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Real Stories

By Janice O’Donnell, Executive Director, Providence Children’s Museum

All holidays start with a story.  The day is special because a long time ago a child was born, a miracle happened, a war was won, a people were liberated.  In telling these powerful stories we impart our cultures — our beliefs and values — to the next generation.

Nov2010 Real StoriesI love the traditional tales that keep cultures alive.  I also love the researched and documented stories that make up history.  And it irritates me when those juicy stories get diluted by pop culture.  Thanksgiving reduced to cardboard cutout pilgrims and hand-shaped turkeys leaves out so much good stuff.  Introduce your family to the fun of finding out about the past with a myth-busting exploration of Thanksgiving!

The first Thanksgiving — 1621? Not so much.  Many Native American and European cultures had festivals to celebrate and thank their deities for the harvest well before and apart from the iconic gathering at Plymouth.  The Wampanoag people still celebrate their many traditional thanksgiving festivals: Strawberry Thanksgiving, Maple Sugar Thanksgiving, Green Corn Thanksgiving and more.  The Pequot Museum in Mashantucket, CT has a good children’s library and online resources where you can access these thanksgiving stories and share them with your children.  A visit to this excellent museum will spark questions, family conversation and deeper understanding of the original people of New England.

We eat turkey, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving because that’s what the Pilgrims ate. The Wampanoags and the English settlers did eat wild turkeys but they weren’t much like the fat Butterball turkey on a contemporary dinner table.  Their celebratory feast in 1621 probably included lots of shellfish, too ­— lobsters, oysters and clams.  But there was no pumpkin pie.  Maybe pumpkin or squash, but the settlers didn’t have butter or wheat flour to make dough or ovens to cook a pie.  And the corn the native people introduced to the settlers was that hard-kernelled many-colored kind we hang on our doors in the fall.

The Pilgrims wore those stiff black and white clothes. Some did, when they got really dressed up.  Their everyday clothes were made of wool, linen and canvas cloth in many colors — brown, rust red, yellow, blue; dyes of these colors lasted longer than black.  And the cloth came from Europe; the early settlers didn’t have means to make their own cloth.

The Pilgrims and the Indians were friends. Well, sort of, for a while.  The early English settlers at Plymouth weren’t very prepared to make a life in this unfamiliar land.  They arrived at Plymouth in the winter, low on food and with no shelter.  Half of them died that first winter.  We all know the story of how the native people helped them and taught them what crops to plant.  That small band of 50 or so sick and weary women, men and children must not have seemed very threatening to the natives and were clearly in need of help.  But, over the next 10 years, more and more English and Dutch came, taking more and more of the land for their settlements.  Wars and conflicts between the settlers and the natives and the spread of disease devastated the native people.

The meeting of these two very different cultures is a great topic to explore with kids.  Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, MA is a real adventure to visit and has a wealth of information on their website, including activities, recipes, crafts and stories for kids.  If you haven’t been there since you were a kid, they now have a Wampanoag Homesite staffed by Wampanoag people who tell the settlement’s story from the native perspective.

This year, discover some powerful Thanksgiving stories together.

Discover more powerful stories this month at Providence Children’s Museum.  Hear Native Tales and songs from Narragansett storyteller Thawn Sherente Harris on November 27.  On November 28, try Pilgrim Games that children enjoyed hundreds of years ago.  See the Museum’s calendar for details.  Also explore the galleries of “Coming to Rhode Island” to learn about four actual immigrants to the state — an English colonist, a French Canadian mill worker, a Cape Verdean packet ship sailor, and the owner of a Dominican bodega.

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  • Wow! We’re on the same wavelength today Anisa.

    Thanks Janice for this great piece.

    The library at the Pequot Museum is really fantastic. We visited it for the first time last week while at the museum.

    You cannot check books out but you can enjoy them there and it is free and open to the public.


  • For those of you who have not yet taken your children to Plimouth Plantation, PLEASE DO! We took our 5 and almost 7 year old and it was an amazing learning opportunity for all of us. They do a wonderful job of telling the story from all sides. They even have native people sharing their culture, food, language and way of life. It was a trip we will certainly do again.