Matt Grove bristles at misconceptions of Native Americans and Thanksgiving often taught in schools. Of course, the member of the Tuscarora, a tribe native to North Carolina, has a different perspective than most.
So when his children started elementary school, he hoped to give the kids and their classmates a better opportunity to learn than stapling a construction paper feather to a brown paper headband.
“I started to remember what things were like for me growing up. It was not an easy time of the year. There were no authentic presentations of Native American culture and people,” said Grove, who is from the Coharie community of the Tuscarora, native to the central part of the state.
Two years ago he talked to his son’s class dressed in ceremonial regalia. Other teachers expressed interest. Last year he presented to the entire second grade.
On two days this mid-November, the entire school took part in a cultural exchange that brought other Native American presenters to the school to share traditional art, tools, dress, customs and traditions of Native Americans.
Grove said he wishes he had more time with the students, as there wasn’t even time to answer all the student’s questions. Teachers also said the students liked it.
“It was very interesting, he does a great job,” said Freda Caines, a second-grade teacher at the school. “It really goes along well with our global cultural awareness units that we work on for our global learning and with what we are doing in social studies right now.”
Grove, whose wife is a member of the Pima tribe native to Arizona, brought in other natives including Durham resident Pura Fe, who is part Tuscarora and a well-regarded singer in both native and Blues music. Reggie Brewer, a native of the Lumbee tribe also joined; he’s dedicated much of his life to preserving native culture.
In the meantime, Grove also lives an assimilated life, which he noted can create an identity challenge and crisis for some natives, at least proving complicated for most.
The differing tribes’ garb showed the variation among native tribes even in North Carolina, Grove said, something sometimes lost in the tee-pee-building and feather headdress- and hide-wearing images closer to imagery of Great Plains Indians.
Displays included authentic drums and native weapons for children to touch and observe. Grove and others explained things like how the drum beat was meant to mimic a heart beat, how arrowheads were made, demonstrated dances and songs, and related cultural norms like respect for the earth and guests, and full utilization of a killed animal (including tendons for bow strings).
“Other teachers said ‘I wish my kids could have seen this,’” Grove said.
And students still got a little bit of the traditional teaching of Thanksgiving.
“Our kindergarteners today, some were pilgrims and some were Indians, and that’s good, I think we need to learn about the first Thanksgiving,” Caines said Friday.
History more complicated
Even though it’s often sanitized for a simple, moral lesson for children, the narrative of Thanksgiving and the way schools celebrate it lead to caricatures and misconceptions that stick with children as they get older Grove said. That presents a problem to him given the complexities of history and missing context.
“(It) quite honestly makes a mockery of Native American culture. I know that’s not the intent, but we don’t do that for any other cultures,” Grove said, noting that he purposefully didn’t go into the violent history given his audience’s youth.
Aside from the fact that the European participants in what is most commonly regarded as the first Thanksgiving in 1621 didn’t wear belt buckles on shoes or hats, the Native Americans also have a complicated relationship with the holiday’s narrative.
Members of the Wampanoag tribe did likely have a meal with the Plymouth, Mass., settlers and they agreed to protect each other from other tribes. But that was not a crucial part of “Thanksgiving” ceremonies until centuries later (Abraham Lincoln first formally established the holiday in 1863, and like those before, referred generally to a time to give thanks). And the images of harmony belie that Native-European interactions in colonial days included later slaughters perpetrated both by settlements and various tribes, attempted forced conversion to Christianity and mass deaths from natives caused by disease, both accidentally and intentionally distributed. Irritated by the narrative of peace, the United Native Americans of New England deemed the day “Day of Mourning in 1970.
The Wampanoag, like many U.S.-based tribes, are believed by many historians to have already seen as much as 70-90 percent of their populations wiped out by disease before the Mayflower landed, possibly a continent-wide casualty of new European diseases for which natives had no immune defense.
But Groves instead kept his presentation positive, introducing his culture to a new generation to get beyond stereotypes and construction-paper cultural exchanges.