If our goal is to teach schoolchildren about the origins of our contemporary Thanksgiving holiday, why spend time on the 1621 feast shared by Pilgrims and Wampanoag? Neither the Pilgrims nor the Wampanoag considered that now famous gathering a Thanksgiving celebration. To them, it was a harvest festival. A true Thanksgiving was a solemn, holy day set apart for prayer and praise in church, not an outdoor party centered on military drills and barbecue.What’s more, for nearly three centuries afterward, few Americans outside New England linked our national Thanksgiving holiday to a tradition supposedly begun in 1621. When President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the first national autumn Thanksgiving in 1863, he focused exclusively on contemporary events and ignored the past entirely. For the rest of the 19th century, school history textbooks rarely referred to the Pilgrims or the “first Thanksgiving.” Why do we feel obliged to pay attention to them now? . . .More than a century later, the U.S. still wrestles with challenges of diversity, and we’re still tempted to distort the “first Thanksgiving” into one of two equally present-minded morality tales: the heart-warming multicultural celebration or the cruel reminder of European colonialism. Both tell us more about current perspectives than historical realities. If such caricatures are really our best options, historical truth would be better served by deleting Thanksgiving from the curriculum entirely.
It remains in the curriculum, however, across the country, and every year there seems to be some controversy over the teaching of the holiday. The 2018 edition reveals the divisions in this country about how we view history, diversity and truth.
This happened in North Carolina’s Wake County public schools district, which has been rocked in the past year with racially charged incidents, including the online posting by students of two videos with racist stereotypes and language.
Lauryn Mascareñaz, a former teacher who joined the North Carolina district’s Office of Equity Affairs in the spring, tweeted this several days ago:
Some educators tweeted back with praise:
That, the News & Observer reported, led to a response from conservatives, including A.P. Dillon and Anthony J. Bruno, one who tweeted in response that Mascareñaz was a “professional social justice warrior.” The other tweeted that her views were why “parents remove their kids from public schools.”
Mascareñaz had been working for the Teaching Tolerance project of the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center, which has published guidance on how to teach about Thanksgiving in a culturally appropriate manner. It says in part:
School Thanksgiving activities often mean dressing children in “Indian” headdresses and paper feathers as they sing “My Country ’Tis of Thee” or “Mr. Turkey.” Some teachers might even ask their students to draw themselves as Native Americans from the past, complete with feather-adorned headbands and buckskin clothing. These activities might seem friendly and fun, unless you are aware of how damaging this imagery is to perceptions of contemporary Native peoples. This imagery contributes to the indoctrination of American youth into a false narrative that relegates indigenous peoples to the past and turns real human beings into costumes for a few days a year. It’s not just bad pedagogy; it’s socially irresponsible.Native Americans have been speaking out and writing back against the colonialist narrative of Thanksgiving for as long as the American narrative has existed. . . . Teaching about Thanksgiving in a socially responsible way means that educators accept the ethical obligation to provide students with accurate information and to reject traditions that sustain harmful stereotypes about indigenous peoples.
The guidance offers teaching resources, including a “Thanksgiving Mourning” activity that does the following:
And that’s our Thanksgiving teaching controversy for this year. No doubt there will be a 2019 edition.