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As we come out of the Thanksgiving holiday I want to prompt you to think back to your first experience learning about the holiday widely celebrated throughout the United States. Most of us can remember sitting down in our third, fourth or fifth grade classrooms for a feast made by our parents (and school volunteers), to paint hand turkeys and to learn about the pilgrims journey to find the America’s on the Mayflower. Recently, as I think back on these happy memories of my childhood, I am also reminded of one of the many ways the education system has failed to properly teach us, as students, America's true history. They say history repeats itself and that has proven to be true but we hope that in most cases, people can learn from it and try to do better, to be better but what do we do if we don’t actually know what happened?
At our Thanksgiving get-together yesterday we, like every year before, went around the table and said what we were thankful for. The answers ranged from your typical things like love, careers to the usual roof over our head and “this meal”, and while it felt nice to call attention to the people and the little things that we appreciate in life, I couldn’t help but wonder what the true history of Thanksgiving was. I had an idea of the meaning of the day in my head, and truthfully I knew it wasn’t exactly what I was taught, but I wanted to learn more, to understand the true history of this “holiday” and hopefully learn from it, do better, be better.
The general idea of Thanksgiving I was taught in school goes something like this; The pilgrims boarded a ship from England in search of a new world, they landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts and discovered America! The “Indians” (as we were taught to call them...we’ll get into that later) who were living on the land joined together with the new settlers for a big feast celebrating friendship and hard work…
As we know now, this idealistic version we’ve been taught is not the truth. This idea that the Native Americans (NOT Indians (I am hurt that at one point anyone thought this term was acceptable) simply met Europeans with open arms and handed over their land is bloodless, and can you begin to imagine how incredibly damaging and burdensome the concept of our traditional thanksgiving is to the surviving people of these tribes? The true meaning of this day for the people it is actively hurting is a day of mourning and sadness, while we use it as a day of celebration.
While I was researching, I came across the quote below from a Smithsonian article describing Author David Silverman’s conversations with the Wampanoags in his book This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving.
I thought it gave an incredible overview of the massive amount of history we are missing out on learning about and from...
[As always, I encourage you to do your own research and take the time to learn the true history of the holiday.]
In 2009, President Barack Obama signed “The Native American Heritage Day Resolution” designating the Friday after Thanksgiving “Native American Heritage Day.” It was Obama’s goal to bring light to what *actually* happened and to formally recognize the contributions the “First Americans” have and continue to make. This bill was only well received by about a quarter of federally recognized tribes (184 out of 567 to be exact). Many members of the community were troubled that the day after Thanksgiving was chosen as many Americans choose to spend the day fighting for Black Friday deals or already on vacation with their families, not to mention zero news coverage highlighting the day. Have we forgotten Native Americans? Is this the best we can do as a society? What can I do to help tell this story? My mind has been racing.
Make sure that as you are spending the weekend with family and friends, actively engage in conversations about how we can better learn about the past to make sure that this cycle of erasure can, hopefully, one day come to an end. Until then, the least we can do is start talking about it rather than pretending it didn’t happen.
If you’d like to continue your research: