knowledge,” passed on by family members, she said.
The English colonists’ actions were recounted in a speech Frank B. (Wamsutta) James of the Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah (Gay Head) was supposed to deliver in 1970, at Plymouth’s annual reenactment of the First Thanksgiving. Event organizers felt the tenor of the speech was inappropriate for the celebration, which marked the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ founding of Plymouth Colony, and heavily edited the speech.
Mr. James, who died in 2001, delivered the unedited speech later that day at Plymouth Rock, on what became the first National Day of Mourning.
The United American Indians of New England (UAINE) organizes the annual protest, which includes a noontime march through Plymouth’s historic district and speeches by invited guest-speakers to raise awareness of the “racism of the Pilgrim myth in Plymouth” and the repercussions of European settlement of North America against indigenous peoples.
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