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Thanksgiving: A Time For Food, Family And Myths

Sean Sandefur

This piece originally aired Nov. 26, 2014.

Families across the country all have different traditions for Thanksgiving. It could be a special recipe for cranberry sauce or an honorary turkey carver.

In many schools, you can also count on hearing the story of the First Thanksgiving—a harvest celebration shared by pilgrims and native populations nearly 400 years ago. KMUW’s Sean Sandefur looks at the history of this holiday and has this report.

T Is For Turkey

“Thanksgiving is a holiday of giving thanks,” says librarian Holly Morgan.

She's surrounded by a dozen or so kindergartners at Peterson Elementary, a Wichita grade school. She reads from a big, colorful book about Thanksgiving. The story focuses mostly on contemporary traditions, but it also includes some history.

“Here are some other pictures of harvest celebrations from a long time ago,” she says.

Credit Sean Sandefur
A series of books about American Indian tribes lines the top of bookshelves at Peterson Elementary

When it comes to Thanksgiving, lessons here are a bit different from what you may remember from grade school. Morgan works with students from kindergarten to fifth grade. For younger students, it’s still pretty basic—T is for turkey, A is for apple—but by third and fourth grade, they start myth busting.

“We talk about the relationship between the Indians and the pilgrims," she says. "They're made out to look like they're best friends, and even though eventually at that gathering, they did get along. There's some argument going on as to whether (Wampanoag Indians) were truly invited or whether they just heard muskets being shot and then happened upon their celebration.”

Morgan says her students are sometimes stunned by what they learn. They’ve heard different variations of stories from television, movies and even their families.

“It's all about perspective," she says. "The Thanksgiving story from our perspective is very different from how the Wampanoag Indians might have experienced it. I think that's really important and that's what they have to learn and carry into middle school and high school and then into college, is this perspective of who's telling the story.”

The History Of Thanksgiving

So, what is the history of Thanksgiving?

“The first wave of pilgrims has a really tough time, they were unprepared for how incredibly cold the winter would be in Massachusetts, and half the colonists actually died that first winter of 1620,” says Robert Owens, a professor of early American history at Wichita State University.

Credit Sean Sandefur
Robert Owens, American history professor at Wichita State University

A peaceful relationship would be forged with a group of Wampanoag Indians. The natives taught the pilgrims to work the unforgiving New England soil and to plant crops. There was even a harvest celebration in the fall of 1621, which is now known as the first Thanksgiving.

But, this peaceful relationship wouldn’t last. Massasoit, the leader of the Wampanoag Indians who first provided a helping hand to the pilgrims, dies around 1661.

“By the next generation, things have really deteriorated between New Englanders and the Native Americans," Owens says. "A guy named Metacom, whom the English call King Phillip is going to lead a war to wipe the puritans out of New England.”

Owens says this becomes known as King Phillip’s War. Colonists, whose populations have skyrocketed as more and more English arrive, are victorious. Metacom, who is only one generation removed from the first Thanksgiving, is gruesomely executed. From there, colonies grow and grow.

“The English kept wanting more land," Owens says. "It's not just taking farmland away from Native Americans, but also hunting territory, which is crucial to them, not just for meat, but for animal hides, as the fur trade becomes more and more important.”

These English colonies would continue their tradition of harvest celebrations through America's independence and the creation of the union. Owens says it’s not until the Civil War that President Abraham Lincoln calls for a national day of thanks--an attempt to unify the war-torn country. Over the years, the harvest aspect is lost as fewer and fewer Americans farm. But imagery of the American Indian remains.

Rising Above The Stereotypes

“In the year 1621, the pilgrims held their first thanksgiving feast. They invited the great Indian chief Massasoit, who brought 90 of his brave Indians and a great abundance of food.” - Linus van Pelt.

The story of the First Thanksgiving is retold year after year, including a version with Charlie Brown. In many schools, children still wear paper feathers and don face paint. For some American Indians, these stereotypes, and the omission of what happened after that harvest festival in 1621, is troubling.

Credit Sean Sandefur
From left, Robert Marley, Cherokee, Sandra Hulsey, Pasqua Yaqui, and Crystal Flannery-Bachicha, Tohono O’Ddham. The three stand in front of an exhibit at the Mid-America All Indian Center

Crystal Flannery-Bachicha is the educational coordinator at the Mid-America All Indian Center. She’s also a member of the Tohono O’Ddham Nation.

“I got a call from a parent who wanted to know how to approach her child's preschool teacher," she says. "(The parent) was offended even though she was not native, that they made students dress up in brown paper bags and had fake headdresses on.”

Flannery-Bachicha sits beside Sandra Hulsey, a member of the PasquaYaqui Nation, and Robert Marley, who is Cherokee. All three are members of the Mid-America All Indian Center in Wichita, and all three say they were brought up celebrating Thanksgiving like most people, eating food and giving thanks for being around family. 

Credit Sean Sandefur
A display of feathers at the Mid-America All Indian Center in Wichita

While school plays that feature headdresses and face paint might seem harmless, Robert Marley says they reinforce a simplified view of American Indians. There are 566 tribes recognized by the United States, and Marley says each one has its own culture and traditions.

Sandra Hulsey says she fought these stereotypes when she was younger, and has taught her granddaughter to do so too.

“When she went to school, they did that program with the brown paper bag and the pilgrims, headdress for the natives," Hulsey says. "They told her she had to be a pilgrim and she flatly refused, she threw a fit."

"My granddaughter is blonde, but just because we don't look (like Native Americans), you can't tell us we're not. My granddaughter is Native American and she's proud to be.”

Robert Marley says Thanksgiving is just the beginning. Discussions over the use of American Indian-themed mascots, namely the Redskins, which is used at a school here in Wichita, are derogatory in his eyes. He was an educator for most of his life and says American Indians need to be more of a focus in schools.

“I've been on textbook committees where we're left out, we're just one page," he says. "I want us to be recognized as people, not as an object or a costume.”  

Flannery-Bachicha, who is the education coordinator for The Mid-America All Indian Center, says much of the education can start right here in their museum. They just held a Share Our Food event, which brought traditional dishes from several different tribes. The museum also hosts field trips for local schools, where students can learn American history through the eyes of its native people.

At Peterson Elementary, bookshelves are lined with stories about the Choctaw, the Pawnee and the Iroquois nations. Holly Morgan says these can lay the groundwork for more in-depth discovery.