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Is It Time to Rethink Thanksgiving?

Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting we do away with Thanksgiving. In fact, I think we should make it a practice to reflect on gratitude more often. I’m proposing we take this day not only to be thankful for our many blessings, but to reflect on the reality that this day represents pain and betrayal to the people who first called this land home.

I think we need to reframe the narrative, starting with the way we teach children about the origins of Thanksgiving. This nation’s history is filled with many painful events, but we can’t just pretend the bad stuff didn’t happen.

I also think we should do this without dressing kids in feathered headdresses and giving them clever chief names. Those things may seem harmless, but they’re not. They’re examples of cultural appropriation, and we need to stop acting like it’s okay just because it’s been done for such a long time. Dressing like another race is wrong, and it’s time to stop. I can never state this as well as the native woman who wrote this article.

Thanksgiving Day should absolutely acknowledge the role Native Americans played in our country’s history, but it’s past time to abandon the notion of peaceful settlers who had to defend themselves from “savage” natives. Europeans who came to this country did some truly terrible things to the people who lived here first, including kidnapping and selling natives as slaves. The pilgrims thought they found uninhabited land, but it really was a village called Patuxet. They found and used tools, food, and tilled fields but somehow thought this land was free for the taking. This land belonged to native people; it’s just that the ones who lived in that particular area had almost all died from the diseases Europeans brought with them.

In 1621, Wampanoag Chief Massasoit signed a peace treaty with the British settlers, and he was a huge part of the original three-day Thanksgiving celebration. By the 1630s, the English wanted more land, leading to the Pequot massacre. Native American tribes joined together to defend their land in 1675. The colonists held a very different feast of thanksgiving after this war: to celebrate their victory after a massacre of many Native Americans. Among the lives lost was Massasoit’s son.

I’ve come across some great resources to share the real Thanksgiving story with my young children, written from the native perspective. We’ve read a few books about Squanto, which are age appropriate but do not gloss over the fact that Squanto and others were treated badly. These books tell about the kind monks who helped him get back home and how Captain John Smith’s crew brought him back to his land on their boat. This is all an important part of the Thanksgiving story: Squanto learned English during the time he was desperately trying to get back to his home. That’s why he was able to communicate with the pilgrims.

Thanksgiving books

I vaguely remember learning about Squanto in school, but I think it was just in terms of how he taught the pilgrims to plant corn. I don’t recall ever learning Squanto was kidnapped, sold as a slave, and took years to get home, only to discover his wife, children, and all relatives had died. Not quite the happy story we grew up hearing, but it’s the REAL story. Why are we continuing to teach children this completely distorted version?

I know what I’m saying may not be popular. I know kids look cute dressed up for their school programs. But I think we can find a way to honor Native Americans and recognize their plight without insensitively treating their cultures as means for our entertainment. Schools and families could spend time teaching about the tribes that lived (and possibly still live) in their area of the country. Children could be involved in planting a garden with corn, beans, and squash (known by Native Americans as “the three sisters” because they grow well together). The holiday could include making a Native American dish for our table, using ingredients grown from these gardens. As many Native Americans hold great reverence for Mother Earth, maybe we could do something positive for the land like planting a tree.

We can still count our blessings, eat too much, and laugh over family memories. Kids can make handprint turkey crafts and cornucopia centerpieces.

memphis moms blog hand turkey for Thanksgiving

We can admit to our country’s shortcomings and still be proud to be Americans. We can’t undo what was done so long ago, but we can at least teach our children the real story, including the pain and injustice. Perhaps this story could be a tool to talk about social justice and how we can do better.

This day symbolizes gratitude and abundance to many of us, but it represents devastating loss to the first Americans. That should, at the very least, be reflected upon.

Don’t we owe that to the people who first called this land home?

Additional resources:

I linked to several sites above, but I found so many great resources and want to share them all!

Find out what tribes are native to your area. For Memphis, that’s the Chickasaw and Quapaw tribes. Check out the Chickasaw Inkana Foundation in Tupelo, MS, which is dedicated to preserving the Chickasaw history and culture.

PBS has a beautiful episode of Molly of Denali called Grandpa’s Drum, and it’s a great way to teach kids about how native people were  -- and still are -- mistreated. PBS even posted an excellent article about how to discuss the episode with kids. (Seriously, PBS, I love you.)

This article contains so many links about how educators can incorporate more accurate details when teaching about Thanksgiving.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Indians has so much useful information. There’s even an upcoming webinar for educators about how to teach about Thanksgiving. Spend some time on this site, even if you aren’t an educator. It’s excellent!

Here’s a list of children’s books written by indigenous authors, for a variety of ages.

Here’s an entire toolkit for helping change the way schools teach the Thanksgiving story.


What ways do you honor Native Americans on Thanksgiving?

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