Giving Thanks and Respecting Truth

Giving Thanks and Respecting Truth


As we begin the descent towards the Winter Solstice, the whitetailed deer are leaving their marks as mating season wanes here in New England, ancestral lands of the Algonquian Peoples. The last vestiges of fall leaves remain as the daylight hours grow shorter. It is a time of both rest and renewal in the natural world, a period of slumber.It is also a time when schools often celebrate a romanticized version of “Thanksgiving.” What we need is an honest and inclusive history.

Based on what I know as a history teacher, I can look back and say that I am truly appalled that my teachers had me dress in paper bag clothing and construction paper feathers. It is a prime example of ingrained ignorance that mocks the Wampanoag Peoples as well as their culture, trivializes their contributions to the survival of the early colonizers, and devalues their continued contributions to our nation. Do a little digging and you will realize that the story still being told to generations of young people is a myth. Did the Wampanoags give thanks? Yes, every day, as they do today. Are they thankful for this land being colonized? No, as it changed their way of life so drastically. Even today, their contributions, and the contributions of so many First Peoples, are relegated to myths and half truths.

Long before the Pilgrims, coastal Indians were dealing with Europeans looking for furs and fish. This new trade, although at first beneficial to the Wampanoag Peoples, brought diseases, like the plague, that decimated the first inhabitants of this nation. Additionally, Europeans were also interested in making money through the enslavement of Indians who were being shipped to Spain and other locales to labor in fields, mines, and homes. Trading was common throughout the world, and First Peoples were no strangers to the world of trade. What they were not expecting was the colonization and eventual dispossession of their land and their way of life.

The “Thanksgiving” story that is most often told is just that- a story that is one of land being unoccupied and available to the colonizers, mutual acceptance, and sitting down together to give thanks. The truth is that diseases had wiped out a large portion of the Patuxet Band of the Wampanoag prior to the “Pilgrims” arriving, which is why there was land that was seemingly empty. Not all of the relations were peaceful and mutually beneficial. As a result, for many Indigenous Peoples the fourth Thursday in November is a day of mourning, reminding them of generations of broken treaties, genocide, and loss of their homelands to invaders.

There are few primary sources about the supposed “first thanksgiving,” lending credence for most to the myth rather than the reality. There was a gathering, although accounts differ as to the intention of the days. It wasn’t until much later in history when the idea of “Thanksgiving,” as we understand it today, came to be. Both the Wampanoag and the Separatists who became known as “The Pilgrims” gave thanks often in their daily lives, much as many of their descendants still do today. Being thankful is an integral part of Wampanoag society, giving thanks for the bounty provided by Mother Earth and Father Sky.

It is up to us as educators to be more culturally responsive in our teaching of history.

Even the Plimoth Plantation of my youth has brought forth more historically accurate portrayals of these early peoples and provided more inclusive primary sources.  By changing the name to Plimoth Patuxet Museums, the history of the separatists and the Wampanoag begin on equal footing in terms of historical importance.  Their lives are inextricably woven into the fabric of our national history.  We must continue to understand and celebrate the contributions of the First Peoples of this nation.

As you sit down this year to give thanks for family and friends, try to remember that it is about gratitude for the bounty we enjoy and about sharing that bounty with others. It is about understanding history that is not consigned to a cartoon or caricature. It is about the resilience and significance of a peoples once relegated to the background of insignificance. It is about mutual respect.

LéAnn Murphy Cassidy, Ed.S. is the 2018 Gilder Lehrman Connecticut History Teacher of the Year, as well as a 2018 Connecticut State Teacher of the Year Finalist. She is in her thirty-fourth year of teaching, serving simultaneously as a lead teacher and master mentor for the last fourteen years. A member of the Connecticut Council for the Social Studies Board, LéAnn also serves on the Teacher Advisory Council for the National Constitution Center.








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