This morning I received an email from a teacher who wrote to share what Taylor, a fifth grader, wrote in response to having studied a speech written by a Wampanoag man, Wamsutta (Frank B.) James.
Some context: Back in 1970, James was invited to an event in Plymouth, Massachusetts that was designed to celebrate "The First Thanksgiving." He was asked to submit his remarks ahead of time to the planners. When they read what he planned to say, the invitation was withdrawn. His speech is now titled "The Suppressed Speech of Wamsutta (Frank B.) James, Wampanoag" and is associated with an event that takes place in Plymouth. That event is "Thanksgiving: A National Day of Mourning."
Upon reading the speech that James intended to read, one of Taylor's initial responses was this:
"Do you mean all those Thanksgiving worksheets we had to color every year with all those smiling Indians were wrong?"Struck by the fact that history was more complicated than she'd been taught, Taylor chose to skip recess and begin her assignment. Here it is, published with permission from Taylor, her teacher, and her mother.
Frank James, also known as Wamsutta, was correct in writing a protest speech on Thanksgiving in 1970. For James, Thanksgiving was a sad day, and this is true for many Native Americans even in the present day. The Pilgrims made the Native people into slaves. James wrote, “Even before the Pilgrims landed it was common practice for explorers to capture Indians and sell them for slaves.” The Pilgrims sometimes tortured the Indians. James reported, “Sometimes an Indian was pressed between stone slabs and hanged as any other ‘witch’.” The Pilgrims punished the Indians if they didn’t believe in the Christian religion. James wrote in his speech, “If the Native Americans didn’t believe in [the Pilgrim’s] religion, [the Pilgrims] would dig up the ground and release the great epidemic again.” In conclusion, Frank James was correct to write his protest speech so people would look at Thanksgiving from his point of view. He illustrated how badly the European settlers mistreated his people, the Wampanoag and why Thanksgiving, for his people, is a day of mourning and reflection.
When I started this assignment in school about Pilgrims and Indians, I learned a lot at first, but then I read Frank James’ protest speech and to be honest, I was speechless. The way the Pilgrims punished the Indians was gruesome and I felt sorry for them. For a second, I had to put the packet down it was so horrible. I mean, the way my book and the speech were written it sounded like in the beginning that the relationship between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people started off well. But, when it started to get deeper into the story, the more Pilgrims started to spread out across the U.S.A, the more the Native American people realized that they were in harm and in danger, and that they were being kicked out of their land. The sad part for me was how the Pilgrims thought the Native Americans were savages just because they didn’t believe in the Pilgrims’ religion.
I thought about all the way back to Kindergarten, right before Thanksgiving break we would always get these coloring worksheets of the happy little Pilgrims and Indians giving each other things. Up until now, I didn’t really realize that that’s not how it happened. Showing the happy little cartoon Indian was a lie. I think Kindergarteners and young children should know what actually happened, not with gruesome details, but they should know more of the truth.
The way I felt after I read my book about Thanksgiving and Wamsutta’s speech, I was sad, angry, and heartbroken for the Indians. We should teach Americans not just to be happy for the Pilgrim’s survival, but we should also be respectful, reflective, sad, and even upset for the Wampanoag tribe and other Native American tribes.