Tag Archives: history

The “First” Thanksgiving

Every Thanksgiving Americans across the nation gather with family and friends. Huge, multiple course feasts are prepared, with all the fixings and favorites. Turkey. Mashed potatoes. Sweet potato pie. Cranberry sauce. Corn. Green bean casserole. Corn bread. And finishing with desert (if we have any room left in our stomachs!). We give thanks and rejoice at the bounty we have before us.

There’s traditions in each family around Thanksgiving. Special dishes of food. Perhaps viewing the Thanksgiving Day parade on TV. Or a football game. These traditions are special to each gathering, to each group of people. We take comfort and joy on this day as we reflect on what we are thankful and grateful for.

This aspect of Thanksgiving, of being mindful and aware of our gratitude, is one I support and enjoy. I have much to be thankful for. However, the myth of Thanksgiving is something I strongly disagree with and that I find upsetting. Especially as it’s taught in our public schools.

I wrote about my disdain on how Columbus Day is perceived and taught earlier this year. I am equally appalled by how Thanksgiving is presented, especially in schools.

My oldest daughter, Z,  is in 2nd grade and for the last three years I have needed to “re-teach” her about Thanksgiving. This year she told me her teacher had read the class a book about the Pilgrims coming to America and how the Indians helped them. She told me about “the first Thanksgiving” where the Pilgrims and the Indians sat down and shared dinner on that day. In 1st grade she shared a similar story with me that she had learned in school. And in Kindergarten, she brought home a photocopied book she had made, the first few pages are shown below.

Looks real peaceful. Smiling Pilgrims with a gun and a solemn Native American.


So… what’s so wrong with any of this? Why am I upset over it? Honestly, I’m upset and saddened because what I was taught in school as a child, and what is apparently still being taught to my daughter, isn’t true. When I mentioned to Z this year that what her teacher read the class was a nice story, she defended the story of the first Thanksgiving by telling me that it really happened.

It didn’t. The story of the first Thanksgiving that we have been told is a myth. A legend.  The idea of Pilgrims and “Indians” sharing a peaceful meal is entirely fabricated.  There were many days of thanksgiving, both amongst the Pilgrims and in Native American tradition and these were celebrations of a successful harvest season. Much more of the myth is, well, myth, right down to what the Pilgrims and Native Americans wore or ate.

There’s also many omitted details. Such as  in 1637, when the day of Thanksgiving was a celebration of the return of Pilgrim men who had traveled to Mystic, Connecticut and fought against the Pequot tribe resulting in the deaths of 700+ Pequot people. Or of Pilgrims robbing the graves of  the Wampanoag tribe and stealing their food (information that comes from a Pilgrim’s account of the first year). Rather than these events being altered, they are entirely left out.

My dismay over the Thanksgiving story as it is currently presented isn’t solely based on the omissions on how Native Americans were treated. Or the stereotyped construction of Native Americans being primitive and dumb. It isn’t from the way Pilgrims are presented either, as pure models on which to base our selves. My dismay is that we are teaching our children (and adults) that this story is truth. That the story that has been constructed as the first Thanksgiving is history.

Why do we teach false history? If the idea of the thanksgiving tradition is important somehow, then why don’t we frame it as a tradition? Why don’t we frame it as a story? When we frame it as, “this happened” we aren’t teaching our children anything worthwhile. James W. Loewen wrote in his novel Lies My Teacher Told Me that, “The antidote to feel-good history is not feel-bad history but honest and inclusive history. If textbook authors feel compelled to give moral instruction… they could accomplish this by allowing students to learn both the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ sides of the Pilgrim tale. Conflict would then become part of the story, and students might discover the knowledge they gain has implications for their lives today.” (p 97)

Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it

History should allow us to learn from it. It’s my hope to raise two confident, intelligent children with the capacity to critically think and examine what is presented to them. And to be able to decide what is truthful based on their own exploration of such, not blindly believing what they are taught or told. It isn’t only the past history of our nation that we are misinformed on. The events that are currently happening in our nation are often misconstrued, censored and even hidden — by the media, by those in power and by the overwhelming fact that most of us aren’t even aware. Try googling ‘UC Davis Pepper Spray’ or ‘Occupy Wall Street’ and see how aware you are of the events happening right now, in our nation.

This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for the teachers and people in my life who taught me to critically think, to question, to examine and seek out the truth in everything.

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Why I Won’t Be Celebrating Columbus Day

 For many it’s a day off from school or work and, I guess, reason enough to celebrate. For me, it goes back to history and the manner that history is taught across our country.

My seven year old daughter came home from school this past Friday and told me how her teacher read her a book about Christopher Columbus to explain “Why we celebrate him.” When I asked her what the book was about she told me it was about “some guy” who sailed on 3 boats, the Nina, Pinta and the Santa Maria and who “discovered America.” Then she rattled off the grade-school rhyme that many educators use to teach students about Christopher Columbus:

“In fourteen hundred ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”

What my daughter describes being taught is not much different from the myth of Columbus that is perpetuated throughout many classrooms in the US. A google search of ‘Christopher Columbus rhyme” brought up numerous pages with lesson plans for teachers, incorporating the rhyme and other myths. Some common myths of the Columbus story: Columbus thought the earth was round when everyone at the time thought it flat. Columbus set sail to search for much-needed spices. Columbus discovered America or Columbus was the first European to discover America.

These statements simply aren’t true. Columbus, and most people of the time, knew the world was round. Columbus didn’t set sail in search of spices. His primary  motive was the search for gold and a secondary motive of spreading European Christianity. That Columbus discovered America is false for several reasons: a) Columbus landed on many islands in the Americas (as seen in the map above) but never touched ground in continental North America, b) many explorers, including Leif Erikson, the Viking, landed and founded settlements in the Americas, many years before Columbus and, c) Native Americans discovered the Americas, including North America, tens of thousands of years before Columbus was even born. In sum, these statements are false, though the greatly exaggerated and omitted parts of the Columbus story are what truly make me upset.

In fourteen hundred ninety three, Columbus stole all he could see.

Christopher Columbus is portrayed to be a hero. Humanizing factors of his character have been exaggerated and focused upon. The history that is omitted and, often not know by many Americans, does not fit in alignment with a hero. Christopher Columbus was directly involved in the enslavement and genocide of entire cultures. “[He] introduced two phenomena that revolutionized race relations and transformed the modern world: the taking of land, wealth, and labor from indigenous peoples, leading to their near extermination, and the transatlantic slave trade, which created a racial underclass.” (excerpt from Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James W. Loewen)

Other acts of cruelty committed or ordered by Columbus included sexual slavery, rape, punishments by way of cutting off a native’s nose, ear or hands for resisting slavery, sending dogs to hunt after natives and maiming them, killing natives to be fed to the dogs and many more horrific atrocities. Not to mention Columbus’ role in the destruction and genocide of the Lucayans, Taínos and Arawaks cultures.

So, why does Columbus get the hero treatment? Why are the parts of his cruelty omitted while the parts of his exploration played up? Looking back on my childhood education I wish I had been taught the true story of Christopher Columbus; the truth of all history. Teaching children blatant lies about history, often omitting the negative details, does not benefit them or the adults they grow to be. If more people in our world were taught all of the truth and not just bits and pieces, they could potentially form better, more informed choices.

Of Interest:

Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, by James W. Loewen. I received a copy at my high school graduation from one of my teachers. It was an eyeopener at the time and a book I recommend to everyone.

Transform Columbus Day, webpage for the Transform Columbus Day Alliance who actively rejects the celebration of Christopher Columbus and his legacy of domination, oppression, and colonialism. As well as rejecting historical misconceptions regarding Columbus.

NY Times, Slavery and Colonialism Make Up the True Legacy of Columbus.

Huffington Post, Eric Kasum: Columbus Day? True Legacy: Cruelty and Slavery