Thanksgiving Mourning

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Objectives: 

Activities will help students:

  • Examine how diverse groups can perceive shared experiences differently
  • Review commentary from indigenous writers about Thanksgiving
  • Make inferences and draw conclusions based on written information
  • Write letters of thanks

Essential Questions: 

  • How and why do we celebrate Thanksgiving?
  • What can we learn from diverse groups shared experiences?
  • What is the story of Thanksgiving from a Native American perspective?
  • What can we learn from the past and the present?

Materials Needed: 

Framework 
Much of the Thanksgiving story focuses on a peaceful, cross-cultural exchange between the "Pilgrims and Indians." While it's true that the Wampanoag and the Planters shared in a harvest celebration, within fifty years, the Wampanoag would no longer be a free people. For some Native Americans, Thanksgiving is no cause for celebration, but rather serves as a reminder of colonization's devastating impact on indigenous peoples.

In this activity, students will review two written works by Native American authors. The first -- a speech written by Wamsutta James in 1970 -- gave birth to the National Day of Mourning, which is observed on Thanksgiving by some indigenous people. To them, Thanksgiving is "a reminder of the genocide of millions of their people, the theft of their lands, and the relentless assault on their culture." The Day of Mourning, on the other hand, is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection, as well as a protest of the racism and oppression that Native Americans continue to experience.

The second document is an essay by Jacqueline Keeler, a member of the Dineh Nation and the Yankton Dakota Sioux; she works with the American Indian Child Resource Center in Oakland, Calif. Unlike some of her Native peers, Keeler celebrates Thanksgiving. And unlike most non-Native Americans, she does so through a distinctly indigenous lens.

Activities

1. Get together with a partner. While one of you describes what you know about the origin of the Thanksgiving holiday, the other one writes down key words and images from your description. (Note: If necessary, draw out elements of the origin story that relate to Native Americans.) Where did you learn these stories? What ideas or values do you think of when you celebrate Thanksgiving? (Note: Examples students may give: thanks, charity, generosity, being good neighbors.)

2. (Note: Share information from the Framework section and pass out copies of readings.) With your same partner, one of you read, The Suppressed Speech of Wamsutta James, and the other reads, Thanksgiving: A Native American View. After you finished reading, take turns summarizing what you read to each other.

3. As a class, discuss:

  • Reflect back on the values of Thanksgiving you described at the start of the activity. Did the Pilgrims uphold these values in their treatment toward the Indians? Why?
  • What was new to you in the authors' descriptions of the first Thanksgiving? Why do you think these details are sometimes omitted from popular culture's take on Thanksgiving?
  • Why does Keeler refer to Native Americans as a "very select group of survivors"? Is her characterization consistent with James's perception? Why?
  • Wamsutta James' speech inspired some Native Americans to boycott Thanksgiving and instead observe a National Day of Mourning. Keeler takes a slightly different approach. Which approach makes the most sense to you? Why?
  • Keeler sees present-day Thanksgiving celebrations as a tool for healing. What are ways this can happen? Does the Day of Mourning advance or hinder healing? Why?
  • In what ways are James's and Keeler's perspectives gifts to our nation?

4. To wrap up, write journal entries about whether you have a new view of Thanksgiving. Identify specific things you learned from either James or Keeler and explain how this new knowledge affects your understanding of Thanksgiving.