Teaching the Truth About Thanksgiving

I grew up on Peanuts, and I’ve always been especially partial to their holiday movies like It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, and A Charlie Brown Christmas. One of the bonus episodes is called The Mayflower Voyages. It tells the story of the hardships the Pilgrims faced on their way to the new world and how Squanto and Chief Massasoit helped them survive, naturally featuring Snoopy and the gang. I always thought it was cute and informational. As an adult, I look at it with different eyes. What was once a charming cartoon about the first Thanksgiving became yet another example of the whitewashing of American history.

I always loved Thanksgiving as a student. I remember wearing my buckled pilgrim hat to school for kindergarten and cutting up the fruit for the first grade feast. When I became a teacher, I continued to celebrate Thanksgiving at school, but I always focused on the gratitude aspect. Even though I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, there was always something prickly about the historical part. One year, my grade level put on a Thanksgiving play. I definitely balked at the romanticized version of the story and silently objected to the “Little Pilgrims and Indians” song, but I have to admit that I didn’t do anything about it.

When I began to work more in the areas of diversity and equity, I came to understand that the colonial-centric narrative has suppressed the native one. History favors the aggressors, and we have the post-WWI advent of textbooks to thank for a widely propagated story that is at best propaganda and at worst an outright lie.

You need look no further than the events at Standing Rock to understand that the oppression of Native Americans continues to this day. We owe it to our children to speak truth about the experience of the people indigenous to this land. We must also recognize and honor that fact that many of our Native students view Thanksgiving as a painful reminder of the genocide of millions of their people. An accurate portrayal of the first Thanksgiving is a good start.

It begins with dispelling the following myths. I know there are other misconceptions about topics like what was actually eaten (hint: not turkey) and that the holiday was celebrated by the Pilgrims and Native Americans every year afterward (it wasn’t). However, here I’ll focus on myths that are rooted in the oppression of native people.

Myth #1: The Pilgrims invited the Wampanoags to take part in a feast celebrating the first harvest in 1621.

The English crops that first year were meager at best. It was actually the Wampanoags who brought most of the food. The two groups never sat together at a table in the spirit of cross-cultural exchange and mutual respect. In fact, the Pilgrims only invited members of the tribe in order for them to sign a treaty that granted the Pilgrims the land at Plymouth.

Myth #2: The Wampanoags were just being friendly.

The Wampanoags had had encounters with Europeans before, largely in the form of slave traders who raided their homes and villages. They fed the Pilgrims through the harsh winter and taught them how to grow food despite their prior experiences. The generosity of the native people, viewed through this lens, takes on even greater significance.

Myth #3: Squanto learned English to help the settlers.

Squanto was himself captured and enslaved. Upon his arrival in Europe, he learned English in order to escape.  

Myth #4: The Pilgrims and Indians were fast friends.

Pilgrim leaders didn’t mince words when it came to the Native Americans; they considered them “ignorant, heathen savages.” In return for their help, the Wampanoag tribe was nearly wiped out within the span of 2 years. Most died from diseases the Europeans brought with them, but many others were victims of violence.

Myth #5: Massachusetts Governor William Bradford declared the holiday as a day of thanksgiving in 1637.

The first official Thanksgiving was held as a celebration to mark the end of a bloody crusade against the Pequot Nation. On May 26th, the Pilgrim militia raided a Pequot village and massacred everyone in it – 700 men, women, and children. Preacher Increase Mather praised the “victory” of sending so many “heathen souls to hell.” In essence, our beloved holiday has its origins in bigotry, self-righteousness, and ethnic cleansing. Since 1970, many Native Americans have chosen to mark the fourth Thursday in November as a Day of Mourning, in remembrance of all that was lost.

I’m not saying you have to give up Thanksgiving (although Columbus Day is another story). We have some wonderful traditions that are worth keeping: breaking bread together, spending time with loved ones, and reflecting on all that for which we are grateful. But we’d be remiss if we continued to trot out the false Thanksgiving story that has become part of American folklore. We must also use the day to remember how much an entire people suffered, and to work toward justice in the world so that this never happens again. Because it is happening now, to the water protectors in North Dakota.

We can’t afford to shield our children from what may be for us an uncomfortable truth. If we are to be socially responsible, then it’s our duty as parents and teachers to educate ourselves and our children. We must raise the next generation to be empathetic champions of social justice. If we can do that, we will truly have something to be thankful for.