Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Thinking About Thanksgiving

What does this cover say, in a Thanksgiving display?
In many libraries, because of space, the "holiday" books are stored in the back and brought out for each holiday, put on display in a place people can easily find them.  Whether intentionally or not, the way we display these supports the marketing of holidays, and October through December becomes an almost relentless push of Halloween, Day of the Dead, Thanksgiving, and Hannukah-Kwanzaa-Christmas displays in many libraries.  With the exception of Christmas, for which I think there are officially enough books published to saturate the demand, these displays in many libraries are fully depleted for each holiday, and when the books are returned are likely stored again, without weeding.  So, when was the last time you really looked at your Thanksgiving books?

The story of  Thanksgiving that is commonly mythologized on school stages, with "Pilgrims" and "Indians" having a friendly potluck, is just that: mythology.  Oyate shares its resource "Deconstructing the Myths of the First Thanksgiving" on its website.   They credit the research done by Margaret M. Bruchac in collaboration with the Wampanoag Indian Program at the Plymouth Plantation, which also underpins her book co-authored with Catherine O'Neill Grace, 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving.  Please take a moment to read through one of these resources, now, if you haven't before, as me summarizing the myths for you here would miss the point.  The upshot is that Thanksgiving is not a happy time for everyone, it didn't happen the way it does in the school play, and it is a time of mourning for many First Nations/Native people.

Many Thanksgiving books on the market now attempt to be factually correct, yet still walk a strange line...following the traditional "First Thanksgiving" narrative thread from the White colonists' perspective, and just shifting the language so as not to be caught in an all-out lie.   Robert Merrill Bartlett's The Story of Thanksgiving was revised in 2001, the same year 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving came out, yet still traces and holds up the myth of the first Thanksgiving: "..two men name Squanto and Samoset appeared and made friends..."  "the Pilgrims wanted to celebrate their harvest...they held their first thanksgiving. They invited the Wampanoags to join them" ... "Today Thanksgiving is a happy time." (This book appears to be now, thankfully, out of print.)

Other books don't even try, and people still ask for books like Arthur's Thanksgiving, where kids dress up as Pilgrims and Indians and put on a play...because that's what some of us remember doing at Thanksgiving and Thanksgiving is about "tradition."  I'm doubtful though, that children appreciate being sold a lie. As 5th grader Taylor M. wrote to Debbie Reese, after reading the  Suppressed speech of Wamsutta (Frank B.) James:

I thought about all the way back to Kindergarten, right before Thanksgiving break we would always get these coloring worksheets of the happy little Pilgrims and Indians giving each other things. Up until now, I didn’t really realize that that’s not how it happened. Showing the happy little cartoon Indian was a lie. I think Kindergarteners and young children should know what actually happened, not with gruesome details, but they should know more of the truth. 

How much truth does your Thanksgiving collection tell? When is the last time you evaluated each book for accuracy? Sadly, I have found I can't reliably trust professional reviews to evaluate Thanksgiving books, or most children's books with First Nations/Native content; I depend on the resources from Oyate and Debbie Reese's blog to help me parse the presentation, and ask questions when I can't tell for sure myself.   I wish more reviewers would do this, and I challenge you to try it, this month.  I can pretty much promise you librarians there is something in your Thanksgiving collection that is worth weeding, so this is good and easy practice.

It is possible to have broader collections that allow for the many ways in which people approach this holiday, and tomorrow you will hear from Angie about how to develop your Thanksgiving display after your weeding.   To get you started:

You can buy Oyate's full resource "Thanksgiving: A Native Perspective" as a stand alone, or within their book "A Broken Flute," which includes many helpful articles and reviews of books you probably have in your library, but may never have really looked at through a First Nations/Native perspective.  If this is the first time you are checking out Oyate, make sure to explore everything in their "Resources" section.

At American Indians in Children's Literature, Debbie Reese gathers links to her "Posts About Thanksgiving" on the left sidebar, just scroll down.

And while we're on the topic of marketing holidays, check out Aya De Leon's blog post "Queridos Gringos" and take a look at your Day of the Dead materials before they go back into storage.


Sam Bloom said...

I'm an (almost) 40-year old man and I can't believe I just learned the truth about my former favorite holiday. Wow. Thanks Nina, for opening my eyes. I've only looked through the first link you shared, but I expect this all will keep me busy for the next few days.

Sarah said...

Great post. My student recently made a Native books display using what she learned in my classes and Debbie's blog: https://twitter.com/RMSstrauss/status/661655474597588992

Monica Edinger said...

For decades, I've been teaching an in-depth unit on the Mayflower passengers in the spring, as the final unit of our year-long study of immigration. We use a lot of primary sources and Plimoth Plantation and their Wampanoag program have been very helpful. I'd be curious what you all thought of their Thanksgiving Interactive: You are the Historian (http://www.plimoth.org/learn/MRL/interact/thanksgiving-interactive-you-are-historian)

I'm also curious about Ric Burn's forthcoming film on the Pilgrims being shown on many PBS stations on or around Thanksgiving: http://www.wmht.org/blogs/american-experience/american-experience-the-pilgrims/

Debbie Reese said...

Thanks for this post! Thanksgiving is one of the most difficult topics for Native people. A Native mother in California asked her daughter's teacher to reconsider the reenactment. It blew up into a national media story that was horrendous for the Native family and the school principal, too. Here's one of the stories:


Debbie Reese said...

And here's another (sorry--meant to put them all in one post but hit that button too soon):


And one year later... Michelle and her family had left the school. Easy to see why, given what they went through.

K T Horning said...

Thanks for the links, Monica and Debbie.

Monica, I'm curious if you students come to 4th grade with preconceived notions about the first Thanksgiving. At what age do children learn the myth?

In one of the stories Debbie posted, a parent was quoted as saying: "We all grew up with this and we're not willing to give it up," Why do you think that is? Why is it so hard for people to let go of this dressing up as pilgrims and Indians thing?

Nanette said...

Debbie Reese's site is an amazing resource on this and many other topics--I've been getting lost in the links, just reading piece after piece and learning so much. Things I thought maybe I knew or had awareness of but it turns out I didn't--or, rather, that even some "de-mythilizing" (yeah, yeah spell check, not a word) I thought I'd done turned out to be just a different myth.

I think my most important lesson in how vital it is to deconstruct the myths around Native Americans came when I was participating in a community blog. The focus was primarily politics, but people wrote about whatever they wanted.

One day one of the Native American bloggers wrote a piece about a rapidly disappearing tribe--not only losing the language and the culture, but registered members were simply dying off or disappearing (I can't remember the exact circumstances, but that was the gist.)

Most commenters commiserated, or wondered what they could do to help, but there was one commenter--and ordinarily she was just the nicest person. Everyone loved her, she always had a kind word for all, she loved spirituality, Native American spirituality in particular, loved genealogy (always talking about her German roots) and she tried to put her life's lessons into practice--or so it seemed.

On this occasion, though, her comment on the story went something like...

"But--does this even matter? As long as WE are around to carry on the spiritual traditions, does it matter if the actual people disappear?"

Needless to say, I was horrified. And irate--and not being the type to keep quiet in situations like this, I confronted her on her pretty much genocidal views, but she simply did not understand what she said that was wrong. To her, Native Americans existed (if they existed at all) to pass down lessons they had learned so that others might live their lives in their stead. Since "keeping the peace" and "being nice" was the original poster calmed things down (and hopefully gave her a talking to privately) but the impression never left me of how very dangerous and destructive all this mythology surrounding Native issues--Native LIVES-is. And I had to wonder how many other people think like she did, because of being fed the myths instead of the realities of Native Americans (besides also just being awful people, no matter how sweet.)

To some of even the nicest, most seemingly aware people, Native Americans are nothing but a story, props in Thanksgiving plays, lessons, spiritual guides and "brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers" without actually being considered real, living people with everyday lives, loves, challenges and triumphs.

So, yes, I cosign this post and hope librarians, teachers and others go over their inventory and interrogate the myths and do what they can to ensure that people have access to truth. It's important.

Nina Lindsay said...

KT, I imagine that for many people the mythologized "traditional" Thanksgiving is so inextricably tied into genuine good feelings about family tradition and this time of year that it is hard to let go of any of it without feeling like the whole thing is at stake. I think it's even harder when the holiday industry feeds this stuff to us... so Thanksgiving is just plastered with turkeys and pilgrims.

Monica Edinger said...

KT, they do tend to come with the typical narrative. In fact, I always start by asking them what they know about the story. We make a list and then return at the end to see what they can correct about their learning.

I agree, Nina, that the mythology is tangled deeply into family tradition and good feeling. Many will say this is their favorite holiday of the year, trumping religious ones.

Debbie Reese said...

It is also tangled up with dressing up like Indians beyond Thanksgiving reenactments. I hope dressing like Indians will decrease over time, with a growing awareness that Native peoples are not monolithic.

Yesterday, Betsy Bird wrote about Ladybug Girl, saying that the illustration of Ladybug Girl in a headdress is gone from the endpapers. I wish, as Betsy noted, that there was a note in the book about that change.

Not having it is a missed opportunity for expanding what kids, parents, and teachers know about problems with stereotyping. With that information, they can examine the many spaces--some of them sanctioned by civic organizations--where that sort of thing occurs. I'm thinking in particular of the Boy Scouts Order of the Arrow, and the Y Indian programs that are continuing their activities (contrary to the wishes of the national headquarters), and so on.

Eric Carpenter said...

For those of you not working in the elementary school setting, I thought you'd like to see the troubling animated videos that a huge number of elementary age kids will watch with their class on the last day of school before the thanksgiving break. (approximately 20% of schools in the US subscribe to brianpop)
K-3 version: https://jr.brainpop.com/socialstudies/holidays/thanksgiving/
3-6 version: https://www.brainpop.com/socialstudies/culture/thanksgiving/

K T Horning said...

Debbie, the changes we see with Ladybug Girl and a bit earlier with Amazing Grace may be hopeful signs that publishers are finally getting it that "playing Indian" is a problem.

Sharon said...

Hey RWW and Debbie! I'm going to be on a local radio program the Tuesday before Thanksgiving talking about diverse books. May I share this link on the station's website?

Debbie Reese said...

Sharon--anything on my site can be shared. And if this is a call-in show, I wish you the very best! Callers can be belligerent or resistant, as Ami found (see her comment/link in Angie's post about books to read in November.)

Unknown said...

This year, I arranged our Thanksgiving book display and Native American Heritage Month display side-by-side. Next step is a hard weed on the TG books and an order for multiple copies of titles that don't perpetuate the mythological TG story. Thank you for posting info and resources to encourage and support such efforts!

rockinlibrarian said...

Oh good! I just weeded the Thanksgiving collection and bought some more to fill in the gaps, including that 1621 book, which I ASSUMED would give a more accurate view of events than a lot of the stuff I weeded, but with all the good-intentions-turned-failures out there I didn't know for sure. I'm glad it does what I hoped it does.

I haven't caught up with my blog reading to see the follow-up post yet, but it always stuck me as strange how stuck people are on the "pilgrims and indians" concept of Thanksgiving, both in how many people want to hold onto the "tradition" and how many people find the very thought of Thanksgiving offensive because of it. Lots of other cultures have Thanksgiving feast days that aren't a bit related to some mythical potluck. The point of Thanksgiving is right there in the title: THANKS GIVING. Why can't more people focus on what a thanksgiving feast is actually about than a ridiculous fake history story?

Unknown said...

I just started working in the K-3 elementary school setting as a literacy tutor of Americorps. The principal of my school sent out a reminder regarding Thanksgiving, with links to Native American sources of information, new (appropriate) children's books, and this blog.
Thank you, everyone who continues informing, learning, and sharing.