(Ben Green) #1

36 Time December 2–9, 2019

students with a mistaken, and damag-
ing, impression. “There’s a widespread
assumption that Indians have disap-
peared,” says historian David J. Silver-
man. “That’s why non–Native Ameri-
cans feel comfortable dressing up their
kids in costumes.”

many classrooms are beginning to
change. Educators and parents are trad-
ing ideas and resources on social media.
The Thanksgiving Play by Larissa Fast-
Horse, a member of the Rosebud Sioux
Tribe in the Sicangu Lakota Nation, has
become one of the most produced plays
in the U.S. A young readers’ edition of
Roxanne Dunbar- Ortiz’s An Indigenous
Peoples’ History of the United States was
released in July.
And on a recent Saturday morning
in Washington, D.C., about two dozen
teachers went to the National Museum
of the American Indian to learn a bet-
ter way to teach the Thanksgiving story.
But first they had to do some studying of
their own— including a true-false quiz.
Did the people many of us know as Pil-
grims call themselves Separatists? Did
the famous meal last three days? True
and true, they shouted loudly in unison.
But other statements drew long
pauses or the soft murmurs of people
nervous about saying the wrong thing in
front of a group. Renée Gokey, the mu-
seum’s teacher- services coordinator and
a member of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe
of Oklahoma, waited patiently for them
to respond. When Gokey explained
that early Thanksgivings celebrated the
burning of a Pequot village in 1637 and
the killing of Wampanoag leader Massa-
soit’s son, attendees gasped audibly.
“I look back now and realize I was
teaching a lot of misconceptions,”
Tonia Parker, a second-grade teacher
at Island Creek Elementary School in
Alexandria, Va., told TIME.
Teachers like the ones at the work-
shop know that change is coming, and
state social- studies standards increas-
ingly prompt students to look at his-
tory from multiple perspectives. Plus,
teaching a better lesson about gratitude
is something anyone can get behind.
At the workshop in Washington, after
learning something new, participants
learned to say Wado. That’s Cherokee
for “Thank you.” □

A better way to teach

kids about Thanksgiving

By Olivia B. Waxman

TheView History

if you learned abouT Thanksgiving in an american
elementary school, chances are you learned that the holi-
day commemorates how the Pilgrims of Plymouth, Mass.,
fresh off the Mayflower, celebrated the harvest by enjoying a
potluck- style dinner with their friendly Indian neighbors.
But while that story is inspired by a real 1621 meal, it re-
flects neither the 17th century truth nor the 21st century un-
derstanding of it. American public memory of Thanksgiving
comes from the 19th century—and it can sometimes seem
stuck there. An elementary school in Mississippi, for exam-
ple, drew backlash for a Nov. 15 tweet that included photos of
kids dressed up as Native Americans, with feather headbands
and vests made of shopping bags.
Images like those have deep roots in American education,
dating back to the decades after Abraham Lincoln declared
a day of Thanksgiving in 1863. The Puritan separatists were
rebranded “Pilgrims,” and an 1889 novel that described their
Thanksgiving as an outdoor feast became a best seller. The
growing ad industry helped spread popular images of the tale,
not least to classrooms. Drawing in part on depictions of Na-
tive Americans in early westerns, teachers developed skits
to make the sentimental stories stick. By the 1920s, Thanks-
giving was the most talked-about holiday in U.S. classrooms.
The parts that made the colonists look bad were left out.
This was no coincidence. A wave of immigration and ur-
banization around the turn of the 20th century led to a surge
of both nativism and nostalgia; one 1887 cartoon compared
noble-looking Pilgrims confidently striding off the Mayflower
with the huddled masses of the day. In the 1940s and ’50s, as
the Cold War drove another wave of concern about outsiders,
imagery of Pilgrims again exploded.
In some schools, Thanksgiving became one of the only
times Native Americans were discussed, often leaving

This 1897
illustration by
W.L. Taylor
helped spread
a romanticized
image of “the first
that still


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