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Thanksgiving: Elementary school librarian teaches what the textbooks don't

Noelle E. C. Evans / WXXI News
Rochester School 8 librarian Amerique Wilson and her fifth-grade class pose after a lesson looking at different perspectives on the first Thanksgiving.

If you look at a public school textbook, chances are you won't see much written from Native American perspectives. As Thanksgiving approaches, librarian Amerique Wilson at Roberto Clemente Elementary School 8 in the Rochester City School District attempts to address that.

Instead of teaching Thanksgiving from a textbook, she's working from a speech written by the late Wamsutta Frank B. James, a Wampanoag Native American activist.

In 1970, James was asked to give a speech at a 350th anniversary celebration of the Pilgrims' arrival to North America. This is part of what he wrote: 

“The Pilgrims had hardly explored the shores of Cape Cod for four days before they had robbed the graves of my ancestors and stole their corn, wheat, and beans."

But he wasn't allowed to give that speech. Organizers gave him a prepared statement to read instead, but he refused to participate at all.

That same year James' speech was suppressed, he and the United American Indians of New England organized the first National Day of Mourning on Thanksgiving Day to grieve the atrocities endured by Native American people.

Typically, students in U.S. public schools never learn about James or the Day of Mourning in their textbooks. Stephen LaMorte, the City School District's executive director of social studies, says he's aware of the limitations of the textbooks and provides teachers with resources to supplement lesson plans.

Peter Jemison of the Seneca Nation is the site manager at Ganondagan State Historic Site. He says that the textbooks oversimplify and omit historical record.

"If you look at them -- and I have looked at them; I've looked at the ones that the Rochester city schools are using -- it is American mythology. You know? It is filled with what I call American mythology," he says.

Back in the classroom, Wilson is trying to change that. She asks the fifth-grade students to share what they know of the first Thanksgiving between settlers and the Wampanoag people. 

"I heard this song and it said that the Pilgrims sailed the Mayflower and they crashed at Plymouth Rock," one student, Thomas McMillon, says. "And they built houses and they built crops and then they found out that some Indians lived there. And so I believe they helped them out and they made a feast to welcome them into their world. So then they became friends."

Wilson says that these are the kinds of misconceptions she's aiming to address.

"Those images that we were bombarded with through movies and cartoons and all those stereotypes, that's what we grow up knowing because that’s what we grow up seeing,” she says.

For Wilson, she says she didn't learn about Native American history until college, and that she believes it's her duty to educate her students based on facts, not myth.

Credit Noelle E. C. Evans
A page from the Rochester City School District fourth-grade textbook, shared by Stephen LaMorte, executive director of social studies and community service learning.

“The textbooks don't always want to share all sides, you know? And so it is, it's very important that that information be exposed," she says. "And I think I would be remiss if I knew something and I didn't share it with my kids."

Wilson reads part of James' speech to her students, but not all of it; they run out of time. Instead, she asks students to reflect on what they have learned about the first Thanksgiving.

"We think of it as just a day of love and eat and stuff like that, but no. What really happened, the stuff back then was horrible stuff, not love and stuff," one student, Averi Spencer says.

"It’s really sad that they had power and they got to have food and they got to have shelter, but then people took it away. So I would just like to thank the people for trying their best to stay alive," says McMillon.

Jemison, who works with various schools that visit Ganondagan, says that while more is being done now to bring Native American consciousness to the forefront, it is not enough.

"The challenge is that versus one day when people think, you know, we’re going to acknowledge Native Americans, we wish a greater effort was made within the educational system to actually educate people about who are the original people who lived here and who are still present within our territories," Jemison says.

Noelle E. C. Evans is an education reporter/producer with a background in documentary filmmaking and education.