OAKLAND -- The entire second-grade class at Joaquin Miller Elementary School took part in its 35th annual re-enactment of the first Thanksgiving feast.
The Nov. 9 event was held at Roberts Regional Park in the hills, and 73 students and more than 100 parents were on hand to bring 1621 alive again through authentic foods, costumes, games and crafts.
Sylviane Cohn, one of three teachers present and a primary organizer of this year's feast, said that the goal of the event was to give the students as accurate an experience as possible of what life was like for the pilgrims and American Indians living at the time.
"A month of curriculum leads up to this," Cohn said. The lessons are a part of Joaquin Miller's Living History Program, a curriculum which Cohn said is exclusive to the school.
According to Cohn, each student was assigned the role of an actual person who was either a pilgrim or a member of the Wampanoag tribe at the first Thanksgiving. Research was required to find out who each student's person was, where he or she came from, and what his or her perspective of this historic day would have been.
Every one present, including parents, was dressed up in either Native American or pilgrim garb to evoke the look of the time.
"We work hard to not teach the myths," said teacher Sara Green. "We teach the truths. The pilgrims could not have made it on their own. The Wampanoag and pilgrims spent three days together at the original feast. They lived off the land."
With the help of parent volunteers, the students also got to see what it was like to make the traditional foods the pilgrims and Wampanoag would have eaten. Kim Davis, a parent volunteer making the rounds of each station, said the parents provided the materials while the students get to experience authentic cooking firsthand.
A bell was rung at 9 a.m. to officially begin the day's activities. Students then rotated between three different stations consisting of either cooking, crafts or games. In the cooking area, students watched over pots of water set to boil for a variety of dishes. Lobster, crab, clam chowder, rabbit stew, vegetables, corn on the cob, salmon, popcorn, squash and duck were among the foods being prepared, all of which were made on site. Students were instructed to chop vegetables, stir various ingredients and stir the food as it was being cooked.
On a nearby field, students participated in Thanksgiving-themed games that the first settlers would have played. Along with marbles and horseshoes, a wooden beam was set up for "boffing." The games were played between two people holding pillow-sized sacks filled with cloth. Each player then attempted to "boff" the other off the beam in a cross between a pillow fight and tightrope walking. There was also a stockade set up as a form of "musical chairs," wherein the person left locked in by the hands and neck would have to remain where they were for the duration of the next turn.
A crafts table offered a variety of activities. Small sheets of copper were made into art with the use of hardened templates. Students signed their names on proclamations with real quill pens. There were also wicks and different colors of wax available to make candles by heating the wax in coffee cans.
The start of the feast itself was announced with another bell at 12:30 p.m. Before the food was served, a few special guests were introduced for the crowd. Ann Hughes and Milli-Ann Iuso-Cox, the school's first teachers to plan and carry out the Joaquin Miller Thanksgiving Feast in 1977, came to see the latest celebration.
"It's just gotten better," Hughes said. "We came here and it was absolutely perfect."
There were also two guests who brought a special historical significance to the event. Dave Howland, whose son took part in the first 1977 feast as well, is a direct descendant of John Howland, who was aboard the pilgrims' journey on the Mayflower. According to stories passed down since then, John Howland was washed off the ship once it came to port. Though the extreme temperatures made his survival doubtful, he managed to live and thus ensured the preservation of his name to the present day.
Howland was joined by another famous descendant, Miles Standish. Directly related to the renowned military leader across 11 generations, Standish was dressed in authentic reproductions of the armor, helmet and sword that English soldiers would have worn at the time. He spoke to the crowd about his ancestor, whose life was portrayed in the famous poem "The Courtship of Miles Standish" by Henry Longfellow.
"He did get married," Standish said, "or else I wouldn't be here."
The original Standish was hired by the venture capitalists of the time who had invested in the crew aboard the Mayflower. Standish, having experienced battle in the Netherlands previously, was responsible for protecting the pilgrims, as well as the other half of the ship's crew who were simply looking for a different life in the New World.
After the short history lesson, teacher Sara Green came forward to give a Wampanoag blessing before the meal. Everyone then ate together, enjoying the novelty of the unique dishes and each others' company.
Allison Justice, a mother and volunteer for the day, said the event had much to teach the students.
"It's great for the kids to experience what life was like," Justice said. "They eat duck, rabbit, lobster, stuff we don't serve at home. Back then, it was based on availability."
After the meal, the parents gathered to listen to each student recite a speech they had memorized from the accounts of their respective characters. The various stories painted a picture of loss and hope. The American Indians, though happy to help the pilgrims, bemoaned the beginning of what would be the end of most of their culture. The deaths of family members weighed on many pilgrims, but winter broke in to spring and spoke to the enormous help the Wampanoag brought to their future.
Once the speeches ended, the students thanked their parents with a song, and everyone applauded another successful re-enactment of the first Thanksgiving.
With plenty of sun and enthusiasm, parents and students came away with an experience that was both fun and educational.
"It's just adorable," parent volunteer Miki Levine said, referring to the look of antiquity brought to life. She was grateful for how well the event turned out, saying, "Thank you, sun gods."