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Rethinking Thanksgiving: Myths and Misgivings

by Vera L. Stenhouse

In 2006, an Atlanta newspaper ran several photos with captions describing the celebration of the Thanksgiving holiday. The first picture featured a 5-year-old girl wearing a precision-cut fringe vest made out of a brown paper bag from a local grocery store (as identified by the store name and tagline detailed prominently in big blue letters on the vest). On top of her head sat a multicolored feather headdress made of construction paper. The caption under the picture read: “Feathers in her cap. Ava adjusts the headdress of her American Indian costume for a Clairemont Elementary School Thanksgiving feast. More photos from the feast are on page J9.”

Page J9 includes three additional pictures—one showing a group of Pilgrims (with white paper collars and hats) and Indians (as identified by their feather headdresses, of course). A second picture shows students in “costume” working on a coloring project and a third captures a student showing off his “homemade American Indian costume.” Between the pictures it reads: “Clairemont Elementary School studied American Indians and Pilgrims in preparation for today’s big holiday. Last week, they re enacted the first Thanksgiving and dressed in costumes for a feast with family members.” In the center is the phrase “Thanks for the lessons.”

What lessons did they learn? Between Columbus Day in October and Thanksgiving in November, Native Americans [the “official” curricular name in Georgia] play a key role in the mythology of U.S. history as taught in schools. As someone who works with pre- and inservice elementary teachers, I see firsthand how these happy stories maintain children’s ignorance and reinforce stereotypes.

The traditional first Thanksgiving story recounts Pilgrims from Europe settling in the wilds of the New World and celebrating their survival by sharing their bountiful feast with the Indians. As my students learn, this version of Thanksgiving is inaccurate. The Pilgrims did leave Europe and comprised 35 out of 102 colonists traveling on the Mayflower, eventually settling in 1621 at Patuxet—aka Plimoth. The “new” and “wild” world to which they arrived was neither new, wild, or unnamed, thanks to the Wampanoag, the indigenous people who lived there. Given the Pilgrims’ ignorance of the “new” land, their survival was made possible through indigenous knowledge, labor, harvest traditions, and trade. Most significant to the first Thanksgiving story: According to the Wampanoag and the ancestors of the Plimoth settlers, no oral or written account confirms that the first Thanksgiving actually occurred between them in 1621. The Wampanoag, however, did participate in daily and seasonal thanksgivings for thousands of years prior to the Pilgrims’ arrival.

Beyond the inaccuracy of the first Thanksgiving story itself are its omissions: Colonists initially stole bushels of corn buried and stored by Wampanoag families for their own use, robbed graves and homes, and left diseases that devastated (albeit unintentionally) Native American communities, subsequently enabling European settlers to overtake Indian land.

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