WASHINGTON – Cisco Nochera said he tries to be culturally sensitive when discussing Thanksgiving with his pre-kindergarten students, using the term Native American along with Indian, for example.
But not much else has changed in the two decades that he has been organizing a Thanksgiving celebration, in which some students dress as Pilgrims and others dress as American Indians.
“We make headbands and put a feather in it,” much as students did 20 years ago, said Nochera, a special education teacher at Benfield Elementary in Severna Park. Parents bring in traditional Thanksgiving food, and the feast is served in the school’s hallway.
While some teachers use the holiday for lessons on history or charity, most agreed with Nochera that Thanksgiving traditions have changed little in the classroom over the years.
At Hickory Elementary in Williamsport, children donate food to the local food bank and the Salvation Army, in addition to having a Thanksgiving feast.
“The food drive was the primary focus,” said Lynda Wiles, a secretary at Hickory.
Many teachers try to tie in Thanksgiving to the teaching curriculum. Students at Scotchtown Hills Elementary in Laurel write about what makes them thankful, instead of having a Thanksgiving party, said secretary Sharon Tremper. Students at Federalsburg Elementary read history books about American Indians and Pilgrims, said Principal Dale Brown.
“The kids discuss how they celebrate the holiday and take a look at the holiday itself from a historical perspective,” said Brown.
But more people need to remember what happened as a result of European settlement of the New World, said Aubrey Williams, anthropology professor at the University of Maryland College Park.
“It’s a warm holiday, but it needs more historical recognition on the role of Native Americans,” said Williams.
He is not entirely down on Thanksgiving, saying it is nice because it helps bring families together. But schools should teach students more about the stormy relationship between American Indians and Pilgrims, said Williams.
“The cultural history is often left out or barely mentioned. Native Americans were very generous to the Europeans. It turned out to be a one-way street,” said Williams, who describes the relationship as a “500-year holocaust.”
Students learn about negative stereotypes from history books that glorify Manifest Destiny and skip over how Indians helped save many of the early settlers, said Williams.
“Native American food saved millions of peoples’ lives. There were no European foods in the original feast, and many foods we eat today are Native American,” said Williams.
Some schools said they try to teach students about American Indians in contexts other than Thanksgiving. Students at Centreville Elementary have a social studies unit where they learn about various tribes.
“They learn about how (American Indians) were dependent on their environment, and how they used their environment and economics,” said Principal Marilyn Carey.
Nochera’s students learn about American Indians by making vests out of paper bags and building a tepee and a totem poll. During some years, the children hear a guest speaker discuss American Indians.
“We have a parent that will dress up as an Indian, but she’s not Indian,” said Nochera, who follows the unit on American Indians with a unit on cowboys.
Before his students eat from their homemade placemats in the shape of a turkey, they have learned about the hardships Pilgrims faced when first arriving here and how the American Indians helped feed them, Nochera said. “It’s meaningful to them when they hear the real story of Thanksgiving,” he said.
Nochera said he also encourages students from other cultures to share their Thanksgiving experiences, asking African-American and Canadian students to discuss their celebration of the holiday, for example. Students should learn about different cultures at an early age, said Nochera.
“It’s all about being exposed at this early level, ” said Nochera.
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