Friday, November 22, 2013

Taylor (5th grader): "Do you mean all those Thanksgiving worksheets we had to color every year with all those smiling Indians were wrong?"

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 When they read what he planned to say, the invitation was withdrawn.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.

My Response to “Thanksgiving: A National Day of Mourning”  
By Taylor M., Grade 5

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.

And here is a note Taylor wrote to me:

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.

I think it is fair to say that this experience was a life-changing moment for Taylor. She uses strong language ("the happy little cartoon Indian was a lie") and I think she is starting down a road where she will always question what she reads. Questioning is a good thing to do. I think she's going to love Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. I think she'll like what she finds on the Zinn Education Project website. And, I think she'll also like the PBS series, We Shall Remain. I hope her school or public library has a copy of it. 

Reading her words gives me great hope. We need more Taylor's and we need more teachers who design lessons that encourage critical thinking. With that in mind, I'll point readers to an excellent piece that ran in Indian Country Today last year. Titled "What Really Happened at the First Thanksgiving," it is an interview with Ramona Peters, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe's Tribal Historic Preservation Officer.  

Thank you, Taylor, for sharing your response with me and my readers! I'd love to hear more from you. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013


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Heid Erdrich's Original Local: Indigenous Foods, Stories, and Recipes from the Upper Midwest is a treat! I mean that literally (reading the recipes makes my mouth water!) and spiritually, too.

The stories she tells in the book take me to my childhood and time spent gathering plants with my grandmother, or, helping her with her garden. To do this gardening, Gram would wear old work shirts that belonged to my grandfather. They kept the sun off her arms, but there was another reason to wear them.... Gophers! See, she irrigated her garden with water from the 'high land' ditch. We'd walk up to the high land, 'turn down the water,' and walk back down to the garden, waiting for the water to meander down the bone dry bed of the ditch to her rows of corn and beans and squash and peas and cucumbers.

Sometimes, the water didn't get to the garden. When the water didn't arrive, we'd walk alongside the ditch till we got to the gopher hole that we knew we'd find. She'd rip pieces off of her shirt and stuff them, along with rocks and sticks, into the gopher hole. It was annoying as heck to her, but remembering those times gardening with my grandmother gives me cause to smile, and to--in effect--nourish my soul in the ways that Erdrich's stories do, too.

"A recipe is a story."

 "A recipe" Erdrich tells us, "is a story" (p. 12). That line perfectly captures what you'll find in her book.  Some of the stories in Erdrich's book are specific to gatherings with her family and friends. I especially like "The First Hunt and the Last" on page 84 and 85. On page 85 is her brother's recipe for venison stew. Some stories are traditional ones, and still others are about activism. Winona LaDuke, well known for her activism, has a piece in the book about gathering wild rice. She ends her piece by pointing to a company in California that has recently patented wild rice, which essentially put the Ojibwe people in a battle over who owns foods and medicines. For more on that, see LaDuke's "Ricekeepers: A Struggle to Protect Biodiversity and a Native American Way of Life" in the July/August 2007 issue of Orion Magazine. 

As you turn the pages of Original Local, there are lot of names you'll recognize if you read the work of Native writers and scholars. Louise Erdrich, for example. One of her recipes is in the book. Brenda Child is here, too. The recipes and photographs and stories make this cookbook an absolute delight. You can get an autographed copy from Birchbark Books