A pull-no-punches Q&A with a Native American teacher on how she teaches Thanksgiving.

There are two sides to the Thanksgiving story — the one taught in most American grade schools and a more complicated one that coexists alongside it.

Every year, millions of Americans gather around family tables to eat turkey and toast the fellowship of the Pilgrims and their American Indian hosts. And every year, Native American educators attempt to re-contextualize the holiday to add more first-American perspectives to the traditional telling of the history.

The differences are often striking: While most lesson plans treat the first Thanksgiving as a feast co-planned by the Pilgrims and their Native neighbors, from the Wampanoag perspective, the meal was one they happened upon by accident and nonetheless helped rescue with a successful deer hunt. While many non-Native Americans treat the feast as a celebration, many Native people observe the holiday as a day of mourning.


One such educator is Gillian Murr, a fourth-year eighth-grade humanities teacher at Marysville School in Portland, Oregon — and an alum of the American Indian Teacher Program at Portland State University.

Photo via Gillian Murr.

Murr, who is Walla Walla and Yankton Sioux, told me about how she approaches the holiday in the classroom and what other teachers can do to include Native perspectives in their lesson plans.

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

UPWORTHY: What do you love most about your job?

GILLIAN MURR: My favorite part of teaching is really connecting with my students — sharing and learning from them. I don't remember ever having a connection with any teachers when I was younger, and I think it is so important.

I work in a very diverse school, and a Title I school, and I think connections, especially in eighth grade, can make or break the learning that goes on in my class.

UP: What kind of connections do you make with your students? What do you bond with them over?

GM: Having persevered through poverty and oppression, I really try to connect with my students on that level. I think there is a level of vulnerability that is required and that students, this age especially, need and respect.

I let my students know that I have gone through things like they are. I grew up poor, I had parents with addiction problems, I have family members in jail/prison, etc. I think it makes them feel more comfortable in my class. I also share a lot about my own children with them. They in turn feel safe to share and open up in my class.  We also connect about current events, music, TV/movies, etc.

UP: Do you feel like your students come into class with a lot of misconceptions about Thanksgiving?

GM: They come in with all the typical myths. There is always one or two students who have already had the myths debunked, but by and large, the myths are strong when they enter my classroom: "The Pilgrims came on the Mayflower and the Indians helped them by giving them food and helping them plant and grow food, and then they all had a dinner together where the Pilgrims gave thanks."

Murr with students. Photo via Gillian Murr.

UP: How do you start breaking down these myths for them?

GM: We always start with what they know and then discuss why that is what they know. One of the overarching questions we always come back to in my class is: "Who is writing the history?" So I like to remind them of that.

Then we just really get into the meat of the lesson. In the past, I have done a couple different lessons. My main objective for them is to be able to look at Thanksgiving from the tribe's perspective.

UP: How do you fold the Wampanoag perspective into your lesson plan?

GM: Last year, I found this great lesson on the Teaching Tolerance website, which has a speech and an essay about Thanksgiving from two different Natives. We analyzed these and then discussed why what they learned is different. We also watch portions of Part 1 of the "We Shall Remain" series. It gives students, especially students who have different learning styles, a solid understanding that it wasn't all potlucks and thanks.

I generally have a class discussion after students have had time to analyze the texts and watch the movies where I have a few leading questions, and they are allowed to come to their own conclusions about why we know what we know. A lot of them are truly blown away with what was left out of history and their earlier teachings.

UP: What parts of the Thanksgiving story are typically left out?

GM: The Native perspective is usually completely left out. I think it is important for them to know while, yes, the Wampanoag people helped the Pilgrims, that help was not reciprocated.

The Pilgrims were religious people, and they gave thanks to their god for subduing the Native peoples. That's a pretty big myth, or lie, rather. Furthermore, this began the long genocide of the Native people of the Americas that continued, and still continues today.

UP: How do your students typically react when they hear this?

GM: There is definitely some surprise involved in their reactions, but at the same time, by this time, we have already studied Columbus, and so they have some prior knowledge about how our history books like to skew things.

Murr and family on the beach. Photo via Gillian Murr.

I don't really get any kind of pushback from students. Maybe partially this is because I am a Native educator, and they don't feel comfortable pushing back, and/or more likely also because I teach a diverse population who already have insecurities about how their families and ancestors have been treated in the history of the U.S.

UP: What's the most important thing you think your students get out of your lesson?

GM: I think the most important thing I convey to them is to look for what, or who is missing, and then [encourage them to ask] why?

UP: What advice would you give to fellow teachers who are struggling to teach Thanksgiving?

GM: I would say to look into what you teach now and ask the same question I hope my students start to ask: Whose perspective is being told, and whose is being left out?

Most Shared

As a child, Dr. Sangeeta Bhatia's parents didn't ask her what she wanted to be when she grew up. Instead, her father would ask, "Are you going to be a doctor? Are you going to be an engineer? Or are you going to be an entrepreneur?"

Little did he know that she would successfully become all three: an award-winning biomedical and mechanical engineer who performs cutting-edge medical research and has started multiple companies.

Bhatia holds an M.D. from Harvard University, an M.S. in mechanical engineering from MIT, and a PhD in biomedical engineering from MIT. Bhatia, a Wilson professor of engineering at MIT, is currently serving as director of the Marble Center for Cancer Nanomedicine, where she's working on nanotechnology targeting enzymes in cancer cells. This would allow cancer screenings to be done with a simple urine test.

Bhatia owes much of her impressive career to her family. Her parents were refugees who met in graduate school in India; in fact, she says her mom was the first woman to earn an MBA in the country. The couple immigrated to the U.S. in the 1960s, started a family, and worked hard to give their two daughters the best opportunities.

"They made enormous sacrifices to pick a town with great public schools and really push us to excel the whole way," Bhatia says. "They really believed in us, but they expected excellence. The story I like to tell about my dad is like, if you brought home a 96 on a math test, the response would be, 'What'd you get wrong?'"

Keep Reading Show less
Packard Foundation
True

Someday, future Americans will look back on this era of school shootings in bafflement and disbelief—not only over the fact that it happened, but over how long it took us to enact significant legislation to try to stop it.

Five people die from vaping, and the government talks about banning vaping devices. Hundreds of American children have been shot to death in their classrooms, sometimes a dozen or so at a time, and the government has done practically nothing. It's unconscionable.

Keep Reading Show less
Education & Information
via Hollie Bellew-Shaw / Facebook

For those of us who are not on the spectrum, it can be hard to perceive the world through the senses of someone with autism.

"You could think of a person with autism as having an imbalanced set of senses," Stephen Shore, assistant professor in the School of Education at Adelphi University, told Web MD.

"Some senses may be turned up too high and some turned down too low. As a result, the data that comes in tends to be distorted, and it's very hard to perceive a person's environment accurately," Shore continued.

Keep Reading Show less
Education & Information
Truth

Don't test on animals. That's something we can all agree on, right? No one likes to think of defenseless cats, dogs, hamsters, and birds being exposed to a bunch of things that could make them sick (and the animals aren't happy about it, either). It's no wonder so many people and organizations have fought to stop it. But did you ever think that maybe brands are testing products on us too, they're just not telling us they're doing it?

I know, I know, it sounds like a conspiracy theory, but that's exactly what e-cigarette brands like JUUL (which corners the e-cigarette market) are doing in this country right now, and young people are on the frontlines of the fallout. Most people assume that the government would have looked at devices that allow people to inhale unknown chemicals into their lungs BEFORE they hit the market. You would think that someone in the government would have determined that they are safe. But nope, that hasn't happened. And vape companies are fighting to delay the government's ability to evaluate these products.

So no one really knows the long-term health effects of e-cigarette use, not even JUUL's CEO, nor are they informing the public about the potential risks. On top of that, according to the FDA, there's been a 78% increase in e-cigarette usage among high school and middle school-aged children in just the last two years, prompting the U.S. Surgeon General to officially recognize the trend as an epidemic and urge action against it.

These facts have elicited others to take action, as well.

Truth Initiative, the nonprofit best known for dropping the real facts about smoking and vaping since 2000 through its truth campaign, is now on a mission to confront e-cigarette brands like JUUL about the lack of care they've taken to inform consumers of the potential adverse side effects of their products. And they're doing it with the help of animal protesters who are tired of seeing humans treated like test subjects.

The March Against JUUL | Tested On Humans | truth www.youtube.com

"No one knows the long-term effects of JUULing so any human who uses one is being used as a lab rat," says, appropriately, Mario the Sewer Rat.

"I will never stop fighting JUUL. Or the mailman," notes Doug the Pug, the Instagram-famous dog star.

Truth, the national counter-marketing campaign for youth smoking prevention, hopes this fuzzy, squeaky, snorty animal movement arms humans with the facts about vaping and inspires them to demand transparency from JUUL and other e-cigarette companies. You can get your own fur babies involved too by sharing photos of them wearing protest gear with the hashtag #DontTestOnHumans. Here's some adorable inspo for you:

The dangerous stuff is already out there, but with knowledge on their side, young people will hopefully make the right choices and fight companies making the wrong ones. If you need more convincing, here are the serious facts.

Over the last decade, 127 e-cigarette-related seizures were reported, which prompted the FDA to launch an official investigation in April 2019. Since then, over 215 cases of a new, severe lung illness have sprung up all over the country, with six deaths to date. While scientists aren't yet sure of the root cause, the majority of victims were young adults who regularly vaped and used e-cigarettes. As such, the CDC has launched an official investigation into the potential link.

Sixteen-year-old Luka Kinard, a former frequent e-cigarette-user, is one of the many teens who experienced severe side effects. "Vaping was my biggest addiction," he told NowThis. "It lasted for about 15 months of my high school career." In 2018, Kinard was hospitalized after having a seizure. He also had severe nausea, chest pains, and difficulty breathing.

After the harrowing experience, he quit vaping, and began speaking out about his experience to help inform others and hopefully inspire them to quit and/or take action. "It shouldn't take having a seizure as a result of nicotine addiction like I had for teens to realize that these companies are taking advantage of what we don't know," Kinard said.

Teens are 16 times more likely to use e-cigarettes than adults, and four times more likely to take up traditional smoking as a result, according to truth, and yet the e-cigarette market remains virtually unregulated and untested. In fact, companies like JUUL continue to block and prevent FDA regulations, investing more than $1 million in lawyers and lobbying efforts in the last quarter alone.

Photo by Lindsay Fox/Pixabay

Consumers have a right to know what they're putting in their bodies. If everyone (and their pets) speaks up, the e-cigarette industry will have to make a change. Young people are already taking action across the country. They're hosting rallies nationwide and on October 9 as part of a National Day of Action, young people are urging their friends and classmates to "Ditch JUUL." Will you join them?

For help with quitting e-cigarettes, visit thetruth.com/quit or text DITCHJUUL to 88709 for free, anonymous resources.

truth
True