Thanksgiving is a pause. One of the rare days of the year that everything goes quiet, and we simply gather to feast. I love Thanksgiving. And I also feel conflicted about it. Why do we tell Thanksgiving stories that we know are based on lies? And why, as teachers, do we celebrate these untruths with pilgrim hats and feathered headbands, pictures of a harmonious first feast and Plymouth Rock? As Malcom X famously said, "We didn't land on Plymouth Rock. The Rock was landed on us."
As authors Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker write in their book, "All The Real Indians Died Off", the Thanksgiving tale "is a collective amnesia that fuels the perpetuation of Native American stereotypes, playing out over and over again in the classrooms and textbooks of American schoolchildren, generation after generation."
How do we teach an honest version of the Thanksgiving story, one that honors indigenous and African voices, while also practicing gratitude and joy? We can do both, with an open heart. It begins with the stories we tell. I propose we challenge 5 old stories and start telling 5 new ones.
OLD STORIES. #1: The Pilgrims: According to The United American Indians of New England "The pilgrims (who did not even call themselves pilgrims) did not come here seeking religious freedom; they already had that in Holland. They came here as part of a commercial venture. They introduced sexism, racism, anti-lesbian and gay bigotry, jails, and the class system to these shores. One of the very first things they did when they arrived on Cape Cod -- before they even made it to Plymouth -- was to rob Wampanoag graves at Corn Hill and steal as much of the Indians' winter provisions of corn and beans as they were able to carry." James W. Loewen writes in “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong", "They were also coming here in order to establish a religious theocracy, which they did. That’s not exactly the same as coming here for religious freedom. It’s kind of coming here against religious freedom.”
#2: Plymouth Rock: In the short video "How Thanksgiving Really Went Down", we learn that "Plymouth used to be the location of a cleared Native American village. The land was cleared because the Native Americans who had lived there died in an epidemic left by slave raiders." The real history is one of genocide.
#3: The First Thanksgiving: The UAINE teaches that "The first official "Day of Thanksgiving" was proclaimed in 1637 by Governor Winthrop. He did so to celebrate the safe return of men from the Massachusetts Bay Colony who had gone to Mystic, Connecticut to participate in the massacre of over 700 Pequot women, children, and men."
#4: The Feast: “Thanksgiving is full of embarrassing facts. The Pilgrims did not introduce the Native Americans to the tradition; Eastern Indians had observed autumnal harvest celebrations for centuries,” Loewen explains. "What is known is that the Pilgrims harvested crops and that the Wampanoag brought five deer. If fowl graced the table, it was probably duck or goose." Read more in David Cutler's blog.
#5: The Indians: As for Squanto, Loewen writes that"Tisquantum, known as Squanto, did play a large role in helping the Pilgrims, as American children are taught. His people, the Patuxet, a band of the Wampanoag tribe, had lived on the site where the Pilgrims settled. When they arrived, he became a translator for them in diplomacy and trade with other native people, and showed them the most effective method for planting corn and the best locations to fish, Ms. Sheehan said. That’s usually where the lesson ends, but that’s just a fraction of his story. He was captured by the English in 1614 and later sold into slavery in Spain. He spent several years in England, where he learned English. He returned to New England in 1619, only to find his entire Patuxet tribe dead from smallpox. He met the Pilgrims in March 1621."
Another short video "Native American History Tell The Real History of Thanksgiving" tells of the appropriation of Native land, that Abraham Lincoln made the modern version of this holiday official, to boost patriotism during the Civil War. "Abraham Lincoln, the same president who ordered the largest execution of Dakota people in United States history."
These are difficult stories to read, to hear, to tell. But it essential that we listen to Native American voices this time of year and learn from this cruel history. As we do so, we can tell new stories, stories of gratitude.
NEW STORIES. #1: Gratitude for the Earth: What if we learned from the Native American traditions and viewed the Earth as a Living system? What if we considered how every choice we make will affect the next 7 generations? Imagine the beauty we would discover if we saw our planet this way.
#2: Gratitude for the Farmworkers: What if we took time before each meal to really thank those who saved and planted the seeds, who nurtured the soil, who tended the crops, who harvested the fruits and vegetables? So much energy went into feeding us. Imagine if we appreciated all the effort it took to bring food to our tables.
#3: Gratitude for Democracy: Our representational government has roots in the Iroquois nation. It is easy to get cynical about politics, but what if we truly organized ourselves and our communities? What if we committed ourselves to justice and problem-solving, collectively? What if we actively participated in our democracy?
#4: Gratitude for Friends and Family: We never know how long we have together. What if we made the effort to share what we appreciate about one another, often. No grand gestures, just quiet moments of recognition. More curiosity and more wonder. We are lucky to find ourselves in good company and to be loved.
#5: Gratitude for Colleagues, Staff and Students: In teaching we find a lot of moments to celebrate one another. We have some great traditions in our field. I feel very lucky to work with so many dedicated and creative colleagues. What if we expressed that more? And what if we expressed more daily gratitude for our support staff, our cleaners and our maintenance people? We couldn't do our jobs without them.
I have a daily practice I would like to share. At the conclusion of every class that I lead, I thank my students for their hard work. They make coming to work each day a true joy. I am grateful and I tell them so. How could we make even more of an effort to cultivate a daily practice of gratitude in our classes?
These are my reflections on Thanksgiving this year. This is how I will be celebrating, not taking anything for granted.