Back when I was in 2nd grade, my class dressed up like Pilgrims and Indians when it was time to discuss Thanksgiving. These days, that just wouldn't fly. There are so many better ways to explain the true history of Thanksgiving to your kids, while still being creative and not culturally inappropriate.
Overall, the holiday has morphed into a gathering with loved ones over an amazing meal, while expressing gratitude for all that you have. Of course, that doesn't mean that you should completely gloss over not-so-great cultural roots of the day. Most people know, as confirmed in Indian Country Today, that Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians ate a feast together in 1621 after the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth Harbor that previous December. They ate deer — not turkey — and the Wampanoag were generally pretty accepting of the pilgrims who dined with them. It was many, many years later that President Abraham Lincoln decided to declare Thanksgiving, as the world knows it, as a national holiday. But, it was Lincoln who also decided to tell this "peaceful version" of the story to others during the Civil War.
What people then believed to be Thanksgiving actually took place over three nights, according to History.com. And although it sounds incredible, there were still a few questionable moments then and during later years that you shouldn't gloss over. For one, the colonists started claiming land that wasn't really theirs to begin with, and many of the original land dwellers were kept as slaves. In fact, according to Huffington Post, the term "Thanksgiving" was once credited to John Winthrop after the slaying of 700 Pequot Indians by colonists. Even during that Wampanoag venison feast, the new settlers were a bit aggressive and saw the Indians as savages, despite their willingness to help and protect. These events are pretty upsetting, which is why they are often glossed over.
In order to keep the spirit of the holiday alive without furthering the lies, here are a few tips on explaining the real history of Thanksgiving to your kids.
1. Find Some Appropriate Thanksgiving-Related Videos
There is a great History.com video that explains Thanksgiving to kids in about four minutes. Though the grisly parts are left out, it explains how the Indians helped the new settlers and how the settlers likely wouldn't have made it far without that bit of gratitude. Videos like this are great because they explain the holiday in a bit more detail, but keeps it fun for very young children. If you think it's a bit light, just wait until the end — it's obvious that it wasn't all sunshine and rainbows.
2. Teach Children About The Wampanoag Tribe
Although the Wampanoag went through quite a few crisis situations back then based on the new settlers, the best way to ease the pain and educate your child is to try and read up about the tribe today. There are also a ton of children's books about the tribe that'll make learning fun. Consider picking up the book The Children of the Morning Light: Wampanoag Tales as Told By Manitonquat or Tapenum's Day: A Wampanoag Indian Boy In Pilgrim. By showing respect to the tribe, teaching your child the true background behind Thanksgiving will be a little bit easier and much more personal. When you're done reading, you might also want to incorporate a few Wampanoag traditions into the Thanksgiving meal.
3. Consider Making A Few Foods The Wampanoag Made
One part that has remained true about the real Thanksgiving story is the fact that the Wampanoag Indians really taught the colonists how to survive on their land. Although their payback was cruel, real lessons about the day can still start in the kitchen. Create a few dishes that the Wampanoag made while softly explaining to your child how gathering together for a meal really helps bring different people together.
4. Visit The Mayflower
Although not everyone is located in Massachusetts, the Plimoth Plantation is definitely a great place to stop if you're ever in the area with your family. Open year-round, it can help your child visualize the true meaning of Thanksgiving, and provide a once-in-a-lifetime interactive experience. At the Wampanoag Homesite, they'll be able to see real Wampanoag and hear about the traditions and stories of their culture. Even better, they're open to questions. What better way to educate your child?
5. Get Your Family In On The Teaching
Discussing the history of Thanksgiving with everyone present makes it a bit more interactive and, chances are, your child will pay better attention. Try to avoid costumes that could be seen as culturally inappropriate, but definitely try to create memorable and personable characters if you decide that a reenactment would be the best way to bring history alive.
This would also be a good time to have the entire family explain what Thanksgiving means to them, and reflect on past Thanksgiving memories that they have from their own childhood. All together, your family will help educate your child about why some of the actions of the colonists were inappropriate, and how we, as people, vow to never make the same mistakes again. Even giving an annual family donation to a charity or organization that supports the Wampanoag or Pequot Indians will help redefine the day in a historically accurate, yet positive way.
Although the roots of this holiday are definitely a bit sad, educating your child, and morphing the day into a positive one that includes a lot of gratitude definitely helps.