3 Engaging Thanksgiving Inquiry Ideas to Use in the Classroom

The autumn season in North America is punctuated with holidays like Halloween and Thanksgiving, but the latter usually gets a gloss-over in the classroom. While many of us wouldn’t think that Thanksgiving is an opportune time for an inquiry project, it actually happens to be a great starting point for a lot of fun and engaging content.

The Thanksgiving inquiry ideas mentioned below touch on subjects like history, culture, science, art, and English. Furthermore, they encompass a wide variety of topics such as colonialism, food security, climate change, and reconciliation. There’s a lot of relevance in these topics for students in this day and age.

Whether you’re teaching in an elementary or secondary classroom, the ideas below will help to incorporate the holiday into your planning in a thoughtful, engaging, and meaningful way for your students. I would suggest browsing through the Smithsonian’s Essential Understandings framework first in order to deepen and expand your knowledge and understanding of Native American culture. Some links are affiliates. Please see our affiliate disclosure policy here.

Thanksgiving Inquiry Idea #1: How does the story of Thanksgiving change depending on who is telling it?

For years, the traditional tales surrounding Thanksgiving usually follow this format: Europeans land in the “New World”, are faced with harsh and unexpected difficulties, then are approached by Indigenous groups who welcome them to take part in a mutually enjoyable feast. However, this story is far from the truth. Historians have worked hard to interrupt this inaccurate story and shift the focus from the Americanization of the holiday back to its roots in Indigenous culture.

For most of us, the traditional story of Thanksgiving is a Euro-centric one like the one described above. This is because it depicts the events from the perspective of Europeans, and in doing so, glorifies colonization and ignores the reality of history. What it neglects is perspective. Fortunately, starting an inquiry with the question “how does the story of Thanksgiving change depending on who is telling it?” has the potential to branch off into a few different sub-topics.

Why is the storyteller just as important as the story being told?

Students might choose to broaden this question and investigate how stories in general can change depending on who the storyteller is. Furthermore, they can investigate why the person telling the story is just as important as the content of their story. For example, students can read the story of Thanksgiving from the perspective of Martin Frobisher and his crew when they landed at Frobisher Bay (present-day Nunavut) and compare that to the traditional stories of Thanksgiving from the First Nations that predate European arrival by several years.

If students continue down this path they should focus on the importance of perspective. For example, why would it be advantageous to tell a story from only one point of view, and why would this be problematic? Consulting a variety of sources, including oral histories, can be a powerful way to understand not only the holiday itself, but also the impact that they have on individuals’ lives. For example, students can read the Suppressed Speech of Wamsutta (Frank B.) James, a Wampanoag man who spoke at a state dinner in 1970 about the history of colonization at Plymouth, Massachusetts. It also offers students a chance to understand the power of understanding the past through multiple perspectives. Furthermore, considering the storytelling as opposed to the story helps students understand the construction of identity and how narrative helps with that.

Suggested resources:

Thanksgiving Inquiry Idea #2: What is the relationship between Indigenous culture and food?

This is an interesting inquiry idea that goes beyond the generic “Indian unit” that typically focuses on shelter, food, and clothing. Students investigate more deeply the relationship between people and their foods. This may include a focus on:

  • The cultivation of different types of crops
  • How Indigenous people selected the strongest seeds to persevere during difficult or tumultuous growing seasons
  • The development of different varieties of crops
  • How different farming techniques were developed as a response to changes in the environment, weather patterns, or climate
  • The transition from hunter-gatherer communities to more modern ones
  • How Indigenous groups honoured their agricultural gifts and made the most out of every part of their crops

Exploring the consistencies and changes with regard to traditional Indigenous farming techniques, the importance in adhering to a structured and efficient harvest system, and contributions to medicines from roots, plants, and trees are all other paths of inquiry students can take. 

The concept of food sovereignty

Photo by Ansgar Walk

Additionally, students can explore the concept of food sovereignty and the issues surrounding traditional land use in our modern climate (both environmentally and politically). For example, the Inuit in Canada have experienced a plethora of issues that have led to chronic food insecurity. Some of these issues include:

  • A disconnect from traditional harvesting practises, including lack of resources to train and employ Inuit for jobs in these industries
  • Lack of control over natural resources and food supply
  • Outdated policy frameworks and funding models that don’t recognize Inuit leadership in decision-making
  • Lack of long-term strategic planning and funding in infrastructure (such as small craft harbours)

Food sovereignty is different from food scarcity in a few ways. Food insecurity means that someone lacks access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food. For example, someone might not be able to afford a balanced diet, or access to culturally appropriate food. On the other hand, food sovereignty is defined as a need for a food system that values and listens to input from citizens and producers. It promotes the right of consumers to control their food and nutrition; the rights of those who produce the food should be ensured in order to have true food sovereignty. Students can investigate either one of these topics and find tons of information on both.

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Thanksgiving Inquiry Idea #3: Why is interconnectedness important in maintaining traditions and culture?

In almost every Indigenous culture, spiritual beliefs involve a reciprocal relationship with nature. This includes offerings in the form of food and important cultural objects. They understand that life occurs in a cycle, and that all patterns – weather, farming, growth, hibernation – are considered part of a balanced environment.

An inquiry about the importance of interconnectedness highlights the special relationship Indigenous people have with the natural world. It can also help students understand why maintaining traditional ties with the land, family, and culture is so imperative.

Seasonal wheel chart. Illustration by Emily Aitken (2004)

Students can begin by investigating the interconnectedness through traditional stories. For example, they can read the story of the Navajo people of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico and how the First Man and First Woman were produced from two ears of corn. This story highlights the idea that all life deserves respect, and that life occurs in cycles. From here, students have the chance to explore concepts such as:

  • Maintaining a balanced environment
  • Keeping ecosystems harmonious and thriving
  • Taking only what you need from Mother Earth
  • Adaptations to hunting, gathering, and farming to preserve the earth
  • How different groups adapted to the world around them to maintain harmony while maintaining their traditional ties

Students can also explore the connection between specific traditional foods and spiritual beliefs, as well as the use of foods in traditional ceremonies. For example, certain plants are seen as representations of people, and therefore are honoured during summer rain dances.

Importance of seasons

Another inquiry idea might be to have students investigate the connection between the seasons and the life cycle. This idea helps students see the links between traditional belief systems and the recurrence of seasonal patterns. For example, the Iroquois have a variety of seasonal Longhouse ceremonies that honour things like people, creation, connection, and successful harvests. More about Traditional Iroquois Celebrations can be found here.

Students can also choose a specific Indigenous group and investigate different ceremonies and celebrations that occur throughout the year that are specific to a particular season. For example, some groups celebrate the return of the salmon, the blossoming of crabapples, and the berry-picking season. Since every place has its own seasonal events, there are a lot of options for research. In addition, a seasonal wheel can be introduced by a guest Elder to show students the importance of connectivity between the four seasons and also the importance of specific foods or objects in each season.

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Have you used any similar Thanksgiving inquiries in your classroom? Comment your experiences down below, or join the conversation on Instagram!

Cover photo by Joseph Gonzalez on Unsplash

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