Sanitizing “Indians” in America’s Thanksgiving Story

Sierra Adare-Tasiwoopa ápi & Melissa Adams-Campbell. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education. Volume 29, Issue 5. 2016.

Children’s Thanksgiving Day picture books offer a unique opportunity for educators to deconstruct the role of “Indians” in what McClennen (2008) calls the “myth of America” (p. 169). In this myth, “Indians” become “obstacles to progress or incidental to the entire course of American history” (Hirschfelder, 1982, p. xi) with early encounters between Eurowesterners and the Indigenous population portrayed as benign and friendly. Children’s books about the Thanksgiving holiday offer a superlative example of America’s supposedly innocent interactions with “Indians.” While Thanksgiving stories represent only one example of the many problematic instances of children’s stories concerning Indigenous peoples of the Americas, the “first Thanksgiving” story represents the initial, and too often only, encounter school children of all ethnic and racial backgrounds have with Indigenous peoples. Because prejudicial encounters with Thanksgiving Day picture books, reinforced by history textbooks and annual celebrations, create detrimental and lasting impressions, we urge educators to use Thanksgiving stories to teach students theoretical frameworks and evaluative strategies that they might then apply to other problematic representations of Indigenous peoples.

In this essay, we describe how representations of “Indians” in children’s Thanksgiving books are often used to promote a Manifest Destiny ideology, we correct basic “facts” about the “first” Thanksgiving, and we urge educators to employ decolonizing and indigenizing pedagogical strategies when teaching about Thanksgiving in order to better explain America’s historical relation to “Indians” in their classrooms. Following Fanon (2005), we understand decolonization as a systematic approach to understanding the political, economic, social, material, and psychological legacies of colonialism on the colonized, including American “Indians” in the USA who continue to experience conditions of internal colonialism. Similarly to Tuhiwai Smith (1999), whose work we build on here, we believe that the process of decolonizing is not enough: “Taking apart the story, revealing underlying texts, and giving voice to things that are often known intuitively does not help people improve their current conditions” (p. 3). We pair a strategy of decolonizing the Thanksgiving story with its necessary partners, advancing the indigenizing of Thanksgiving picture books and the pedagogy of Thanksgiving, in order to promote a sense of historical accuracy, genuine multiculturalism, and honor for Indigenous identities, experiences, and perspectives. As we explain in more detail below, indigenizing representations of Thanksgiving is not simply about recognizing what is wrong with current publications and curriculum, although this is certainly an important first step; as Brayboy (2005) and Grande (2004) argue, indigenizing is about legitimizing contemporary Indigenous peoples tellings and teachings of this iconic history. For Indigenous peoples, there is something distinct from the “myth of America” at stake in these accounts. Advancing the indigenizing of Thanksgiving picture books and pedagogy entails recognizing the institutional barriers that prevent Indigenous perspectives from circulating more widely and supporting institutional change.

Designed to entertain, children’s books also educate by exposing young people to diverse cultures and experiences. However, dating back to the early 1700s, American children’s literature promotes Eurowestern worldviews and societal norms, while sanitizing or erasing ethnic diversity. This is especially evident in depictions of Indigenous peoples where, as noted by Slapin (1992), the overwhelming majority of children’s books with Indigenous themes are written by non-Indigenous authors. Recently, scholars and educators have framed the critical discourse concerning “Indian” depictions in children’s literature in terms of cultural ethnocentrism that devalues Indigenous peoples, cultures, and contributions to history, while championing the United States’ colonizer master narrative that implicitly promotes a uniform mythical national history through a Manifest Destiny mentality. (Hirschfelder, 1982; Kuipers, 1991; MacCann,1998; Reese, 2001; Seale & Slapin, 1992, 2005).

Sadly, as Welch (2009) contends, one-sided Thanksgiving stories generally provide young children’s first and, often, only exposure to Indigenous peoples in North America. Baker (2009) argues that the story of the iconic “First Thanksgiving” promoted in classrooms across the USA since 1890 as a method to Americanize immigrant children and their parents establishes a uniquely American creation story that relegates Indigenous peoples to the role of helpful sidekicks. In order for American “Indians” to regain a respectful and more accurate role in this story, students and teachers need to indigenize the myth of the “First Thanksgiving.” One of the simplest strategies for indigenizing Thanksgiving is to rethink the traditional emphasis on “first.” Indigenous peoples have incorporated concepts of thanksgiving as part of ceremonies and gatherings and as part of the peoples’ Original Instructions handed down since the creation experience; these traditions should not be confused with European feasting celebrations. Indigenous thanksgiving ceremonies were being practiced long before the arrival of Europeans and they continue to be practiced today (Haudenosaunee Environmental Task Force, 2006; Nelson, 2008). Emphasizing this continuing practice is a starting point for correcting what Taylor and Patterson (2000) identify as educators’ tendency to promote a history in which Indigenous peoples appear exclusively in the past, endorsing a vanished race stereotype in order to glorify American colonization.

In examining ways to decolonize and indigenize Thanksgiving, first, this essay will define the American master narrative in the context of children’s literature and then locate master narrative discourse in America’s telling of the “First Thanksgiving” story. From there, it will examine ways in which select Indigenous and non-Indigenous authors and illustrators either uphold the master narrative of America’s creation or seek to counter it. Finally, it will explore strategies for decolonizing and indigenizing the Thanksgiving story inside the classroom to transform it in keeping with Indigenous ways of knowing. This will be followed by conclusions.

America’s Master Narrative and the “First Thanksgiving” Story for Children

As illustrated in the retelling of the “First Thanksgiving Day” (Keating, 2004, p. 95), children’s literature depicting Indigenous peoples and cultures most often champions the United States’ colonizer master narrative. McClennen (2008) defines the master narrative as a Eurocentric-dominated discourse that promotes a “myth of America” in which “a mythical national history that was consistently uniform” erases diversity, rather than “elucidate[es] its actual material reality” (p. 169). MacCann (2005) and Ulanowicz (2009) agree that America’s master narrative privileges white, Eurocentric notions about culture and a Manifest Destiny mentality.

Discussing the American master narrative in the context of children’s literature, scholars, literary critics, and educators such as MacCann (1998), Bradford (2007), and Gonzales (1992) characterize it as the story Americans have been telling themselves and the rest of the world as a way of legitimizing their colonizing actions. In this epic tale, Europeans give up everything, leaving family and everything familiar to come to terra nullius for the sake of religious freedom and personal liberty (Bradford, 2007; Cheney, 2002; Dalgliesh, 1954). Klein (1995) claims these migrating pioneers’ stories subsequently morph into the story of America, a nation in which all cultures integrate into “a single course of history dominated by the West” (p. 275). Historians have continuously presented this monolithic history of America from a strict Eurocentric perspective in which Eurowesterners perceive their values to be superior to those of other cultures, therefore, their advanced culture’s ideals and standards deserve to displace those of inferior cultures (Kuipers, 1991). Additionally, Eurowestern cultural ethnocentrism promotes notions of civilization, progress, and social constructs as the benchmarks against which other cultures/societies are measured and to which all others should aspire to emulate (Bradford, 2007; MacCann, 1998).

Thus, as Gonzales (1992), Hirschfelder (1982), and Ulanowicz (2009) claim, children’s literature becomes a powerful tool of the master narrative of America’s creation by serving as a vehicle of mainstream socialization that denies rather than affirms and celebrates diversity. For example, Cheney’s (2002) alphabet book, America: A Patriotic Primer, champions the American master narrative as seen in her explication of the letter “H.” In Cheney’s primer, “H” is for heroes: “Heroes remind us of our nation’s ideals and how important it is to live up to them” (n.p.). The only historic illustration amid contemporary images of men in the military, astronauts, police, teachers, and elected officials is pioneers in covered wagons crossing America’s western frontier. These purposeful images exemplify what MacCann (2005) calls “instruments of a colonial mentality” (p. 185). These groups are heroes because they uphold America’s Manifest Destiny ideals expressed in 1830 by President Andrew Jackson. He summed up America’s master narrative by asking, “What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms … filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization, and religion?” (as cited in Takaki, 1993, p. 88). His words define Indigenous peoples’ place within the Eurowestern metanarrative that began with the “First Thanksgiving.” This sentiment also sanctions Eurowestern epistemology and privileges where America takes on mythic qualities, becoming what Lieberman (1992) calls a “bountiful land whose destiny is guided by God and where the sacrifices of earlier generations of patriots have made it possible for people to enjoy unlimited opportunity, equality, and freedom” (p. 230). Nevertheless, scholars and educators such as Thompson (2001), Dorris (1982), and Bradford (2007) insist that this model only applies to Eurowesterners, arguing that the colonizer master storyline of American history erases Indigenous peoples, cultures, and contributions while endorsing American nationalistic identity, principles, and symbols. Furthermore, Ulanowicz (2009) claims such historical pedagogy not only “espouses a triumphant and unbroken national grand narrative,” it is “suspiciously bloodless” (p. 117).

Baker (2009) insists the standardized mythic version of the “First Thanksgiving” story disseminated throughout US schools and children’s literature developed out of social and economic unrest (p. 117). A tidal wave of new immigrants to America who did not represent or adhere to the “Old American” Anglo-Saxon Protestant values threatened the status quo of the nation (Baker, 2009). In conjunction with restrictive immigration policies and citizenship laws, Santino (1995) argues that Old Americans implement the “First Thanksgiving” story as “a kind of origin myth for the United States” as “the first truly American event” (p. 175). For Elson (1964), the myth of that “First Thanksgiving” conveys “what ‘Americanness’ is” (p. 341).

Former president of The Pilgrim Society, Peter J. Gomes (2009), insists that the way modern Americans celebrate the holiday, “Thanksgiving does not suggest conflict or conquest: there are no military or local patriotic issues to be addressed” (p. ix). Gomes notes that our holiday erases the messy business of Europeans’ early contact with American “Indians.” In justification of this conception, some educators argue that children lack the ability to handle “historical realities;” however, Welch (2009) asserts that although elementary school children are not “developmentally ready for the specifics of genocide,” “they can understand the inhumanity of racism” (para. 5); it is adults’ refusal to part with their cherished American myth that keeps it alive and well in school systems across the nation.

The prevalence of the American myth dominates elementary school curriculum, but it also affects the books children are able to access in their local libraries as witnessed by the number of Thanksgiving children’s books that Reese (2008) found on her local library shelves. Nearly half of these texts recount the “First Thanksgiving,” complete with the coming together of the Pilgrims and “Indians” in the mythic 1890 story. The Lockport Public Library that houses one of the larger collections of children’s literature in Adare-Tasiwoopa ápi area maintains over 200 children’s books about Thanksgiving, 46 depicting the “First Thanksgiving” story and approximately 100 Indigenous-themed children’s books as part of their collection. Of these, acclaimed Abenaki author and storyteller Joseph Bruchac’s half a dozen titles stand alone as offering any sort of indigenizing perspective; his Squanto’s Journey (addressed more fully below) was not among them. According to MacCann (2005), non-Indigenous children’s book authors, publishers, reviewers, and educators “occupy a favored position as they disseminate knowledge. Their choices will either expand or contract a child’s chances for a multicultural, anti-imperialist, heritage” (p. 204). The shelves of local libraries are a sad testament to Indigenous authors’ ability to get indigenizing books into the hands of children.

Champions of the Thanksgiving Myth

In their portrayal of Indigenous peoples, non-Indigenous children’s book authors Cheney (2002), Rockwell (1999), and DeRubertis (1992) place Indigenous peoples within the context of Thanksgiving that Taylor and Patterson (2000) call “a mythic paradigm bordered by the Mayflower, beadwork, and ‘once upon a time’” (p. 5). In Rockwell’s Thanksgiving Day, for instance, the events surrounding the supposed first Thanksgiving are conceptualized for children through role-playing in the classroom, a normal occurrence in schools around the country year after year (Dorris, 1995). Rockwell tells the fictional story of Mrs. Madoff’s class putting on a Thanksgiving play inspired by the book The First Thanksgiving that the teacher reads to her class. While Flaste (1982) warns that playing Indian disrespects Indigenous peoples as children do not dress up and play Jews, Chinese, or Blacks, Moore and Hirschfelder (1982) and Thompson (2001) note this play acting activity also promotes the colonizer ideology of one homogenous Indigenous society that subverts distinct cultural and sovereign national identities. Dorris (1982) questions, “Is it any less demeaning or ridiculous to portray every Indian with feathers than it would be to present every Afro-American with a spear or every Hispanic with a sombrero?” (p. ix). More problematically, the multiethnic makeup of the fictional class in Rockwell’s book fails to include any living Indigenous children; they exist only in the pages of the book the fictional teacher reads aloud and, of course, in the imaginations of her students.

Nevertheless, the children in Rockwell’s (1999) book create headbands and feathers out of construction paper and crayons and vests out of brown paper bags that the illustrator’s note says “were inspired by those made by” (Rockwell, 1999, n.p.) actual elementary school children. Red-headed Evan playing Samoset, whom Rockwell erroneously calls a Wampanoag, draws fish, the traditional symbol of Christianity, on his headband. The diamond shapes blonde Kate, playing an unnamed Indigenous person, puts on her headband are a designating symbol of the Aniyvwiya (Cherokee), not the Wampanoags (Aniyvwiya elder Josai, personal communication, September 2000). Eveline, a Black girl playing Massosoit, marks “X” three times in red on her headband, reminiscent of the way Indigenous peoples were forced to sign treaties. She holds a staff with construction paper feathers taped to it and sports a five-paper-feather crown on her head, presumably as symbols of “chief” status. On her vest, she draws a stick figure of an Indigenous person with a huge head and one feather, holding what appears to be a war club. Kate decorates her vest with red hearts and a green spiral, Evan with a sun and a bird. All except the hearts carry important cultural significance within traditional Indigenous societies (Aniyvwiya elder Josai, personal communication, September 2000). Children wearing mock feathers that in Indigenous societies are worn “by those people who had earned that privilege and honor” or those who are otherwise “playing Indian” (Moore & Hirschfelder, 1982, p. 72) belittle Indigenous peoples. Acknowledging these commonplace activities for school children, Reese (1996) points out how inappropriate it is to trivialize sacred objects like feathers: “consider how a devout Catholic might feel about children making a chalice out of paper cups and glitter” (Practices to avoid, para. 4)

Similarly, Pillow (2007) argues that co-opting Indigeneity alleviates guilt over America’s genocidal practices and Keeshig-Tobias (1992) wonders if playing “Indian” is “some form of exorcism” (p. 100). During Rockwell’s (1999) fictionalized Thanksgiving play, Pilgrim girl Michiko communicates thankfulness for the Wampanoags who “greeted [the Europeans] kindly” and “shared the land with them” (n.p.). Kate decides the Wampanoags are thankful because the “new neighbors were peaceful Pilgrims looking for a new land to live in, and not mean people looking for someone to fight with” (n.p.). Pilgrim girl Jessica proclaims that “the beautiful land of Massachusetts has enough good things for everyone” (n.p.). These three statements illustrate Lieberman’s (1992) concept—a land of plenty, plenty of land for all, and a pious settler people, as opposed to the “mean” ones whom Rockwell declines to identify or discuss even in her author’s note. Reese (2008) claims that Thanksgiving stories such as Rockwell’s disavow the colonization process and its impact on Indigenous peoples. Specifically, the story’s surface promotes a generic multiculturalism as the children represent a rainbow of colors, but the story evacuates any living American “Indians” while presenting a deeply one-sided account of the historical events. In Rockwell’s fictional classroom, there is no room for an Indigenous perspective or an Indigenous person. Nor does this Thanksgiving story sanction any deviation that might trigger even an inkling of awareness. Rockwell’s story leapfrogs from the Pilgrims’ rough voyage and safe landing to friendly fellowship with Indigenous peoples. MacCann (1998) and Bradford (2007) insist this is a form of knowledge privileging in which settler ideology trumps inclusion. Cheney (1997), however, calls it “multiculturalism done right” (p. 66).

In Cheney’s book, the Thanksgiving myth appears under “G” “for God in whom we trust” (n.p.). Thompson (2001) notes that God is frequently invoked as a convenient fall-guy who literally absolves colonizers of accountability. Acts of divine providence permeate children’s literature. “Freedom to worship God in their own way” brings the Pilgrims unharmed to America where they pronounce Squanto is “a special instrument sent of God” (Cheney, 2002, n.p.) to insure their survival; he is proof of the Pilgrims’ entitlement to the land and its resources. Cheney acknowledges that her primer is designed for adults to read aloud to children and actively interpret the “facts and values” that have been supposedly “ignored by public school curricula” (Ulanowicz, 2009, p. 358). Nonetheless, her rendition of the “First Thanksgiving” aligns perfectly with classroom rhetoric. Cheney’s “explanatory material” on that initial Thanksgiving connotes that Spaniards kidnap Squanto and sell him into slavery in Spain; then he “escaped to England” and “made his way back to America” (Cheney, 2002, n.p.), just in time to greet the Pilgrims. To admit in the patriotic primer that it is English ship captain Thomas Hunt who commits kidnapping and human trafficking would tarnish America’s image (Reese, 2008). Ulanowicz (2009) calls this “narrative sleight-of-hand,” (p. 349) a tactic she finds routinely employed in children’s books. Thompson (2001) sees such narrative constructions as a way to circumvent “responsibility and blame” (p. 356). Cheney conveniently massages the message.

So does DeRubertis (1992) in her Thanksgiving Day: Let’s Meet the Wampanoags and the Pilgrims. She makes no mention that the cleared lands “the Pilgrims found” (p. 7) were empty due to diseases brought by Europeans. Instead, she focuses on nearly half of the Pilgrims dying during the first winter, while the Wampanoags lurk in the woods, watching the Europeans. In spring, Squanto visits and Massasoit makes peace with frail-from-illness Europeans who possess “powerful weapons” (p. 14) that will assist (in unidentified ways in the book) the Wampanoags. The Pilgrims throw Massasoit a royal reception: “Drums rolled. Trumpets sounded. Six men saluted with their muskets” (p. 16). According to Seed (1995), such behavior is designed to intimidate Indigenous peoples with a show of superior force and has nothing to do with honoring or even acknowledging their leaders. Although DeRubertis states that the chief and Governor Carver “made a peace treaty that lasted more than fifty years,” (p. 17) she neglects to incorporate any reference as to the circumstances leading to the breaking of this treaty or the Pilgrims’ massacring the Wampanoags (Richter, 2001, 105). In DeRubertis’s telling, an unnamed Pilgrim later describes Massasoit as “truly a great chief” who “ruled by reason, not force” and ironically, “always told the truth” and, therefore, “his word could be trusted” (p. 17). Of course, DeRubertis ignores the Pilgrims possessing the polar opposite of these qualities in dealing with what they considered to be savages (We Shall Remain, 2009). DeRubertis, like Cheney, words the story to present the notion of a feast in which the people give thanks as a European invention, with the Pilgrims specifically inviting the Indigenous people to join the celebration. In contrast, according to Wampanoag oral tradition, the Indigenous people investigate when they hear the newcomers firing their weapons as part of their harvest celebration and simply show up in the settlement (Dow & Slapin, 2005, p. 204).

As did Cheney (2002), DeRubertis (1992) sidesteps issues of genocide by disassociating Europeans from the devastating diseases they brought. DeRubertis vaguely pronounces, “Sometimes, entire Wampanoag villages had been wiped out because of sickness” and that tribal members tell Squanto that “all the people of his village had died from a terrible sickness” (pp. 11, 13). The passive tense verb “had died” erases any active connection between Europeans and the massive deaths resulting from their diseases. Neither non-Indigenous author mentions hostile English and French expeditions contributing to the extermination of Squanto’s home village, otherwise known as the vacant land on which the Pilgrims conveniently establish Plymouth Colony (Reese, 2008). This falls in line with the philosophical rationalizing Byler (1982) notes in which mainstream society glorifies terra nullius notions as publishers and institutions believe Americans could not handle the truth. Then again, realistic portrayals of Indigenous peoples’ contact and interactions with Eurowesterners would disrupt the “vision of the United States as a static, utopian, and unified whole” (Ulanowicz, 2009, p. 361). It would also alter the “metaphor” in which race functions in the “construction of Americanness” by equating “American” with “white” (Morrison, 1992, p. 47).

A More Indigenous Lens on the Thanksgiving Myth

In his portrayal of Indigenous peoples, Abenaki author Bruchac’s (2000) retelling of the Thanksgiving story from Squanto’s perspective provides an alternative view of the master narrative of America’s creation story from those presented by Rockwell (1999), Cheney (2002), and DeRubertis (1992). Bruchac’s Squanto’s Journey: The Story of the First Thanksgiving focuses on Squanto’s life rather than just the Thanksgiving myth. Using first-person narrative, Bruchac humanizes Squanto. He has a history, a life beyond his two-dimensional role as sidekick to the Pilgrims assigned him in the non-Indigenous versions of the “First Thanksgiving.” Unlike the mythic Squanto, Bruchac shows readers a personal side to this historic figure: “My wife, my children, my parents,” narrates Squanto, “and all those closest to me were gone. I will not say their names now. I will speak them again when my own feet climb the highest mountain and I walk the load of Stars to greet them” (n.p.). In addition, illustrator Shed depicts Squanto’s family and other Indigenous women and children through the course of the book. Such images remain conspicuously absent in the majority of the master narrative tellings of the legendary “First Thanksgiving.” As noted by Little Doe, the presence of women and children, Pilgrim or Indigenous, translates into reassurance and peaceful intent: “In Wampanoag tradition, if you’re thinking about making trouble, you don’t bring your women and you don’t bring your children. So to see folks showing up with women and children, immediately they’re not a threat” (We Shall Remain, 2009). Showing Indigenous families rather than simply warriors also humanizes Indigenous people, as well as more accurately representing Indigenous cultures, and thus, decolonizing the incident.

In countering the master narrative standards previously discussed, Bruchac (2000) acknowledges that Captain Hunt is the one who profits from selling the “People of the First Light” (Wampanoags) in Malaga, Spain, and broaches the subject of Europeans carrying diseases that devastate Squanto’s people (n.p.). Told in first-person narrative, Squanto explains, “Our cleared fields were not empty of people then as they were when the English pilgrims landed in the Freezing Moon of 1620,” and, on the ship sailing back to “New England,” Squanto’s English friend and companion Thomas Dermer tells of a “great illness in New England brought on by white traders” (n.p.). Bruchac also clarifies some of the Indigenous actions against the English. He divulges that the English abduct Epanow, a Capawack sachem, sells him into slavery in England, then sends him back to America as a scout and interpreter. When Epanow escapes, he seeks revenge against the English.

Although Bruchac (2000) disseminates the usual information about Squanto teaching the Pilgrims how to hunt and grow corn, he foregrounds this knowledge with logic and cultural cues:

It had always been the job of the Patuxet women to care for the crops while men such as myself hunted. But I had observed much in the years since my captivity. I had seen in Newfoundland how the English learned from our people how to grow corn. (n.p.)

Postcolonial theorists identify this literary technique as “interpolation,” where Indigenous authors seize the colonizer’s discourses of power for themselves, one of the several methods for “exercise[ing] agency in textual production” (Bradford, 2007, p. 54). Besides using the names the people call themselves, Bruchac incorporates Indigenous words into the narrative and dialogue. Squanto recounts that he “spoke to Massasoit, the sachem of the Pokanoket, as a pniese should” (n.p.). Early in the story when Squanto is being transported to Spain, Bruchac glosses the word in the sentence: “I remembered I was a pniese, a man of courage” (n.p.). Subsequent usage, unglossed, challenges readers to recall the definition of the non-English word. Later, Samoset states in dialogue, “Let me talk with the Songlismoniak” (n.p.). In this instance, Bruchac does not gloss the term, leaving it up to the reader to decode its meaning from the surrounding narrative in which Bruchac notes that Samoset gains a working knowledge of English from traders. Therefore, “pniese” and “Songlismoniak” metonymically symbolize the Patuxet culture via what Ashcroft (2001) calls the “installation of difference” (p. 75). In other words, the inclusion of an Indigenous language jolts the presumed dominant society audience out of their familiar master narrative comfort zone (Bradford, 2007).

While Bruchac (2000) clearly challenges the traditional representation of Squanto in Thanksgiving children’s books, he still adopts much of the rhetoric found in the canonized myth of the “First Thanksgiving.” For example, after Squanto escapes from slavery in Spain (with the help of monks) and meets up with Dermer again, Squanto learns that relations between their two peoples have led to the Wampanoags attacking the English. Therefore, he decides, “Perhaps if I accompanied the English, I could speak with the Indians and they could trade again in peace” (n.p.). Even after Dermer tells Squanto about the demise of his village due to the disease spread by traders, in true sidekick fashion, he works tirelessly for the English. Additionally, Squanto initiates contact with Massasoit, advising him to make friends with the English. Then, Squanto determines he can be of the most help by living with the Pilgrims, teaching them how to plant the Three Sisters (corn, beans, and squash) together. Observing the newcomers’ hard work, Squanto comes to the conclusion that “these pilgrims could be our friends and we theirs. Together we might make our home on this land given to us by the Creator of All Things” (n.p.). Wampanoag oral tradition, however, tells a very different story. Massasoit, who never trusts Squanto, charges Hobbamock with watching Squanto and subsequently orders his death for inciting the English to take a stand against the Wampanoags: “Tisquantum (Squanto) is viewed by Wampanoag people as a traitor, for his scheming against other Native people for his own gain” (Dow & Slapin, 2005, p. 203). Although he is fortunate to be one of the very few Indigenous authors who publish children’s books through major New York houses, Bruchac may find it difficult to challenge the Thanksgiving myth in mainstream publications.

For Bruchac (2000), to fully decolonize Squanto’s Journey, he would need to remove dates based on the Roman calendar and labels such as “Indians,” “New England,” “Newfoundland,” and even “white people” from the first-person narrative written from Squanto’s perspective. Furthermore, Bruchac would refer to Squanto by his real name, Tisquantum. Kuipers (1991) posits that even the habit of Anglicizing names such as Squanto and translations such as the Principle People instead of using Aniyvwiya cause harm. Similarly, Thompson (2001) adds that renaming people because their Indigenous names are harder to pronounce denigrates Indigenous “identity and voice” (p. 355). Ngugi wa Thiong’o (1986) contends that the debasement of Indigenous languages is “crucial to the domination of the mental universe of the colonised” (p. 16). Finally, Bruchac might have portrayed Squanto as less of the sort of hero Cheney (2002) makes him out to be in her book, AmericaA Patriotic Primer, showing more of the unease Indigenous peoples felt concerning the invasive newcomers. The vision of “peaceful Pilgrims” and their “Indian” neighbors happy to share the land and resources (Rockwell, 1999) supports the myth, not the reality, and does not aid in decolonizing the story.

Indigenizing Children’s Literature

For Brayboy (2005), the concept of indigenizing originates in Tribal Critical Race Theory, a lens through which to understand Indigenous perspectives, thereby legitimizing the oral histories, “philosophies, beliefs, customs, traditions, and visions for the future” (p. 429) of Indigenous peoples and communities. Grande (2004) envisions this idea as indigena, a “space shaped by and through a matrix of legacy, power and ceremony” that allows the “complexity of indigenous realities” (p. 175) to challenge Eurowestern pedagogical praxes. In addition to decolonizing the “myth” of Thanksgiving, as we done above, we echo Reese’s (2008) call to indigenize children’s literature by supporting more Indigenous-authored texts, encouraging publisher support for Indigenous perspectives and story methods, and circulating these texts in classrooms and libraries. Building on indigenizing methodologies outlined by Mihesuah and Wilson (2004), Reese calls for (1) eliminating dehumanizing stereotypes and correcting “the telling of historical events in ways that distort American Indian peoples, cultures, and experiences,” that render Indigenous peoples invisible; (2) discarding the mistaken notions deeply rooted in the master narrative of American progress; (3) critically analyzing beloved children’s books that promote such stereotypes, historical distortions, and master narratives and thus, “disrupt[ing] the dominant narrative of America that allows most people to have positive feelings about the country, its origins, and the ways American Indians are presented in that narrative”; and (4) purchasing children’s books with Indigenous themes written by Indigenous authors, which would provide incentives for publishers to produce more such books and urging libraries and library journals to review more accurate and respectful Indigenous-themed children’s books.

To truly indigenize the “first Thanksgiving” story as outlined above by Reese (2008), a children’s book would ideally include many of the following moves in terms of its narrative content: (1) reorient the story not only from an Indigenous perspective, but foreground the Indigenous people as the major players in the unfolding history. The Europeans are strangers who settle on Indigenous people’s land; Indigenous people allow these foreigners to stay. When the foreigners’ crops fail to grow due to their unsuitability for the climate, the Indigenous people take pity on the foreigners and show them what to plant and how to plant food appropriate for the environment; (2) the foreigners’ destruction of the forest in order to erect houses and fences and create fields would be shown as harmful to the environment and contrary to Indigenous Original Instructions; (3) the stereotypical sidekick/helper would disappear from the pages of the story, replaced by realistic, complex people cognizant of the fact that the strangers had brought illness, death, and environmental devastation with them, or at the very least what it cost the original inhabitants of the land to share their land with foreigners. And, finally, a truly indigenizing effort would also address the problem of publishers, editors, and book reviewers who should be more open to a broader Indigenous perspective and a more accurate portrayal of historical events.

Furthermore, we concur with Reese’s (2008) argument that indigenizing children’s literature, especially Thanksgiving stories, is crucial to promoting positive and accurate representations of American “Indians” for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous readers. As Bradford (2007) observes, Indigenous-written texts for children “locate historical events within Indigenous systems of narratives and history, contesting dominant versions not only of historical events but also how the past is conceived and represented” (p. 100). This contributes to mainstream publishers’ unwillingness to publish what they perceive as revisionist history that challenges the master narrative. If an Indigenous author attempts to question the “myth of America,” (LaBonty, 1995, para. 16) mainstream publishers generally insist on revisions that restore the cherished myths and/or reinstate Eurowestern comfort zones.

Nonetheless, this is not the only problem. Even when they manage to publish, Indigenous authors face a serious obstacle in getting their books into classrooms and libraries. Mendoza and Reese (2009) and LaBonty (1995) posit that the power to get accurate and respectful books in schools lies in the hands of teachers and reviewers. Educators acknowledge that school librarians and teachers regularly depend on the recommendations generated by organizations such as The Children’s Literature Association, children’s book award winners, and journals such as Horn Book and School Library Journal in choosing books for use in schools (Mendoza & Reese, 2009; LaBonty, 1995). Yet, typically, compilers of these lists and awards and reviewers for these publications are Eurowesterners and they tend to express Eurocentric bias and prejudices in “an almost uniform tendency to discriminate against Amerind culture, identity, and historical perspectives” (Thompson, 2001, p. 365) when it comes to spotlighting Indigenous-themed books. On the one hand, the majority of Indigenous-authored children’s books receive so little attention, or none, that LaBonty (1995) believes Indigenous authors and illustrators remain in short supply, to the point that publishers must continue to rely on non-Indigenous authors and illustrators to satisfy the demand for Indigenous-themed children’s books. On the other hand, no Indigenous-themed children’s books authored by an Indigenous person rank among the winners of such coveted literary prizes as the Newbery Metal (Reese, 2001). Additionally, although White-Kaulaity (2006) suggests Indigenous authorship should be one of the key criteria of teachers’ evaluating suitable Indigenous-themed books for the classroom, Hollingsworth (2009) shows that the ethnicity or race of the author carries negligible weight in selecting books to accompany “Native American” history units in elementary classrooms; rather, how well the books flesh out the information from the textbook assumes priority. Publications that review Indigenous-themed children’s books such as Hirschfelder’s (1982) bibliography) and Seale and Slapin’s (1992, 2005) books, as well as websites such as Oyate ( and Reese’s blog ( appear to only marginally influence teacher and librarian choices.

Transforming Thanksgiving Pedagogy and Curriculum in Practice

In their classrooms, educators can help students (and especially education students who will themselves be future teachers) learn how to assess Thanksgiving stories. We believe that giving decolonizing assignments to future teachers is especially valuable as such tasks convey the value of choosing appropriate books for their future students, especially for the contemporary Indigenous children who will likely one day be in their classrooms. However, all students benefit from discovering how to recognize and reject anti-“Indian” bias and locate more accurate and sensitive Native-authored books. Empowering students to make such discoveries for themselves includes training students to be sensitive to traditional English studies basics such as narrative point of view and the use of colonizing language or historically incorrect information. For instance, teachers can ask students to critically analyze children’s books for their content (representation of historical fact vs. myth), point of view, illustrations, author’s background, etc. Emphasizing these basic “formal” concepts easily fits within regular English curriculum requirements and meets increasing demands for multicultural or diversity learning experiences as well.

Adams-Campbell asks her undergraduate students, primarily English majors, in an Early American Literature survey course to write a five-page essay in which they analyze two children’s books, one each from a list of recommended and not recommended sources. These books were available on reserve at the university library. Relying on materials by Dow and Slapin (2006) and, she offers the following writing prompt to get students started:

The story of Thanksgiving is the first time many students learn much about America’s Indigenous peoples. This is extremely problematic because it leaves children with the impression that 1) Native Americans only exist in the past, 2) they were the happy sidekicks of the more powerful and important European colonizers, 3) this relationship was peaceful and even-handed, 4) that Thanksgiving “started” with the Plymouth colonists. Many children’s books reinforce such one-sided and/or misinformed depictions of colonial Puritan and American Indian relations.

Begin by consulting the Thanksgiving materials at and the criteria for evaluating anti-Indian bias at

Choose two children’s Thanksgiving books (one from the recommended list and one from the not recommended list) available at the library’s reserves desk. Analyze the representations of colonial Puritan and Native American relations at Thanksgiving. How does each book portray this event? Would you recommend this book to other teachers who want to avoid recreating negative stereotypes of American Indians in their classrooms? Use the Oyate materials to help you both analyze and offer a final evaluation of the book.

Focusing on one “not recommended” and one “recommended” book engages students in two different kinds of necessary analysis, decolonizing the mythic (in the “not recommended” text) and indigenizing Thanksgiving (in the “recommended” text). The twin moves of critiquing the persistent colonizing elements in a not recommended book and recognizing and appreciating Indigenous values and knowledge can: dislodge deeply rooted notions of the master narrative; foreground Indigenous peoples and their views of historical events; explore some of the ways that Indigenous nation building impacted Indigenous-European relations; and, ultimately, lead to greater respect. To begin the work of decolonizing, teachers need to introduce the concept of myth, explain the facets of the “myth of America” (as we have done above), and help students recognize when myth or historical “massaging of the facts” is taking place in a text. For most non-Indigenous students, learning to indigenize Thanksgiving will take more work; however, this effort proves especially rewarding. As discussed above, Reese (2008) derives her indigenizing strategies from those of Mihesuah and Wilson (2004) who propose four components for indigenizing the academy:

to carve a space where Indigenous values and knowledge are respected; to create an environment that supports research and methodologies useful to Indigenous nation building; to support one another as institutional foundations are shaken; and to compel institutional responsiveness to Indigenous issues, concerns, and communities. (p. 2)

As students learn to value and respect Indigenous thanksgiving traditions, storytelling methods, and lifeways, they acquire the tools necessary to support the work of shaking institutional foundations in their future classrooms and with their future students.

Using the excellent resources available through, Adams-Campbell’s students had correctives to frequently ignored historical facts about the encounter between Plymouth colonists and Wampanoags and a list of items to look for within their chosen books. Students wrote wonderfully sensitive analyses of their books, even expressing thanks for the opportunity to locate the often implicit value systems at work in children’s literature. For instance, in her introduction, Student A wrote:

Teachers need to choose wisely which books to present their students because each story, even the simplest children’s book, holds unspoken cultural biases of the author, some of which may not be true at all. Children who only learn to look through one perspective, and never learn to step back and view the same situation through the eyes of another, learn to judge and stereotype too quickly. These children grow up to become adults who stereotype, judge, and believe their culturally biased perspectives to be superior. And the cycle continues. (2012)

In this passage, Student A communicates the value of looking past the surface of a story, demonstrating the power stories hold to shape our future interactions with diverse peoples. This same student transferred the sensitivity and tolerance she had learned by engaging with indigenizing children’s books to consider the ways these moves might also be needed in other tense geopolitical relationships, specifically during the US war in Afghanistan.

Focusing on point of view, Student B patiently works toward his problem with Alice Dalgliesh’s classic children’s book:

In Dalgliesh’s story, the settlers are clearly biased against the Indians. They are afraid of even those like Squanto who was helping them learn to survive and monitoring the peace between their villages. This creates a very negative stereotype of Native Americans which cannot be ignored and to which children should not be exposed. Though relations were not always positive between Indians and settlers, it shows a great deal of bias to only speak of the fear the settlers held and not mention that Indians feared the settlers as well. (2012)

Student B clearly expresses how Dalgliesh uses a limited and biased point of view, with no real interest in telling the other side of the story. For English students, analyzing point of view is an especially effective means to demonstrate the problems with most Thanksgiving picture books. Throughout her essay, Student A focuses on specific narrative techniques each book uses to communicate its perspective and value system. She, too, observes differences in point of view:

The basic difference between Bulla’s Squanto and Chief Swamp’s Giving Thanks are the ways in which they present thanksgiving. In the European version, it is an event that began when the Europeans arrived in the Americas that is now celebrated every November. To Native Americans, it is not a special event at all; rather, it is something they do all the time. (2012)

Such an observation can only be made with real (though admittedly basic) knowledge of an Indigenous thanksgiving practice, ceremony, or in this case, Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Thanksgiving Address (Swamp, 1997). In this passage, Student A uses an indigenized perspective to challenge the Plymouth Thanksgiving’s claim to be “first.”

She continues an indigenizing analytical move by noting the different ways that her texts define or limit “American Indians” as human. As she analyzes the ways that the character of Squanto is delegitimized and animalized in Clyde Bulla’s Squanto: Friend to the Pilgrims (1990), the student puts these negative representations in perspective: “it is good to keep in mind that [such misrepresentations] are solely the biased view of Europeans who searched for ways to legitimize stealing the land from the Indians” (2012). In contrast to the Euro-American viewpoint, Student A notes:

Giving Thanks presents a completely different view of Native Americans. On the first page, the Native American author writes, “To be a human being is an honor, and we give thanks for all the gifts of life” (Swamp). In one line, not only does the author contradict the ancient stereotype that Native Americans are savages, but he also presents a way in which the Native Americans are ahead of Europeans [by respectfully appreciating other humans as well asnature]. (2012)

Presenting students with access to Indigenous-authored texts and historical perspectives is not only responsible, it is empowering. After such assignments, Adams-Campbell’s students have even asked for additional reading recommendations. Once they recognize the limitations of their former knowledge, students engaged in such assignments often pursue new epistemological frameworks independently. We include a resource section for educators and their students at the end of this article.


Author and children’s literature reviewer/critic Stott (1995) argues that European settlers, “in ways typical of human beings encountering something new, unfamiliar, and alien,” define what they find based on their “religious, moral, cultural, and political concepts …. They imposed these concepts on the land and its human and animal inhabitants, making the New World more like their Old World, and thus, bringing it under their power and control” (p. 1). However, if this is a universal culture truism, then America’s Indigenous inhabitants would have attempted to force their religious, moral, and political views on Europeans, which has not been the case (Trafzer, 2000). Of course, one must first accept that the Indigenous peoples of the Americas were and remain human beings at encounter points such as the Pilgrims’ famed landing on “the Rock” (Bush, 2000, p. 747).

Therefore, in discussing the issue of indigenizing children’s literature in order to have a more complete picture of America, Charles (2001) insists, “Undermining the mythic image” of Indigenous peoples holds the key to expanding young readers’ “understanding of self and ‘other’” (para. 14). Smith (2009) recommends including more children’s books about Indigenous people living in contemporary urban settings and more biographies detailing the lives of little-known Indigenous people whose contributions are centered around their own communities instead of figures such as Squanto who uphold Eurowestern notions of heroes and helpers. Byler (1982), however, notes that mainstream publishers “are hesitant to venture into Indian country” (p. 36) for manuscripts. Therefore, Reese (2008) and Bradford (2007) believe more Indigenous-owned publishing houses, whether nation based or pan-Indigenous, can help fill the void. Nonetheless, as far as Reese (2008) is concerned, indigenizing children’s books is an act of intellectual sovereignty, of a piece with Native peoples’ rights to govern themselves. Seale (1992) affirms that Indigenous children need literature that builds their sense of self-worth and pride in their heritage instead of tearing them down.

Unfortunately, indigenizing children’s books means challenging America’s much-cherished colonizer master narrative. Literature that respects Indigenous sovereignty, explores Indigenous contributions, and promotes pride in Indigenous heritage threatens long-established Eurowestern societal norms. Nonetheless, Indigenous authors, reviewers, and educators continue to present broader perspectives that mainstream society resists. Overcoming five plus centuries of indoctrination will take time and persistence. As York (2003) affirms, “From learning comes understanding. From understanding comes respect” (p. 2). Only by fully indigenizing children’s literature can genuine respect develop. This means carving space within America’s master narrative for other voices—and crucially, for teaching future teachers the value of including those voices. Newman (2006) and Qwul’sih’yah’maht (2005) suggest storytelling as a means for constructing and teaching morality, values, and ideas in order to stretch oneself toward others to facilitate understanding, to acknowledge varied perceptions and conceptions of self and others, to take responsibility, and to gain insight. Newman also sees stories and storytelling, as well as dialogue, as powerful tools to make people stop and think, charge their emotions, rouse frustration or anger to the point of action, illuminate methods that have proven successful, and offer hope in striving for seemingly unattainable goals such as decolonization and indigenizing individuals, communities, and/or society.

As a result, stories, storytelling, and dialogue can raise awareness. In this state of “critical consciousness,” Newman (2006) asserts, “we examine the history of our thinking in order to change it” (p. 65). Qwul’sih’yah’maht (2005) adds that storytelling also informs Indigenous peoples’ opposition to colonialism when elders and others tell or write “a counter-story to that of the documented history” (p. 241) of the colonizers. To Qwul’sih’yah’maht, these counter-stories are “our truths,” (pp. 241) as they document Indigenous peoples’ reality while honoring and respecting their lives, contributions, experiences, and worldviews. Counter-stories indigenize and are needed in order to offset the myths Americans have been telling themselves and the world about that iconic “First Thanksgiving” as a way of transforming future generations’ perceptions of Indigenous peoples.