I'm sure we all have experienced the same chilly November day in 4th grade, walking into the cafeteria wearing black construction paper hats or headdresses with craft-store feathers and sitting down to replicate the iconic Thanksgiving dinner of the Pilgrims & Native Americans that occurred so long ago. Little did we know, this was the sugarcoated American version our teachers taught us instead of the raw Native American story. The story we were given is full of historical inaccuracies and the retelling of it is extremely harmful to the Wampanoag Indians whose lives and society were forever damaged after the English arrived in Plymouth (Bugos).
This is not to blame educators, they were just following the state standards given to them. What we most importantly need to look at is what these state standards fail to implement in our classrooms and how it misinforms generation after generation. It is time to restructure these state standards and look more closely at the textbooks that are assigned so students can learn the real story that is oftentimes sheltered away.
One of the major misconceptions students are taught about Thanksgiving is that the Native Americans and Pilgrims were friendly with each other and there was no bad blood between the two. While this narrative can be true to an extent, it is still extremely false and harmful to the indigenous community. Sure, their relationship was like a diplomatic treaty of protection, but more often than not the settlers took advantage of these indigenous communities and took what they wanted while spreading deadly diseases. Another thing we did not learn growing up was that on top of mass murder and stealing land, these colonizers also captured and sold Native Americans into slavery. A story we rarely hear about is of Squanto, a Native American of the Patuxet tribe who served as an interpreter and guide to the pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Squanto learned translation and teaching skills out of necessity after being kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery in Spain. When he returned to Cape Cod, he learned that he was the last remaining member of his tribe (Anderson).
Another false image we are often given in schools is that Native Americans were uncivilized until the European colonizers came and enlightened them. This could not be any much further from the truth. Natives had well established communities way before the colonizers arrived.
Most importantly though, possibly the most misleading ideology surrounding this holiday is the shared dinner as a symbol for colonialism. It is not untrue that the Natives wanted to form an alliance with the Europeans, it was just wrongly misinterpreted for hundreds of years. The Wampanoag leader, Ousamequin, reached out to the English at Plymouth in hopes to form an alliance with them not because he wanted to be friendly, but mainly for the reason being that his people have been wiped out due to the deadly diseases that were caught by the colonizers themselves and saw the English as an opportunity to fend off his tribal rebels (Bugos).
So how can we rethink Thanksgiving? It's simple--educate yourself on the Native American perspective on the holiday. It is not to blame educators for teaching us this one-sided narrative, what is more important is that teachers begin to break this cycle and teach their students the true story about Thanksgiving. This damaging cycle traces back as early as the late 1880s when Jane G. Austin published her novel Standish of Standish: A Story of the Pilgrims, which described the first Thanksgiving. This novel became a bestseller and instantly spread the image of Thanksgiving as a peaceful and friendly transaction between the Natives and Pilgrims.
Throughout the centuries, this perspective of Thanksgiving became the leading narrative of the holiday in schools, with false depictions of Native Americans and leaving out all the bad parts about the colonists. What was most damaging, however, is that in some cases, the only time Native Americans were brought up in school was in the topic of Thanksgiving, which leaves a damaging impression on students--assuming that Native Americans no longer exist. When in fact, there are 573 federally recognized tribes today and indigenous culture rampant throughout the nation. The good news is though that there are educators out there who are challenging the norm, and changing the way they teach Thanksgiving to their students.
It is important to recognize that learning and teaching the true story behind Thanksgiving does not make you any less American, willingly choosing to refuse the real American story does.
Native American & Indigenous Charities to Donate to For Thanksgiving
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Learned in School.” Insider, Insider, 24 Nov. 2020, www.insider.com/history-of-
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Charlotte Hilton Andersen. “The Real History of Thanksgiving.” Reader’s Digest,
Reader’s Digest, 16 Sept. 2021, www.rd.com/article/history-of-thanksgiving/.
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“Everything You Learned about Thanksgiving Is Wrong (Published 2017).” The New
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Smithsonian Magazine, and Claire Bugos. “The Myths of the Thanksgiving Story
and the Lasting Damage They Imbue.” Smithsonian Magazine, 26 Nov. 2019,
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Waxman, Olivia B. “‘I Was Teaching a Lot of Misconceptions.’ the Way American
Kids Are Learning about the ‘First Thanksgiving’ Is Changing.” Time, Time, 21
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