Stop Spreading Lies About Thanksgiving

Ali Michael, Ph.D,

Thanksgiving is upon us—in the air, in the trees, in the longer nights and anticipation of a long weekend. But also, in the grocery stores and in our schools. Thanksgiving has been distilled to a hardly visible holiday in schools, one which rarely drives curricular instruction. And yet, when we do mention it, it is almost entirely the mythology that we teach

Particularly in pre-school and elementary school, we discuss Thanksgiving (the myth), and our learning lasts a lifetime. Ask any adult what Thanksgiving is about, and most people will recite the myth that they learned as a young child: Thanksgiving is a holiday based on the myth that once upon a time, the Native Americans and the Pilgrims celebrated a peaceful meal together.  

In this mythology, we call Native people “Native Americans” in spite of the fact that at that time in history, most Native people considered their own existence to be directly challenged by American-ness. We call Pilgrims “Pilgrims,” rather than colonists or colonizers. But the biggest omission of this holiday is that there is evidence that the peace meal we celebrate and replicate never actually happened at all. 

This year, as Thanksgiving rolls around, consider setting the record straight. Even as the topic of Thanksgiving may occupy very little of your attention in class—or at home— let the time it does take be dedicated to correcting the myths, rather than reinforcing them.

MAKE THANKSGIVING ABOUT GIVING THANKS

  • For younger children, Thanksgiving can be about gratitude rather than reinforcing stereotypes. Many Tribal Nations had stories about giving thanks that you can read around this time. “Thanksgiving: A Native Perspective” is a collection of stories of giving thanks. 
  • Teach about Native Americans Today and in the 500 years since Columbus. Challenge your students to learn 562 Tribal Nations today and 50 Tribal Nations near you.
  • Help students see that it was not a weakness of culture on the part of Native Americans that led to their exploitation by Europeans, it was a disrespect for Native people and their cultures on the part of the Europeans.
  • Invite Native people from your area to come to speak. 

MAKE NATIVE PEOPLE VISIBLE

  • Ask yourself, “Does my curriculum teach students to identify with Columbus, European colonizers and settlers?” If so, create opportunities for students to identify with Native Americans.
  • Do your books and novels other Native Americans, or help students see from the perspectives of Native people?
  • Think about images of Native people and why they matter. Talk with your students about how Native Americans are represented in the media. Challenge them to change the way they see Native Americans.
  • Plan a trip for your students to visit a Museum of Indian Culture.
    Some schools, districts and counties have changed the name “Thanksgiving Break” to “Fall Break.” Discuss this change with your students. 

DO NOT DRESS CHILDREN AS NATIVE AMERICANS

  • Dressing children like Native Americans is a form of stereotyping and dehumanization.
  • This practice perpetuates stereotypical notions of Native Americans and teaches children to appropriate from other cultures.
  • Using Native American images and icons as mascots is also a form of dehumanization. This point creates a space to discuss controversial mascots or symbols with your students.

TEACH ONLY TRUTH

  • If your students are too young to learn about genocide, don’t teach them about genocide. But don’t teach them falsehoods that they will have to later unlearn. Falsehoods that go in early form the template of our assumptions and common knowledge and are very hard to eradicate.
  • Teaching untruths about the racial history of the U.S. alienates people of color from school, especially history/social studies. It widens the achievement gap.
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