Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Those Thanksgiving Lesson Plans

Newspapers everywhere carry articles about Thanksgiving and how it is taught in local schools. To protect the students who played roles in the specific article I'm referring to, I will not identify the school or the newspaper in which this particular article appeared.

As said many times on this blog, I respect teachers for the work they do. I do not mean to embarrass or humiliate them for that work, but I do mean to encourage them to think carefully about the ways they teach their students about "The First Thanksgiving" and American Indians.

(1) A boy is selected to portray "Chief Sun Slayer" for the school's "Thanksgiving feast." He wears a headdress of multicolored paper feathers.
  • "Sun Slayer": To me, this is obviously a made-up name intended to convey power, but why would ANYONE want to slay the sun? The headdress of multicolored paper feathers is probably the Plains style, not one that the Powhatan people would have used. Instead of providing students with substantive information, these children's stereotypical views of Indians as monolithic people who all wore Plains style attire, are affirmed.
(2) The kids in the class dressed as Indians, and then the girls voted for the boy who would be their chief. The teacher says "That's how it's really done." and "The women choose the chief."

  • Later in the article, the teacher notes they have been studying the Powhatan tribe. According to Helen Rountree, a scholar of the Powhatan Indians of Virginia, women do not vote in tribal matters. And, chief's inherited their positions through the mother's line. In some tribal nations, women play an important role in selection of leaders, but not the Powhatans.
(3) The children made their costumes out of construction paper, and chose an Indian-style name for themselves. The name they chose is "Powhatan Pee Wees."

  • Choosing Indian names is a popular activity, whether it is for a "tribe" or for oneself. People try to be clever in choosing these names. You may want to read "A Brief Digression about Naming" in the review of Ann Rinaldi's book at the Oyate website. Scroll down to get to that part of the review.

(4) This classroom study included information about wampum, which the article says is "a prized string of beads." The kids dressed as Pilgrims make wampum; the Indians make maps, and they trade.
  • People commonly think wampum was used as legal tender. According to George R. Hammell of the New York State Museum (excerpts from Encyclopedia of North American Indians, edited by Frederick E. Hoxie, page 662-664),
"...wampum's use as legal tender was its least culturally significant fucntion; for them wampum was and still is both the medium and the message of social communications."
Hammel goes on to say:
"The most culturally significant function of wampum among the northeastern woodlands Indians has been its use, in the forms of strings and belts, in rituals of kindship affirmation and rituals of condolence."

(5) This classroom study emphasizes "when the European settlers traded wampum (a prized strong of beads) for land, the American Indians thought the Europeans understood that the land was not theirs alone, but for both peoples to share."

  • Native peoples were intellectuals (not naive, simple-minded or primitive savages) who engaged in diplomatic relations with the English and the French. I will see if I can find a book to recommend, one that can be used in elementary school classrooms, that portrays these relationships with honesty to all involved.

This lesson is only one of the many being taught this month. I urge teachers to revisit their Thanksgiving lessons, and change them. Start doing it now, so you'll have a year to work on changing the lessons, lest your students end up in a college class where they read Lies my Teacher Told Me and remember the instruction they had in elementary school. Come to think of it, every teacher should get the book, read it, and use it to create lesson plans for next year.


Sean Carter said...

Well it is necessary to teach the young ones the actual meaning of Thanksgiving....if they re not propely taught the will never understand the true meaning of Thanksgiving...i'd also ask you to visit my Thanksgiving Blog for some info and facts on Thanksgiving...i'm sure you'll find it interesting....have a great Thanksgiving!!!!

Anonymous said...

Nice article. I just wanted to let you know the link about names is broke.

Debbie Reese said...

Anonymous---Thanks for letting me know about the link. It is now working.

Unknown said...

I really like how you described Native people as intellectuals, rather than the stereotyped 'naive savage in harmony with nature'.