Why Do Schools Still Teach an Oversimplified Thanksgiving Story?

A growing number of teachers are making an effort to teach "a more accurate history" about Thanksgiving.

My acting debut came in an elementary school play that reenacted scenes from the first Thanksgiving. I was assigned to play a Native American, complete with a construction paper feather headband. The story we told on stage is the one that millions of Americans are celebrating today—the Wampanoag people and the Pilgrims sitting down together in unity, giving thanks for a bountiful harvest.

It wasn't until after college, when I picked up Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, that I learned that no one ate cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie on the first Thanksgiving, and that the holiday is steeped in brutality and betrayal. Such conversations could serve as a useful teaching moment and opportunity for discussion for millions of students every year, but the vast majority of schools persist in teaching a simplistic version of Thanksgiving's history.

I asked my two sons, who attend a public elementary school in Los Angeles, what they’ve discussed about about Thanksgiving in school. “Nothing,” my fifth-grader replied, adding that he thinks the school district has “made it against the law” to talk about holidays in schools.

“If you don’t go along with the traditional story, you’re seen as a naysayer who’s spoiling the fun,” says Deborah Menkart, executive director of Teaching for Change. The nonprofit organization (together with Rethinking Schools) runs the Zinn Education Project, an effort to encourage teaching populist history in middle- and high-school classrooms across the country. Menkart says one of the reasons organizers created the project is to “ensure that resources that tell a more accurate perspective of history are easily available to classroom teachers.”

“We’ve all grown up with the traditional narrative with stereotypical images of Native Americans—the teepees and feathered headdresses,” she says. ”If you ask most students they have no idea that Native Americans exist today."

But Menkart says a growing number of teachers are making an effort to teach "a more accurate history" about Thanksgiving. Pablo DePaz, a history teacher at Locke High School in the Watts section of Los Angeles, calls the holiday ThanksTAKEN. He says he actively teaches the Native American perspective on the holiday through reading firsthand accounts “of how Europeans were giving thanks after murdering 700 native men, women, and children" and video clips of modern Native Americans explaining their feelings about Thanksgiving.

Similarly, Kelly Wickham, an assistant principal at Lincoln Magnet School in Springfield, Illinois, says two of her students are members of the Taino tribe. "Their father comes in every year”—he even brings his hawk, she says—“and acts as a resource for us on authenticity." Wickham says Lincoln’s seventh-graders recently conducted an in-depth research project about Native American life and painted scenes to reflect the tribes they studied. The students also prepared a feast of traditional Native American food for each other and their families.

Teachers like Wickham and DePaz aren't trying to take away from celebrating Thanksgiving as a time to reflect on one's blessings and share a meal with family. But schools have a responsibility to teach the true history of holidays—messy though they may be—so students have all the information. “The focus shouldn’t be on these friendly Europeans coming and helping the Indians," Menkart says. "The focus should be on native peoples in the contemporary time.”

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