Many Meanings and our First Nations Peoples

The holiday of Thanksgiving is upon us.  Perhaps more than any other gathering, Thanksgiving, with its richly mythologized history and emphasis on the table of family and fellowship, gives teachers and students a golden opportunity to reflect on the larger, metaphorical “American table” and who is – and isn’t –  included. By asking, “Who’s missing from our table?” educators can open up a timely discussion about inclusion, diversity and welcome in America.

In discussing the story of the original Thanksgiving table, teachers can mine students’ understanding of an event that schoolchildren have always been taught was about peace and fellowship between two peoples. Of course, most historians agree that this traditional story has been highly mythologized – and neglects the painful truth about Native American genocide and assimilation. When students understand that the first Thanksgiving table was perhaps not as welcoming as they’ve been taught, they can more easily take a look at their own gathering tables, literally and metaphorically. And they can begin to consider who may or may not feel included at those tables.

  • Begin by asking students what they know about the first Thanksgiving. You’re likely to hear about the Pilgrims’ black clothes and shoe buckles, about the Indians contribution of corn, how the two groups came together peacefully to share a meal, and so on..
  • You can then explain to them how much of this story is untrue. For example, we know that these Puritan Pilgrims would not have worn black on a weekday. We know that many Native Americans were massacred by Americans in that period of time. For many students, this will be an entirely new way to look at a traditional American story — and it may get them thinking about why they’ve only heard the story from one perspective..
  • Next, organize students into small groups where they can focus on telling their own stories. Pose the question, “Was there a time in your life where you and your family felt included or excluded as an American? Or maybe there was a time you included or excluded someone else?”.
  • In closing, have students report on their stories of inclusion and exclusion by stating ways in which they were disappointed by their country, and the ways in which they’re proud and hopeful about their country..

Reflecting on and telling our own American stories in the classroom is one way we can “open up” the American table.  As we prepare to celebrate one of the most beloved holidays of our country, it’s crucial that we ask ourselves who s missing from any of the tables at which we sit and then make sure  that we reach out to and include those folks. Only when we pay attention to who is missing from our table can we act to make sure all are welcome there.

Get free lesson plans and short videos highlighting Native American Month and Thanksgiving.