Do you have memories of dressing up like Pilgrims and Indians for the annual Thanksgiving school play? Many Americans grew up hearing the tale of the First Thanksgiving repeated by books, teachers, and parents and came to accept this as fact although many of us are now realizing that this story has little basis in fact at all.
Replacing the myths you were taught and believed your entire life with the actual facts is tough enough, and when we then add in the layer of talking with your children it can seem almost impossible to approach Thanksgiving differently than we did as children – although we need to recognize that it’s our privilege that allows us to gloss over this topic if we want to. (Native Americans do not have this luxury when talking with their children about Thanksgiving.)
We don’t want to teach our children things that aren’t true, but we might also feel really uncomfortable discussing topics that don’t cast our ancestors in a positive light.
In this post, I’ll explore conflicting feelings, why we need to change the First Thanksgiving narrative, and how we can do this which will help you to feel prepared to talk to young children about the complex issues associated with the First Thanksgiving.
Conflicting Feelings about the First Thanksgiving
On the surface, Thanksgiving is a lovely holiday. People gather with friends and family to give thanks for what they have. Expressing gratitude and focusing on what you are grateful for can have positive effects on both mental health and relationships. And harvest festivals – where people give thanks for the bounty they’ve brought home - are very common in religious and non-religious celebrations around the world.
The trouble with our view of the First Thanksgiving is the whitewashed version of history it depicts. As a parent, I want to teach my child the value of gratitude. I want her to respect people of different races and cultures and to seek peaceful relationships. I also want to teach her the importance of truth, learning from mistakes, and correcting wrongs.
The truth about what we call the First Thanksgiving is that it was not the peaceful celebration of good friendship and cooperation between the English and the Wampanoag which led to a mutually beneficial relationship down the centuries. Furthermore, the popular depictions of the First Thanksgiving promote stereotypes, misrepresent the Native Americans and the White settlers, and mask the true and tragic reality of the relationship between Native Americans and White settlers.
The myth is much nicer than the reality. The myth of the First Thanksgiving fits with the values of gratitude and friendship I want to teach. The truth is uncomfortable. It’s tragic. It’s complicated. And the thought of trying to talk about it with a young child can make us feel queasy.
The Problematic Myth of the First Thanksgiving
Is it tempting to avoid discussing the First Thanksgiving with your child altogether? Ignoring the history and focusing on gratitude, friends and family, and feasting would be easy enough. On the other hand, symbols of the First Thanksgiving myth are everywhere. The Thanksgiving story is too prevalent to ignore. If your child doesn’t hear about it from you, they will hear about it somewhere else, and that information is likely to be less accurate and more biased than anything you would share.
For starters, having children dress up as American Indians (a phrase that Christopher Columbus used when he “discovered” North America because he thought he had found East Asia (“the Indes”)) to reenact a historical event leads to the impression that native tribes existed only in the past. It leads children to think that Native Americans don’t exist any more when actually they are very much still alive. And they aren’t a monolithic entity: each of the 573 Federally recognized tribes (and the unrecognized ones too) have their own culture and traditions that they have brought to a modern way of life as they grow strong again.
While most Americans are celebrating with friends and family, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning for many Native Americans because white settlers perpetrated systematic removal of the Native Americans from their land, centuries of broken treaties, and genocide (which is now officially labeled as such by the State of California). By telling the mythical story of the First Thanksgiving and ignoring the horror that followed, we are continuing to erase Native Americans' experiences from history and from the present.
If we want our children to be kind, generous, compassionate, tolerant, accepting, respectful (anything, really) we have to model it for them. We begin by educating ourselves and confronting realities we may not want to acknowledge, and then by discussing it with our children – no matter how uncomfortable we might feel.
A Thanksgiving Reality Check
The happy Thanksgiving story of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag being friends and sharing a peaceful meal is not at all the reality of what happened. There are lots of mainstream articles that give a more realistic view of the First Thanksgiving, as well as excellent articles published by organizations that aim to provide independent, accurate information about indigenous people like Oyate and Cultural Survival.
Here are a few of the truths you may not have realized:
- The Pilgrims did not call themselves pilgrims. They often referred to themselves as Planters (farmers) or Adventurers (financers); some wanted to purify the church (“Puritans”) and some wanted to Separate completely from the Church of England (“Separatists”)
- There is no evidence that the settlers issued a formal invitation in advance of the meal
- Wild turkey may have been served – but it’s just as likely that other fowl, shellfish, nuts, beans, and cornmeal mush were prominently featured
- The Wampanoag contributed 5 deer to the feast
- This meal was a harvest celebration that lasted 3 days. It was not called Thanksgiving at the time, as Congress didn’t proclaim the first Thanksgiving until 1777
- Cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, and pie were definitely not on the menu
- Given that Whites had been attempting to settle (stay, not just explore) in North America for well over 100 years by the time The Settlers arrived in Plymouth, these individuals most likely knew that the land in this “New World” was not empty and waiting to be claimed.
- Under English legal tradition that unimproved lands without title were available to the first person who would “clear, build, garden, farm, and permanently inhabit” it, settlers felt entitled to what they saw as unimproved woodland – ignoring the fact that even in the absence of fences and permanent houses, Native Americans had been using the land for generations.
Having the actual facts to share with your child is important, but I think personal reflection both on what we know and where we feel we are missing information is important. There are myths that we have come to recognize as myths, but what myths are we still believing? There are realities we’ve learned, but what about the are realities we haven’t learned or can’t learn? I think a version of Johari’s Window is a helpful tool for personal reflection.
Thanksgiving: Using Johari’s Window to Examine Knowledge vs. Reality
When I consider the First Thanksgiving and the relationship between the European Settlers and the Native Americans past and present, I think about what I know – and also how ow much work I still need to do:
- True information we recognize as true--visible truth
- True information we don’t recognize as true--invisible truth
- False beliefs we know are false--visible falsehood
- False beliefs we don’t know are false--Invisible falsehood
We can visualize these in a quadrant:
In the first quadrant of the window are of true information we recognize as truth: There was a harvest celebration where White Settlers ate with members of the Wampanoag Tribe. Due to the lack of primary resources and the strength of the mythical First Thanksgiving story, many people actually have very small windows of truth they know. Knowing there are things you don’t know is an important step on the journey toward truth.
In the second quadrant, there’s the information we know is false. For example, we know that there weren’t any potatoes at the celebration. (Many people, myself included until yesterday, assume there were sweet potatoes and white potatoes served. Actually, potatoes and sweet potatoes weren’t grown or eaten in New England until the 18th century.) Another fact I recently learned is that it wasn’t a planned, formal invitation from the Settlers that brought the Wampanoag to the settlement. It seems every year I learn a new piece of information I’d thought was true is actually only partially true or in some cases completely false.
Outside of the First Thanksgiving story, we know that both positive and negative stereotypes continue to influence our interpretation of Native American history. Young children are exposed to negative stereotypes like the Savage Indian in Peter Pan, and the Indian who lives in harmony with the earth (and with White people) in Pocahontas. Even once we recognize these as stereotypes, we need to consider how they impact our thinking and question them every time we and our children encounter them.
In the third quadrant, we have information that is true but isn’t recognized as being true. I know my knowledge is limited. There are things I don’t know because I have not personally deeply investigated primary resources and oral histories of the First Thanksgiving. There are also things I don’t know because it’s hard to see your own bias, recognize your own privilege, and comprehend the experiences of others. As a White American, I can’t fully understand the experience of a Native American, past or present, of any tribe. This true information is unknown to me.
This is where we have to admit to our ignorance. We have to recognize when we are avoiding knowledge because it’s uncomfortable. The information is available, but we choose not to explore it and we try to protect our children from it. The nature of privilege is that we don’t need to see how it affects us; how it lifts us up. Even if we’ve worked hard to educate ourselves, there will always truths about ourselves that we can’t see.
Finally, in the fourth quadrant, we have information that is false that we don’t recognize as false. When our teachers had us dress-up in Pilgrim and Native American clothes and eat food together in honor of the First Thanksgiving, they thought it was fine. This was a false belief, but they didn’t realize it was a false belief.
Just as my knowledge is limited, history is written by people who study history and experience reality with their own biases. With the story of the First Thanksgiving, in particular, the history was written from one perspective—White European settlers. The experiences of the Wampanoag were largely absent from the narrative that has been told for so long, therefore we have incomplete information masquerading as complete truth.
We need to increase our knowledge of true facts and increase awareness of false facts. We need to explore the unknown information by learning from others and by trying to recognize our own bias. We need to try to identify the false beliefs that we hold as true. This means admitting that we have faults and that we’ve been wrong.
For White Americans, it means admitting that we have benefited from the practices of our ancestors – without viewing them through a presentist lens which says that we could never have committed such atrocities. At the same time we need to acknowledge where even our actions today can do harm – when we build oil pipelines, require voter ID that shows an address, or celebrate holidays that essentially commemorate genocide. We need to take corrective action when we can. As parents, we need to take care in how we discuss Thanksgiving with our children. How can we simplify both complex history issues of race and culture and bias so children can understand them?
How to Talk to Children About the First Thanksgiving
- One of the most important steps we can take is to recognize Native American history and culture beyond the story of Thanksgiving. November is Native American heritage month. Teach your child about the tribe who lives (present tense!) in your local area - I live on the land of the Ohlone Chochenyo, and I pay a voluntary land 'tax' that acknowledges this - rather than talking generically about “Native Americans.”
- Look for age-appropriate books about Native American tribes written in their #OwnVoices – this means that the author of the book is from the tribe that is the subject of the book. Check out this blog post for some suggestions, and look for the #OwnVoices hastag online to help you find more great options.
- When you encounter symbols or stories about the First Thanksgiving, talk to your child about what is real and what is not real.
It’s okay to tell them that you don’t know or you aren’t sure about something! It can be really uncomfortable for a parent to admit that we don’t know something, but showing a child what to do when you don’t know something is a powerful experience. Your child might have some questions about facts that you can research together, although other issues will be about ideas and opinions (and differences of opinions) with no clear answers.
You can explain that this particular event happened a very long time ago and nobody wrote it down, so really nobody knows for sure. We can make some good guesses because they did write some things down or because they told the story to their family, and their family has been retelling the story ever since.
You can also explain that because you don’t belong to a particular culture, some things seem strange. There are things we do that would seem strange to people in other cultures. If you have (or someone you know has) a pet dog, you can mention that some people think dogs belong outside and they would think it’s really strange that you let your dog inside.
If you have an inquisitive child, they may ask why they saw or heard information that isn’t true. Why are people lying? You can tell them that sometimes people say things are true even when they don’t really know if they’re true or not. Maybe they do this because they think it would be cool if it did happen. Maybe they do this because they are pretty sure it happened. Sometimes people say something is true because they think it is true.
When you talk about people coming to the “New World” from Europe, you can tell kids that when people came over, they wanted land. Some of them thought that God made them extra special, so they could take whatever land they wanted. Some of the people who came to the “New World” thought that because the Native Americans didn’t dress like them or talk like them, they didn’t deserve to have land. Since they believed the Native Americans didn’t deserve land or weren’t as special as they were, they thought it was OK to make them leave. They killed a lot of Native Americans. It’s a part of our history that many of us aren’t proud of, even though we have greatly benefited from it.
Yes, it’s difficult to talk with preschoolers about genocide, but only because we have the privilege to not discuss it if we so choose: Native American families do not have this luxury.
Consider talking to your child’s school to request they avoid crafts that depict Native Americans. There are some good ideas for appropriate lessons in this booklet by the Oklahoma City Public Schools Native American Student Services. Consider sharing the booklet with your child’s teacher or other teachers you know.
- If you do choose to celebrate the day itself as a day of giving thanks, consider simplifying your traditional preparations. Explore ways you could acknowledge and honor the people who used to live on the land that you now live on. There may be a local tribal event you can attend like the Indigenous Peoples Sunrise Ceremonies on Alcatraz Island organized by the International Indian Treaty Council and American Indian Contemporary Arts.
Don’t feel you have to get it ‘right’ the first time. Just as with so many other topics with our children (learning about money and sex come to mind), we can revisit conversations about race and bias and painful parts of our history as we learn new information ourselves and as our children have new questions.