As the weather gets cooler and the holidays draw near, it’s time to start thinking about Thanksgiving. Specifically, how will we discuss it in our classrooms this year? Traditionally, conversation on Thanksgiving has been about the hardships of the Pilgrims, their trusty pals the Indians, and how, at harvest time (in November in Massachusetts? Yea right!), they all sat down for a peaceful, tasty meal. Now, we know that this is not the true version of events, and that the story of Native American interactions with newly-arrived Europeans is much more involved than that. So how can we communicate this with our students? Should we communicate this to our students?
For this week’s post, we are going to take a look at a resource for educators (well, it’s technically addressed to parents, but the content is equally relevant to teachers). We will be looking at Michael Dorris’ “Why I’m Not Thankful for Thanksgiving.” This article was published on behalf of Rethinking Schools and is available in its entirety for free on their website.
Now, to some, the title of this article alone is sacrilege. Why, then, should we use it as a basis for educating students? Well, we should consider it because of how Dorris reveals the inaccuracies embedded in the commonplace history that we have taught students for so long. And that is not the only reason. We know that history is not simply a thing of the past. Our historical actions have direct implications on our present and future. By addressing the complexities of our history, we can engage students in the issues that correlate in the present — including the human rights issues which many Native American and Latin American indigenous peoples face today. Many of the problems which these people encounter are a direct result of the era of colonization and conquest — a history symbolized by the “pilgrims’ thanksgiving.”
In his work, Dorris discusses the problems with Thanksgiving and how commercial ideas of “cute little Indians” are not only inaccurate but dangerous, perpetuating a misleading and demeaning stereotype that can stay with young children. Specifically, Dorris attributes misinformation about Thanksgiving to a larger problem of stereotyping in our culture. While many may think the idea of the feathered Indian in the class play or on the paper plates that line our tables are sweet or cute, the practice of instilling these ideas into the minds of children during their formative years (or at any point in their education) is deeply problematic. Although some may say that we are protecting young children from a truth overly brutal or graphic, aren’t we really doing them a disservice?
Many children in the United States learn the traditional Thanksgiving fib. However, I think most of us are aware by now that this was a point of major misinformation. When is soon enough to correct it? Middle school? High school? College? Graduate school? What about those students who do not go on to higher education? When will their views be reformed? Where and when does it benefit us to misinform students? These are questions I encourage us to ponder as we (re)formulate our classroom instruction regarding this “cheerful” holiday. Perhaps we can begin at the beginning with a thoughtful discussion about the holiday. Even if we postpone the more truthful and painful conversation until a later date, we can make a large impact by discarding demeaning stereotypes and representations.
I hope you will take some time to consider what Dorris has to say about the importance of rethinking Thanksgiving and our interactions with the little ones about it.
Until Next Time,