by Chuck Larsen
This is a particularly difficult introduction to write. I have been a public schools teacher for twelve years, and I am also a historian and have written several books on American and Native American history. I also just happen to be Quebeque French, Metis, Ojibwa, and Iroquois. Because my Indian ancestors were on both sides of the struggle between the Puritans and the New England Indians and I am well versed in my cultural heritage and history both as an Anishnabeg (Algokin) and Hodenosione (Iroquois), it was felt that I could bring a unique insight to the project.
For an Indian, who is also a school teacher, Thanksgiving was never an easy holiday for me to deal with in class. I sometimes have felt like I learned too much about "the Pilgrims and the Indians." Every year I have been faced with the professional and moral dilemma of just how to be honest and informative with my children at Thanksgiving without passing on historical distortions, and racial and cultural stereotypes.
The problem is that part of what you and I learned in our own childhood about the "Pilgrims" and "Squanto" and the "First Thanksgiving" is a mixture of both history and myth. But the THEME of Thanksgiving has truth and integrity far above and beyond what we and our forebearers have made of it. Thanksgiving is a bigger concept than just the story of the founding of the Plymouth Plantation.
So what do we teach to our children? We usually pass on unquestioned what we all received in our own childhood classrooms. I have come to know both the truths and the myths about our "First Thanksgiving," and I feel we need to try to reach beyond the myths to some degree of historic truth. This text is an attempt to do this.
At this point you are probably asking, "What is the big deal about Thanksgiving and the Pilgrims?" "What does this guy mean by a mixture of truths and myth?" That is just what this introduction is all about. I propose that there may be a good deal that many of us do not know about our Thanksgiving holiday and also about the "First Thanksgiving" story. I also propose that what most of us have learned about the Pilgrims and the Indians who were at the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Plantation is only part of the truth. When you build a lesson on only half of the information, then you are not teaching the whole truth. That is why I used the word myth. So where do you start to find out more about the holiday and our modern stories about how it began?
A good place to start is with a very important book, "The Invasion of America," by Francis Jennings. It is a very authoritative text on the settlement of New England and the evolution of Indian/White relations in the New England colonies. I also recommend looking up any good text on British history. Check out the British Civil War of 1621-1642, Oliver Cromwell, and the Puritan uprising of 1653 which ended parliamentary government in England until 1660. The history of the Puritan experience in New England really should not be separated from the history of the Puritan experience in England. You should also realize that the "Pilgrims" were a sub-sect, or splinter group, of the Puritan movement. They came to America to achieve on this continent what their Puritan brethren continued to strive for in England; and when the Puritans were forced from England, they came to New England and soon absorbed the original "Pilgrims."
As the editor, I have read all the texts listed in our bibliography, and many more, in preparing this material for you. I want you to read some of these books. So let me use my editorial license to deliberately provoke you a little. When comparing the events stirred on by the Puritans in England with accounts of Puritan/Pilgrim activities in New England in the same era, several provocative things suggest themselves:
Obviously there is a lot more to the story of Indian/Puritan relations in New England than in the thanksgiving stories we heard as children. Our contemporary mix of myth and history about the "First" Thanksgiving at Plymouth developed in the 1890s and early 1900s. Our country was desperately trying to pull together its many diverse peoples into a common national identity. To many writers and educators at the end of the last century and the beginning of this one, this also meant having a common national history. This was the era of the "melting pot" theory of social progress, and public education was a major tool for social unity. It was with this in mind that the federal government declared the last Thursday in November as the legal holiday of Thanksgiving in 1898.
In consequence, what started as an inspirational bit of New England folklore, soon grew into the full-fledged American Thanksgiving we now know. It emerged complete with stereotyped Indians and stereotyped Whites, incomplete history, and a mythical significance as our "First Thanksgiving." But was it really our FIRST American Thanksgiving?
Now that I have deliberately provoked you with some new information and different opinions, please take the time to read some of the texts in our bibliography. I want to encourage you to read further and form your own opinions. There really is a TRUE Thanksgiving story of Plymouth Plantation. But I strongly suggest that there always has been a Thanksgiving story of some kind or other for as long as there have been human beings. There was also a "First" Thanksgiving in America, but it was celebrated thirty thousand years ago.(11) At some time during the New Stone Age (beginning about ten thousand years ago) Thanksgiving became associated with giving thanks to God for the harvests of the land. Thanksgiving has always been a time of people coming together, so thanks has also been offered for that gift of fellowship between us all. Every last Thursday in November we now partake in one of the OLDEST and most UNIVERSAL of human celebrations, and THERE ARE MANY THANKSGIVING STORIES TO TELL.
As for Thanksgiving week at Plymouth Plantation in 1621, the friendship was guarded and not always sincere, and the peace was very soon abused. But for three days in New England's history, peace and friendship were there.
So here is a story for your children. It is as kind and gentle a balance of historic truth and positive inspiration as its writers and this editor can make it out to be. I hope it will adequately serve its purpose both for you and your students, and I also hope this work will encourage you to look both deeper and farther, for Thanksgiving is Thanksgiving all around the world.
Tacoma Public Schools
FOOTNOTES FOR TEACHER INTRODUCTION
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