The Old Dominion may legitimately claim to have hosted the first Thanksgiving observance in the United States, but students in Northern Virginia schools are still taught about the holiday New England-style.
"The First Thanksgiving was actually at Berkeley Plantation in Virginia, not at Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts," said Seymour Stiss, Arlington's superintendent for social studies, who was surrounded last week by 200 little Indians and Pilgrims at Claremont Elementary School. "But reenacting that one wouldn't be as colorful."
One problem with the Virginia original -- which occurred near what is now Charles City in 1619, two years before the more celebrated observance in Massachusetts -- is that it was entirely religious. There was no turkey. No cranberry dressing. And no Indians.
"The kids really are into the Indians more than the Pilgrims," said Grace exciting being an Indian."
At Weyanoke Elementary School in Fairfax County last week, the 26 kindergarten students in Jean Zahniser's Thanksgiving play were divided evenly between Indians and Pilgrims. But the roles were assigned rather than chosen. One consolation for the Pilgrims was that they got most of the speaking parts.
"Thank you for sending us Squanto inour time of need," said 6-year-old Blair Holmgren, playing the part of Massachusetts Gov. William Bradford during a three-act production which earned rave reviews from an audience of 16 parents.
"I didn't really know the significance of Thanksgiving," said Muhammad Zafarullah Khan, a councilor at the Embassy of Pakistan, who watched his daughter Shaita whoop Indian-like after slaying an imaginary deer in a classroom forest.
Teacher Zahniser and her aide, Jane Barrett, had been preparing their students for Thanksgiving for a month. The class heard stories, saw film clips and examined genuine Indian artifacts which Blair Holmgren's mother, Elizabeth, brought from the Bureau of Indian Affairs where she works.
Holmgren also arranged for a Creek Indian to visit the school. Although the visitor was from Oklahoma,Creeks originally came from the Eastern Seaboard. But the biggest surprise for students, said Zahniser, was that the Indian visitor arrived in a business suit.
At Claremont, there was no play, said Gnorski, because too many students were still struggling with English.
"Many of our children have traveled to this country themselves," said Gnorski of the school's enrollment which is 15.2 percent Asian and 9.5 percent Hispanic."They are actually pilgrims."
Claremont principal Ann Fenton said there are approximately 26 different languages or dialects spoken by students at the school. Standing at one end of the room, wearing her own Indian headband, Fenton added, "I don't see too many palefaces at our feast."
After a few traditional songs, including one with a "gobble gobble" chorus, the 200 kindergarten and first grade students concenrated on popcorn, cranberry bread and peanut butter, which the students made in class using an "authentic osterizer," said Gnorski.
Patrick Ferguson, 6, had proclaimed himself "big chief" of the Indians because he was the only one with real feathers in his head band.
"I got these in a chicken barn in France," said the chief, who couldn't remember exactly when, but thought he might have made the trip the "day before yesterday."
First grader Rebecca Grace, however, was the only student who could claim an ancestral link to the American Indian.
"Her father is part Cherokee and Choctaw," said Valerie Berry. "We tried to give her information about indians before, but being able to actually participate like this . . . really helped her to understand."
Some of the students at Claremont, particularly the recent immigrants, did not seem to understand the significance of the costumes or the occasion. At one paper place setting on the auditorium floor, Supereath Trang sat almost trancelike. Just three days before, Trang had enrolled in the school after a two-month journey from Cambodia. Last week he sat wearing a tall pilgrim hat, before a plate of wet peanut butter and apple juice which he never touched.
"They're a little overwhelmed with all of this," said kindergarten teacher Marjorie Goodwin.
Answered administrator Stiss: "They'll learn from it. That's how you get to be an American."