photo of children dressed as pilgrims and Native Americans

“History” in Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving to all my American friends! I hope you enjoy your turkey (not ham, what’s wrong with you?!), stuffing, cranberry sauce (my favorite), green bean casserole, corn pudding, dinner rolls, and sweet potatoes in your preferred form. Aside from the food, try to not fight with your families. And to kill some time after all that eating, let’s reflect on how the history of Thanksgiving is told in children’s education, with an ounce of egotism because I was an adorable child.

photo of Sarah dressed as a Native American in 1999*record scratch* That’s me, November 1999. I was six years old and dressed up as a Native American, presumably for a Thanksgiving play at school. I distinctly remember participating in this play, but until my parents sent me this picture, I would’ve sworn up and down that I had been dressed as a pilgrim. Hindsight may be 20/20, but memory is fallible. Why did I think I was dressed as a pilgrim? Perhaps it has something to do with me identifying more easily with the pilgrims whenever I hear stories of early colonial America. My ancestors were all European immigrants, after all.

As children, we were taught that Christopher Columbus discovered America. Some time went by (this is the part that’s largely glossed over) and even though they weren’t sure of each other at first, the “Indians” and pilgrims sat down to share some food and give thanks. That was the first Thanksgiving. At the age of six, that’s probably all we really needed to know. Or at least, that’s what our parents and teachers decided we needed to know…

The years go by and children grow and become more equipped to handle complex information. As we grow up through elementary school, we’re told fanciful tales about Pocahontas and Sacagawea — what Hayden White would call the fetishized “noble savage.” In middle school, we learn about the Trail of Tears and something in our minds shatter. We realize that death and destruction abound. Maybe that’s part of why middle school sucks so much. At some point in high school, we (hopefully) learn Columbus never actually set foot in North America. And by the way, he called Native Americans “Indians” because he thought he was in India.

Yeah, there are plenty of good reasons to not tell six-year-olds about all the violent history of the early colonies. I’m not trying to say there aren’t. What I am saying is that parts of history always get erased for reasons beyond the history narrative itself. The teller and audience matter. Yet there’s always more at stake than simply making history age appropriate. For instance, as a six-year-old, I probably didn’t need to know about the Trail of Tears or other massacres native peoples were subjected to. But perhaps at the same time, I shouldn’t have been told the opposite — that Native Americans and pilgrims got along swimmingly.

If we’re aware of the moral implications in our narrativized histories, and conscientious of the choices we make, we can probably do a lot of good for our audiences. There’s no rule that says children’s Thanksgiving plays have to be about the mythical first. Or that we even have to have Thanksgiving plays in the first place. What if we taught our six-year-olds about Native American methods for growing crops? Or about the presidential turkey pardon and where that tradition came from? Or even what about varying foods on the Thanksgiving table and why different people might have different traditions?

These are all questions I think are worth exploring more. But for now, go enjoy your pie of all fall varieties — go ahead, have an extra slice!