Thanksgiving is a time to remember our country’s beginnings and to celebrate our rich history of welcoming the stranger. But in many ways, our idea of the original Thanksgiving table—a table we want to believe was about peace and fellowship between two peoples—is a myth.
Many teachers struggle in the classroom at this time of year because of the myths surrounding the original Thanksgiving story, settlers’ treatment of indigenous peoples, and the failure of our nation to welcome consistently the stranger and the newcomer. How can we teach the truth in our classrooms while still celebrating this national holiday?
The educators at Race Bridges for Schools, a nonprofit initiative helping schools explore diversity and race relations in the classroom, encourage teachers and students to study the true history of Native Americans in the U.S., to consider our country’s history of welcoming or shunning strangers, and to look at our own tables, literally and metaphorically, and who might not feel included at those tables. They suggest classroom activities such as:
- Reading or listening to short stories from different groups of people about times they felt welcomed and times they did not feel welcomed to America’s table..
- Exposing students to true stories from the Native American perspective. Storytellers such as Dovie Thomason and Gene Tagaban share their personal experiences growing up as First Nations People. These true stories cover topics as diverse as the Indian boarding schools and the search for identity and dignity among the indigenous peoples in Alaska. Stories suchas these expose students to historical events that aren’t taught in most schools, and touch on themes of cultural identity, inclusion and exclusion, and oppression..
- Sharing personal stories. Have students share their own brief stories about a time when they or their family were or were not welcomed, or a time when they did or did not welcome another..
Whether you simply engage in classroom discussion or facilitate small-group presentations, exercises like this enable your students to explore more fully the history and experience of Native Americans. As we prepare for Thanksgiving, that most American of holidays, lessons such as these will help students consider who’s been missing from the “American table” and how they can literally and metaphorically make a difference.
America champions the ideals of equality, fairness, and welcoming the stranger to our table. Thanksgiving is a holiday that especially challenges us to examine whether or not we are living up to our ideals. For your students, they can ask these questions in any of their activities, whether at a club or sport or student council, at their place of worship, later when they look at colleges, and, throughout their adult lives.