Tackling Racism in Children's Classics: The Thanksgiving Story

For more context about the impetus for this post, read this first.

Alice Dalgliesh's The Thanksgiving Story is an uncomplicated story of food, friendship, and national origins. Teaching the real story of Thanksgiving, or a more accurate one, however, requires that we go further than the traditional lessons of Pilgrims and Indians.

As I write this, it is November, and for most of us, this month brings to mind the Thanksgiving holiday: food, family, days off from work and school, shopping on Black Friday, and football. And yes, giving thanks and generally being grateful for the good things in our lives, such as, for example, any of the above (I would replace football and shopping on Black Friday with naps and reading a good book, however).

Thanksgiving also brings to mind the annual classroom lessons of Pilgrims and Indians, complete with buckled black hats, feather headdresses, and of course, the meal shared by these new friends. This is the story with which many of us are familiar, and the one we continue to teach in our classrooms and tell our children. It’s an uncomplicated story of food, friendship, and national origins.

It’s the story that children’s book author and publisher Alice Dalgliesh tells in the declaratively named The Thanksgiving Story.

Beginning with the Pilgrims’ (or more accurately identified as Separatists) voyage from Europe to North America on the Mayflower, the book presents a familiar story of arrival, hardship, and of course, encounters with Indians—that is, the Native peoples already living on the land. The “friendly Indian” Squanto makes an appearance in Dalgliesh’s account, serving as interpreter and teaching the colonists how to fertilize planted corn with a dead fish (I vividly remember this detail from my own childhood Thanksgiving lessons!). The story concludes with, of course, the traditional Thanksgiving meal shared by the new arrivals and “Massasoit, the great chief” and a “long, long line of Indians” numbering ninety people. Somehow, there is food enough for all, and the colonists offer prayers giving thanks to “God for homes and food and safety in a new land.”

Feast Image from The Thanksgiving Story by Alice Dalgliesh

Feast Image from The Thanksgiving Story by Alice Dalgliesh

That’s it. That’s the story. It’s rather tidy, isn’t it? Everyone gets along, everyone gets to eat, and because of it, we now celebrate Thanksgiving every year. In schools, children put on pageants, we eat dry school cafeteria turkey, and teachers put together lessons plans featuring pilgrims and Indians.

But that’s not The Thanksgiving Story, Alice Dalgliesh’s assertion notwithstanding.

The real story of Thanksgiving, or a more accurate one, rather, is a lot more complicated. It’s a story of conflict and colonization. For Native children and their parents, it is often a painful and living history. The lessons we learn in school relegate Indigenous voices to the past and present Native Americans as one generic group of people, their tribal diversity notwithstanding. In other words, we are telling our children a story marked by fabrications, misrepresentations, and racist tropes.

How do we begin to tell our children the truth, then? 

One way is to change our starting point. The focus of Dalgliesh’s book, and of most accounts of Thanksgiving, is on the European settlers. Among the actual passengers of the Mayflower that Dalgliesh names in The Thanksgiving Story are three children: Giles, Constance, and Damaris Hopkins, along with their parents.

But what about the people the Hopkins family and their fellow passengers encountered, those already living on the land? No part of the story is told from the point of the view of the Wampanoag, the nation to which Squanto, (or Tisquantum) the friendly Indian, and Mannasoit, “the great chief,” belonged. How did they feel about the new arrivals, particularly considering their numbers had already been decimated by 90% due to epidemic diseases bought by earlier European visitors? Or what did they think of the Mayflower settlers—not finding, as Dalgliesh writes, but taking—corn, a ship’s kettle, and other supplies from a now deserted Wampanoag village?

When teaching about Thanksgiving, then, let’s start with the Indians, with the native Wampanoag and other nations that encountered Europeans.

"Round Dance," or friendship dance, at 2019 Mashpee Wampanaog Powwow

2019 "Round Dance," or friendship dance, at 2019 Mashpee Wampanaog Powwow. Image courtesy of Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe

Instead of building lessons around books like The Thanksgiving Story and making construction paper feather headdresses, let’s build lessons around books about Native characters, told in Native voices. The blog American Indians in Children's Literature (AICL) is a fantastic resource in helping us choose books that accurately portray the diversity of Native Americans. We can choose books about specific tribes, and learn about how different tribal nations today observe the changing seasons, talk about food and the harvest, and participate in rituals of giving thanks

More importantly, however, let’s not limit our reading of Native voices to one month out of the year. What message are we sending the Native students in our schools if we only read or learn about Indigenous nations around Thanksgiving? Books by a wide range of voices need to be a part of our classrooms all year long. Some places to start are below. We need to tell more than just one story.

Native Voice Stories

Whether or not you choose to share classic books such as The Thanksgiving Story with the children in your life, we encourage you to have open conversations with them on the topic of race. It’s important; there is a wealth of research in support of that fact. In the absence of conversations on the topic, children can come to problematic and factually inaccurate conclusions. Here is a guide to talking with young children about race, from the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of American Library Association.

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