November 25, 2019
Thanksgiving is a few days away, and we reflect on how we teach the next generation about its history. Children in the past began to dress up as Pilgrims and Native Americans for school pageants, make Turkeys in arts and crafts, create headbands with feathers and clothing out of shopping bags, design hats with buckles on top, and listen to stories about the first Thanksgiving. When I was a child, I was taught these lessons and since I grew up in Massachusetts, I made a number of trips to Plimoth Plantation to interact with the living history interpreters. We were taught at a young age that Native Americans and the Pilgrims had their first Thanksgiving in 1621 when they shared food and learned to get along. This story was reinforced especially in the media, and rarely did the media challenge the story.
In the 1993 film Addams Family Values the camp Wednesday and Pugsley Addams attend put on a play based on the first Thanksgiving. Wednesday and other kids considered outcasts of the camp were assigned to portray Native Americans and the rest of the kids were cast as food and Pilgrims. The play began with the typical depiction of what our society has taught children about the first Thanksgiving including the Pilgrims finding common ground with the Native Americans. As one of the characters invited the Native Americans to their table, Wednesday breaks from the play and delivers this speech:
You have taken the land which is rightfully ours. Years from now my people will be forced to live in mobile homes on reservations. Your people will wear cardigans, and drink highballs. We will sell our bracelets by the roadsides. You will play golf and enjoy hot hors d’oeuvres. My people will have pain and degradation. Your people will have stick shifts. The gods of my tribe have spoken. They have said, “Do not trust the Pilgrims…”
Wednesday’s speech painted a different picture from the play attempted to tell, and is closer to the reality Native Americans face since their land was taken over. And now? The more we learned about Native Americans, the more we are moving away from this myth we were taught for generations.
I was introduced to the truth about the first Thanksgiving during one of my college History courses. Before we left for Thanksgiving, our professor assigned readings from the book The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony by James Deetz and Patricia Scott Deetz. The Deetzes pointed out the myth of Thanksgiving which opened my eyes more to how this myth was used as a credible source to teach Early American history and the disservice it does to representing the true nature of the Pilgrim/Native American relationship. In recent years, we have started to move away from teaching children the myth.
Time magazine released an article, which will be in the December 2nd through 9th edition of the magazine, focusing on the change in the way American children are learning about the first Thanksgiving. Their article covered a workshop in Washington D.C. called “Rethinking Thanksgiving in Your Classroom” in which teachers learned a better way to teach the Thanksgiving story to their students and to do so they did a lot of studying to learn about the story. The teachers were part of the movement to change the way Thanksgiving is taught in schools that had been stuck in the 19th century’s nostalgic interpretation of the past. While the first Thanksgiving was celebrated in 1621, it was not a national holiday until President Abraham Lincoln declared it to be so to unite a country torn by the Civil War. The late 19th century saw a number of instances of rebranding people and events in the first Thanksgiving to fit the idyllic narrative, and by the 1920s Thanksgiving was the most talked about holiday in classrooms while leaving out details that made the settlers look bad. It was assumed that the Native Americans have disappeared which was why non-Native Americans feel comfortable dressing children in costumes; the reality is there are 573 federally recognized tribes today, and the active Native American culture and communities can be found across the country. The 1960s and 1970s civil rights movement, with the growth of the American Indian Movement, made the difference between reality and the story of Thanksgiving harder to ignore.
Education Week also released an article that covered the turn to a different way to introduce the history of the first Thanksgiving. In addition to explaining the origins of how the celebration of Thanksgiving began and how the myth began to be taught in schools, they discussed when teachers noticed the need for change. Jacob Tsotigh, a citizen of the Kiowa tribe and the tribal education specialist for the National Indian Education Association, was quoted in the article stating that there is decreasingly less focus on the myth as people are made aware of the history being in actuality a myth as well as the realization that there is a different perspective which needs to be considered. While this myth has been shared for approximately 150 years, the Native American perspective has not been recognized in American schools. According to the article, Tsotigh recommended that to help students appreciate colonial oppression of Natives and the violence ensued from it the holiday should be reframed to honor representatives of Native communities who greeted the small number of European visitors at the time with open arms and believed in sharing with those less fortunate.
As we gather with family and friends this Thanksgiving, we should remember to not only express what we are thankful for but to also learn more about Native American culture and their perspectives about the holiday.
I have included additional resources about teaching Thanksgiving for more information. I am thankful to all of you who have either continued to read the blog since the beginning or have just started to read the blog.
Deetz, James, Patricia Scott Deetz, The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony, New York: Anchor Books, a division of Random House, Inc., 2000, pg. 22-24.