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How educators and parents are talking with kids about the real story of Thanksgiving

The National Day of Mourning, an annual commemoration on Thanksgiving Day, has taken place in Plymouth since 1970. Native Americans throughout New England gather to protest.
The National Day of Mourning, an annual commemoration on Thanksgiving Day, has taken place in Plymouth since 1970. Native Americans throughout New England gather to protest.Byun, Yoon S. Globe Staff

Thanksgiving has always been implicated in national myth-making, ever since President Abraham Lincoln set aside the last Thursday in November 1863 to celebrate a feast that happened more than 200 years earlier. The country was in the middle of a ferocious civil war, and the president needed a better story to tell.

This year, fueled by a national outcry over racial injustice and building on decades of work by indigenous educators, teachers and parents across New England are aiming to reframe that story once again, focusing on the people who lived here long before the Europeans arrived. Drawing on Facebook conversations, apps created by indigenous-led organizations, and new history books, educators are trying to teach kids honestly about the conflict and violence rarely mentioned in cheery tales of the first Thanksgiving.

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They say kids both want and need to know what really happened.

“Most people know almost nothing about the truth,” said Claudia Fox Tree, a public school teacher in Lincoln and an educator with the Massachusetts Center for Native American Awareness. “That’s increasingly hugely problematic. If you don’t understand the history, you can’t understand current issues.”

In presentations to teachers and students, Fox Tree unpacks images that are associated with the first Thanksgiving to show what is and isn’t accurate — yes, there was a gathering; no, Native Americans were probably not served by colonists, since they provided the food.

But Fox Tree emphasized that indigenous history can’t be relegated solely to November: it should be part of every subject, all year, for all ages. Kids should be taught the history of the land we live on, she said, not just the much shorter history of the United States.

Across the state, many educators are following Fox Tree’s lead. Every public school in Massachusetts is getting copies of a new state history book co-written by Linda Coombs, a member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe. The history documented in the book begins long before the colonists arrive.

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“People are hungry for being able to talk about this without mythologizing it,” said Michele Pecoraro, executive director of Plymouth 400, a nonprofit commemorating the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower landing, which helped produce the book.

Among the many myths that must be corrected: The Pilgrims were the first Europeans to land in New England (Europeans had in fact been visiting New England for hundreds of years); the Pilgrims arrived primarily seeking religious freedom (they also wanted to make money and maintain their English identity); the Wampanoags and Pilgrims had a friendly feast together (the Wampanoags were not initially invited to the 1621 feast, but showed up to investigate after the colonists shot guns into the air in celebration; the Wampanoags had feared the colonists were initiating an attack.)

Part of reframing the narrative, indigenous educators said, is also teaching young people that Native Americans are very much still here, engaged in struggles against environmental devastation and protesting police brutality with the Black Lives Matter movement, for example.

When Kitty Hendricks-Miller, the Indian Education coordinator for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, visits classrooms, she tends to show up in a T-shirt, an easy way of demonstrating that Native Americans are part of the modern world.

“Basically that you could be sitting on a bus next to a Native American and you may not know it. That we live in square houses, that we grocery shop, that we wear jeans,” Hendricks-Miller said. She wants kids to know that the story of Native Americans continues: the genocide of native people did not succeed.

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Even very young children are learning more about the context of the first Thanksgiving.

Mary Ellen Carideo-Cobbs, a principal in Somerville, was dismayed that her 6-year-old was bringing home worksheets from his school showing Native Americans in headdresses, happily breaking bread. She tried to complicate that narrative.

" ‘Can you imagine? This is your home. You love your home. And then someone says, ‘No, this is my home, and you need to play by my rules,’ " Cobbs explained to her son. He understood right away.

" ‘Well, that’s not fair, mom,’ " she recalled him saying.

In Lexington, María-Verónica Barnes teaches her middle school-age students about the National Day of Mourning, an annual commemoration that has taken place in Plymouth since 1970. The kids learn about Frank James, a member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe, who was invited to give a speech on the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrim landing; his speech was suppressed when state officials deemed it too extreme. Students at the Lexington Montessori School will present an excerpt from that speech.

Many parents were taught inaccurate histories themselves, and they’re learning a fuller story even as they teach their children.

The Parents Diversity Council in Bedford, a volunteer group made up of parents whose children attend schools in the town, convened a book club to read “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People,” with the hope that parents could learn and share with their children.

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Kelly Korenak, the secretary of the council, read the book and learned about land acknowledgement, a statement of who lived on the land and who was displaced from it. She also learned about an app called “Native Land,” which allows people to look up historic and present-day indigenous territories. When they arrive in a new place, Korenak said, her 7-year-old is eager to open it.

“Mom, where are we?” he asks her. “Whose land is this?”


Zoe Greenberg can be reached at zoe.greenberg@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @zoegberg.