There is a large focus on reenacting the “original Thanksgiving celebration” in the early years of elementary school. Children don black and white paper hats or stick feathers behind their heads. Parents slave away over dishes to bring for the class feast. Hand prints are turned into turkeys, and a watered-down story about the friendly native Squanto teaching pilgrims to grow corn is thrown into the mix.
On the surface, it all seems fun and innocent. And to an extent, it is—especially if the focal point of the celebration is gratitude. But unfortunately, in the process of reenactment and through the oversimplification of Thanksgiving for students, the reality of the colonist-Native American relationship is lost.
The fact is that contrary to commercialized, peaceful images of pilgrims and natives holding hands around a turkey, the relations between Europeans and the tribes with which they interacted were not always so amiable. Though it is not often referred to as one, the European conflict with Native Americans was a genocide. Before the Mayflower docked at Plymouth, imperialist powers had abused and enslaved those that ran into in their economic conquests. Europeans also decimated natives with wars and foreign illness. Viruses, smallpox, the flu, and other diseases that most European bodies had grown immune to are estimated to have killed nearly 90% of the pre-Columbian Native American population. In some cases, disease was even introduced intentionally, as a weapon of war.
The gentle and superficial way Thanksgiving is referenced in early grade school contributes to a fundamental misunderstanding of American history. Thanksgiving itself is the most well known tale of interactions between Native Americans and colonists. Even though individuals learn about this inaccuracy as they progress through school, the peaceful, idealistic image of Thanksgiving remains in their minds.
It is dangerous to celebrate Thanksgiving in ignorance of the events that preceded and followed it. To not acknowledge the decimation that people indigenous to America went through is disrespectful to the Native Americans of the past and the present. Furthermore, the stories that glorify pilgrims often reduce Native Americans to one-dimensional plot mechanisms, perpetuating stereotypes. Students’ limited exposure to Native American history can also make it feel as though natives are people of the past, which perpetuates blindness toward the inequality and oppression faced by modern-day Native Americans.
Thanksgiving is not all bad. Its sentiments are generally positive and the ability it has to unite family is powerful. But to celebrate blindly does another injustice to the Native Americans that suffered a genocide by European conquerors. If schools are not adequately representing the event, it is up to individuals to ensure a comprehensive understanding of the holiday for generations to come.