by Merissa Reed, Middle School history teacher and student equity programs coordinator
When I was growing up in Massachusetts, my fellow students and I acted out the “First Thanksgiving,” blurring fact with fiction as we used various “Indian” props regardless of their tribe of origin. In my elementary school, and around the country, history was taught through a monocultural lens. Lessons were ethnocentric: we were taught to evaluate other cultures according to preconceptions originating in the standards and customs of our own culture. Partially because of this, it wasn’t until much later in my life that I realized not everyone has the same view of Thanksgiving.
For many Native Americans, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning to remember losses of people, land, and culture. When history classes don’t acknowledge or teach that perspective, they are doing a disservice to students. As educator Chuck Larsen wrote in a 1986 memo to teachers in Tacoma Public Schools, “When you build a lesson on only half of the information, then you are not teaching the whole truth.”
My colleagues at Lakeside understand that it’s our responsibility to know and present more than just our own versions of Thanksgiving. But it can be hard to find narratives that accurately reflect the experiences of all peoples – particularly around American holidays. In 2010, when my fellow Lakeside teacher Ted Chen and I searched for a history textbook that satisfactorily taught inclusive history, we could not find one. So we curated our own curriculum. James Lowen, historian and author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong,” wrote what became our mantra: “the antidote to feel good history is not feel bad history, but honest and inclusive history.” On Thanksgiving, he writes, “If textbook authors feel compelled to give moral instruction, the way origin myths have always done, they could accomplish this aim by allowing students to learn both the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sides of the Pilgrim tale. Conflict would then become part of the story and students might discover that the knowledge they gain has implications for their lives today. Correctly taught, the issues of the era of the first Thanksgiving could help Americans grow more thoughtful and more tolerant, rather than more ethnocentric.”
For the last decade, Lakeside 7th graders have learned about the First Thanksgiving as part of a yearlong course on American history. Where we begin that story is a conversation-changer. In my class, we view opening footage from the History Channel’s documentary “America: The Story of Us,” which features an eagle flying over the untouched, seemingly empty wilderness of the Atlantic seaboard. The students discuss how that first “untouched” view sets the stage for a story about manifest destiny, a highly problematic idea that white people were intended by God to take the lands of indigenous people and others in order to possess the whole of what is now the United States. I ask them to consider how starting the story with vacancy and emptiness might set us up for conversations about European men and women who “tamed the wilderness” versus the genocide of indigenous people.
Through the Middle School Global Service Learning Program, half of Lakeside 8th graders live and learn in Native American communities for a week. In 7th grade, we aim to help them develop a more nuanced understanding, not only of Thanksgiving, but of America’s interactions with Native communities overall. The treaty breaking, the sending of Native American children to boarding schools, the forced segregation onto reservations – this past plays into our current and future interactions. If we walk through the world unaware that entire groups of people experience America differently, we cannot create an honest multicultural space in which to find a path forward.
Teaching honest and inclusive history is an essential step toward authentic repair. Recognizing the role of myths in perpetuating the systemic racism that exists in America is one way to shine a light on white supremacy and begin its deconstruction. In “White People Facing Race: Uncovering the Myths That Keep Racism in Place,” scholar and activist Peggy McIntosh writes, “I see the desire to keep our image of ourselves ‘clean’ as part of white privilege. Those of us who are white people in the United States feel entitled to feel good about ourselves because we have been shielded from the negative aspects of white history. We have received assurances that we are normal, admirable and deserving and that we have better values and behavior than people of color and around the world…We resist looking at racism because we fear damage to our perception of ourselves as ‘good people’ in the ‘greatest country’ in the world.”
In my classroom, I’ve seen students tackling the challenge of learning “other” perspectives on America’s past. They approach this difficult learning with their middle-school lens of equity and justice, which enrichens the discussions. Unlike many adults, students don’t focus on unproductive feelings of guilt or shame, and do not feel the lessons destroy their patriotism. In fact, they seem to be more hopeful about living in a nation where we have the potential to fix mistakes and expand liberties. They understand that this learning is key to building a truly inclusive multicultural America where all of us can feel that we belong.
See the following links for more educational resources on Thanksgiving:
- “This Thanksgiving, Make These Native Recipes From Indigenous Chefs” by Garin Pirnia.
- “Thanksgiving 2018” from Teaching Tolerance.
- “A Racial Justice Guide to Thanksgiving for Educators and Families” from Indigenous Again website.
- “When Trivia isn’t Trivial” by Katherine Watkins in Teaching Tolerance.
- “Room for Debate: Rethinking the Way We Teach Thanksgiving” from The New York Times.
- “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn