If you're a regular reader, you know that I think we do a disservice in teaching children that "Pilgrims and Indians" had a wonderful feast together. It's a feel-good-about-America story. While I understand the need to provide children with feel-good moments, you can do that at Thanksgiving without using "Pilgrims and Indians" material.
Anne Rockwell's book provides multiple opportunities to see why that romanticized Thanksgiving story is problematic. I'll discuss some of them here. My analysis of the story is in bold text.
The characters in Rockwell's book are children. The story itself is told from the perspective of an African American child who asks his parents:
Do you know why we celebrate Thanksgiving? Do you know why we always eat turkey, corn bread, and cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving Day? I do. I learned why in school.
The next double-page spread is of a storytime in a classroom. Seated on the floor on carpet squares are ten children. One is the African American boy. The illustrations indicate the author/illustrator want to show a diverse group of children. Some look to be Asian. Three are blonde, two are red-heads, and the remaining two have dark hair (can't see their faces; their back is to the reader.)
Debbie's analysis: It is good to see picture books that demonstrate the diversity that exists in today's classrooms. And, as a former kindergarten and first grade teacher, I like seeing children gathered around for storytime. Teachable moment: When you call your students to the rug for storytime, I hope you do not ask them to "sit Indian-style." We all know what that means, but it is one of those stereotypical ideas associated with Native people that I think ought to drop out of use. Ask them to sit "like a pretzel" instead.
The teacher sits on a low chair holding up a book she is reading, called "The First Thanksgiving." Behind her is a wooden stand that holds four puppets: one turkey, an Indian man, a Pilgrim man, and a Pilgrim woman.
Debbie's analysis: Puppets are terrific and should be in classrooms, but not these ones... or at least, not the Indian one. Question for you.... If I'd said "Indian" but not "man" what image would come to your mind? One of a man, or a woman? My guess is most of you would think of a man. Why? Because that is what you see most often. In my dissertation, I found that the majority of images of Indians in children's picture books are of Indian men. And, when children play Indian, they play Indian men, not women.
Turning the page, we see the teacher's hands as she holds open the book she's reading to the children. The page shows a Wampanoag family and a Pilgrim family. The Wampanoag family is wearing fringed buckskin. The man and boy wear trousers and a loincloth, are are shirtless. The woman is wearing a furry cape over a dress. All wear boots. All three have one or two feathers in their hair. The text reads:
We learned about the Wampanoag people who were already in this land, and the Pilgrims who came across the sea from England.
Debbie's analysis: Wonderful to see the word "Wampanoag" in this book! Not the generic "Indian," but an actual tribal name. And, it is the name of the tribe with whom the people on the Mayflower came into contact with.
Next, the children are gathered around a craft table making what will be the costumes they will wear in their play. Two are wearing brown paper bag bests and headbands with one or two feathers in them.
Debbie's analysis: Teachers are adept at figuring out how to do things at low cost. Using paper bags to make Indian vests, though, encourages the idea that all American Indians wore/wear fringed buckskin. The text says "Wampanoag" --- but the items the children are making are not specific to the Wampanoag people.
The story moves on to tell what part children performed in the play. Here's the text:
Evan was a Wampanoag named Samoset. He was thankful for all the wild turkeys that lived in the land his people called Massachusetts.
Pablo was Squanto. He was thankful that all the kernels of corn the Wampanoag people planted sprouted and grew tall and green.
Sam was thankful that Squanto told him wild turkeys were good to eat and taught him how to hunt them.
and, after several pages (which I'll discuss later):
Eveline was Chief Massasoit. She told how the Wampanog and Pilgrim people shared their harvest feast one autumn day.
Debbie's analysis: Being thankful for game (turkeys) and plants (corn). That's fine. But... Samoset, Squanto, and Massasoit... Problems? Samoset was not Wampanoag. He was Abenaki.
Are children taught that Squanto (his Wampanoag name was actually Tisquantum, not Squanto) was kidnapped by Thomas Hunt, the captain of one of the boats in John Smith's group, and taken to Europe to be sold as a slave? That he was rescued by a priest who tried to convert him to Christianity? That he learned English, and eventually made his way back home, only to find his village had been devastated by European disease?
By the time the Mayflower pilgrims arrived, the Native people already regarded them as a threat... Samoset, who was visiting the Pokanokets and Nemaskets, was sent to see what was up with the colonists (after that first winter)... Finding the colonists friendly to him, Samoset returned with Squanto, who taught them how to use fish fertilizer, and, helped arrange a treaty alliance among the Pokanokets, Nemaskets, and colonists.
Squanto then lived among the colonists and helped establish other treaty relationships, but was not well thought of by the Native people. He was not trustworthy, misleading Natives and colonists. He so angered Massasoit, that the colonists had to protected him from Massasoit.
Did Massasoit tell anyone about how the Wampanoag's and Pilgrims shared a feast? Not likely.
Going back now, to the pages I skipped.
Michiko was thankful that she and all the other Pilgrims were greeted kindly by the Wampanoag people, who shared the land with them.
Kate was thankful that her new neighbors were peaceful Pilgrims looking for a new land to live in, and not mean people looking for someone to fight with. Jessica was thankful that the beautiful land of Massachusetts had enough good things for everyone.Debbie's analysis: Wow. And wow again. Through Michiko and Kate, we get outrageously simplistic descriptions. Greeted kindly? Shared the land? And not mean people looking for someone to fight with?! Only Jessica's words have some semblance of truth, but they, too, are problematic. Her words carry the weight of the idea that there was plenty of land, and that the Indians weren't using it properly, so it was only fitting that the more industrious Europeans should take and own it...
This seemingly sweet book is really quite loaded. Loaded in its false message of comradery between the colonists and the Wampanoags. Loaded in its efforts to hide the conflict from the child reader...
I was at a lecture two nights ago and met a professor from a nearby university (hey Susan!) Her students read my blog. We talked about the "do no harm" principle in medicine, and that it should apply to a child knowledge base.
First, do no harm.
In teaching a happy feel-good Thanksgiving lesson, teachers may be harming the self-esteem of Native children in their classrooms. And, they are mis-educating the non-Native children. In a way, it is like the tooth fairy, or Santa Claus. These are things of childhood, that, at some point, children learn aren't real. The difference is, American Indians are real.
First, do no harm.
Note: My source for the information on Squanto, Samoset, and Massasoit are Neil Salisbury's Manitou and Providence: Indians and Europeans, 1500-1643, and his chapter on Squanto in David G. Sweet and Gary B. Nash's book, Struggle and Survival in Colonial America.
Comments posted to this post as of March 7, 2010:
On Wednesday, November 14, 2007, Anonymous/Stephanie said:
Thank you for this post. I was going to read this book at my storytime but now I see why it's better not to. I like your motto of "do no harm". It's now mine too.
On Thursday, December 13, 2007, Emma said:
I am a former library assistant and African-American. I used Rockwell's book for a Thanksgiving storytime with pre-schoolers. I wish I had read your blog first. I was happy to see some diversity in the book, so that's why I used it. I realize I should read, and re-read children's books from a pan-ethnic perspective.
Keep up the good work.
On Tuesday, March 25, 2008, Anne Rockwell said:
To anonymous and emma: Please read my comments on Debbie's blog about her upcoming Lois Lenski interview.
[Note: Rockwell asked Stephanie and Emma to read her comments. Click here to get to the page she's referencing.]