‘Thanksgiving Story’ is not all that factual

Posted on 29 November 2018 by admin

Each year, approximately 50 million elementary school students in the United States are taught the “Thanksgiving Story,” which goes something like this;

When the Pilgrims arrived in America, they were destitute and had great difficulty living off the land.

A group of Wampanoag Indians led by Massasoit befriended the pilgrims at Plymouth, showing them how to live off the land, growing corn and using fish to fertilize their fields.

In celebration of their successful harvest and improved living conditions, the Pilgrims and Indians enjoyed a three-day feast, becoming the first Thanksgiving.

It is estimated that this annual festival lasted no more than one generation. You may have been one of those children who was told the fairy-tale version of the story, which states that ever since the first Thanksgiving, it has been an annual tradition…

The reality of growing European colonialism affected the native peoples in a decimating fashion. As the number of European settlers increased, Native Indians were pushed farther into the interior, losing traditional hunting and farm land.

Any Native contact with Europeans led to widespread epidemic diseases to which most Europeans were immune.

It is estimated that eventually 90 percent of the Native American population of North America died as a result of having never been previously exposed to smallpox, measles and flu.

The original unified celebration of Thanksgiving took on a more sinister singular nature in 1637, when Massachusetts Bay Gov. John Winthrop proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving a day after the Pilgrims carried out a surprise attack on a defenseless Pequot village, resulting in the slaughter of 700 native men, women and children.

From then on, successful massacres of Indians were usually followed by a “Thanksgiving celebration” (not the type of Thanksgiving we normally think of).

In grade-school classrooms this Thanksgiving Week, students will re-enact that “first Thanksgiving.” Hopefully, their teachers have done their research, not depending on that state-adopted text book for the “facts.” Some misconceptions:

• The English settlers did not wear somber black clothing and silver-buckled shoes, as usually depicted. They didn’t even refer to themselves as “Pilgrims.”

• Nor did the native Wampanoags wear the full-feathered head dress they are usually depicted as wearing.

• Their Thanksgiving food of deer meat, corn and shellfish bear little resemblance to today’s plethora of turkey, stuffing, gravy, cranberries and pie.

What is more important than what they looked like and what they ate was how they interacted with each other. Squanto, a member of the Pawtuxet tribe, had earlier experiences with Europeans and knew English. After helping the settlers learn to plant corn and use fish to fertilize their fields, both sides agreed to defend each other against any attacks by other tribes.

The peaceful arrangement was short-lived, as increasing numbers of additional European colonists pressured government support for additional land expansion in the colonies. To most colonists, the Indians were “in the way.”

Teachers have an opportunity to provide a learning environment where the Indian people are not marginalized as they often are (in textbooks and instructional materials).

More Native Americans today live in urban areas (20,000 in the D-FW area) than they do on reservation land. They are not just part of our past to be considered one day each year as a “feel-good” story.

The Thanksgiving Story can be a good start to the even bigger story of how people should not treat each other.

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