Why it's important to tell kids the truth about Thanksgiving: 'We are perpetuating harmful stereotypes'

·10-min read
The story that's often told of the first Thanksgiving isn't historically accurate — and experts say that perpetuating this narrative is harmful. (Collage: Getty Images/Quinn Lemmers for Yahoo Life)
The story that's often told of the first Thanksgiving isn't historically accurate — and experts say that perpetuating this narrative is harmful. (Collage: Getty Images/Quinn Lemmers for Yahoo Life)

Many kids grew up hearing the story of the first Thanksgiving — which marks its 400th anniversary this year — and how the Pilgrims and Native Americans sat down together and shared a friendly feast. And in many schools around the country, a version of that same story is still being told.

But the rosy picture that’s often painted of that meal and time period is far from historically accurate — and some experts say that perpetuating this narrative is harmful, particularly to Native Americans.

“It’s important to provide children with accurate history,” Debbie LeeKeenan, a leader in anti-bias education, lecturer, early childhood consultant and author, tells Yahoo Life. “The traditional Thanksgiving story is told from the white colonist viewpoint. When we do not give the accurate story, we are perpetuating harmful stereotypes and misinformation about Indigenous people — in this case, the Wampanoags.”

Jameson R. Sweet, an assistant professor of American studies at Rutgers University who is Lakota/Dakota, agrees, telling Yahoo Life: “I think any teaching of history needs to be historically accurate, and I think even younger school kids can handle the realities of history, although they don’t need to know the brutal details yet if particularly young.”

Having age-appropriate conversations about Thanksgiving with kids can do more than shed light on the history of the holiday: “If we can tell more complete narratives, it leads to increased understanding and more curiosity about the world around us,” Renée Gokey, the student and teacher services coordinator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian and a member of the Eastern Shawnee tribe, tells Yahoo Life. “What else can we understand better? Whose voices are missing? What else should I investigate? How do these events — and even misunderstandings about the history — connect with our understandings today and present situations?”

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The real story of Thanksgiving

The way the story of Thanksgiving is often told, “it makes it appear that early settlers had peaceful relations with the Indigenous people in the region,” says Sweet. “The difficult parts of that history are almost always glossed over in order to uphold the myth of American exceptionalism and erase the inherent violence of settler colonialism.”

So what did happen back in 1621? According to the National Museum of the American Indian: “The First Thanksgiving is often portrayed as a friendly harvest festival where Pilgrims and generic, nameless ‘Indians’ came together to eat and give thanks. In reality, the assembly of the Wampanoag peoples (a Native nation based in Massachusetts) and the English settlers in 1621 was about political alliances, diplomacy, and a pursuit of peace.”

The Wampanoag “shared their land, food, and knowledge of the environment with the English,” according to the museum. “Without help from the Wampanoag, the English would not have had the successful harvest that led to the First Thanksgiving.”

Despite this, the Wampanoag people were not invited to the harvest feast. It was only because English settlers were firing guns into the air to celebrate the harvest that the Wampanoag came to investigate. When they were told it was a harvest celebration, the Wampanoag then joined, bringing food including deer.

But that cooperation was “short lived,” according to the museum, “as the English continued to attack and encroach upon Wampanoag lands in spite of their agreements. Interactions with Europeans and Americans brought accelerated and often devastating changes to American Indian cultures.”

Sweet emphasizes that “young children don’t necessarily need to know the gory details, but they need to know that the Native people [the English settlers] encountered were members of sovereign nations that long predate the existence of the United States and are still here” and that Indigenous people faced violence and the theft of their land. “This inaccurate history completely erases this reality,” says Sweet.

Native American history is American history. Native people are a part of our past, present and future.”Debbie LeeKeenan

This erasure “signals to Native Americans they are not important, that their histories don’t matter and that the long legacies of these wrongs that continue to affect Native communities don’t matter,” he says.

Sweet explains that if parents “only invoke the ‘good’ parts of history and ignore the bad, they contribute to this harmful mythology and participate in the dehumanization of Native Americans.”

When it comes to teaching kids the real story about Thanksgiving, it can be hard to know where to begin. Here are some ways you can start talking to kids about the holiday in a more authentic way:

Ask kids what they already know about Thanksgiving

“It is important to talk to children in developmentally appropriate ways,” LeeKeenan says. “Find out what children already know about the ‘Thanksgiving story.’ What questions do they have about Thanksgiving? That gives you entry points on where to start.”

From there, LeeKeenan says parents and their kids can learn more together to help answer their questions and counteract stereotypes. A great place to start is by reading books together as a family. Cool Mom Picks, for example, has a list of children’s books that look at Thanksgiving from the perspective of Native Americans.

Learn about the actual history

“Learn more about Indigenous history, in particular the Wampanoags,” suggests LeeKeenan. “They were on the land before the Europeans arrived.”

The information you share with your children can help provide a fuller picture of the Wampanoags and their essential role in helping the settlers, rather than as “supporting players.” According to educational materials from the National Museum of the American Indian: “The Wampanoag were a people with a sophisticated society who had occupied the region for thousands of years. They had their own government, their own religious and philosophical beliefs, their own knowledge system, and their own culture.”

You can also talk to children about how the concept of “thanksgiving” was far from new to the Wampanoag and other Indigenous groups. “They were also a people for whom giving thanks was a part of daily life,” noted the museum.

Talk about how not everyone celebrates Thanksgiving

Another way to start a conversation about the history of the holiday is to share with your kids that Thanksgiving is a day of mourning for some Native Americans. For more than 50 years, Indigenous people and their allies have met on the hill above Plymouth Rock in Plymouth, Mass., to commemorate a National Day of Mourning on the holiday.

According to the United American Indians of New England: “We are mourning our ancestors and the genocide of our peoples and the theft of our lands” and participants “honor Indigenous ancestors and Native resilience.”

Focus on the present

Thanksgiving is typically the only time kids learn about Native Americans in school and they’re often portrayed as people who lived in the past when, in fact, there are 574 federally-recognized tribes in the U.S., and up to 5,000 Wampanoag living in present day New England.

While talking about the Wampanoag around Thanksgiving is timely, experts recommend that parents continue the conversation about Indigenous peoples and their stories of “resistance and resilience” throughout the year — “not just in November [for Native American Heritage Month] or around particular ‘holidays,’ but all year,” LeeKeenan says. “Remember, Native American history is American history. Native people are a part of our past, present and future.”

A good place to start: Dr. Debbie Reese, an educator and member of Nambé Pueblo, created the online book resource, American Indians in Children’s Literature, which has a best books list. Or you can check out her book suggestions by school age here. And A Mighty Girl has a list of 50 children books that celebrate Native Americans and their accomplishments.

Look up which tribal lands you currently live on

Another good conversation starter with kids is to find out which Indigenous groups lived (and may still live) in your area and “acknowledge whose land you are on at this very moment,” suggests LeeKeenan. There are sites, such as Native Land, where you can look that up by entering your address or city and then you can learn more about those Indigenous groups.

Ask your child’s teacher about Thanksgiving lesson plans

Most children learn about the history of Thanksgiving at school, so it’s worth finding out what your kid’s teacher has planned for lessons around the holiday. “We can do that in a respectful way, by asking questions and expressing concern if they are perpetuating stereotypes with images, stories, ‘Thanksgiving pageants or plays,’ or examples of cultural appropriation,” says LeeKeenan.

As a parent herself, Gokey shares that she brought up the topic with her child’s teacher, even though it wasn’t easy. “I know this can be a hard question — at least it was difficult for me in the sense that I want teachers to know I’m in allyship with them and they should not feel embarrassed or judged since I work at the National Museum of the American Indian and our family is Native,” Gokey says. “I’m one of the only Native American parents in the school. It was important for me to ask in a non-threatening way and provide ideas and support for them, but also ask critical questions of the curricula so our kids feel represented in more accurate and thoughtful ways.”

If you feel comfortable, LeeKeenan suggests sharing resources with teachers. For example, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Learning for Justice provides information for educators on how to teach Thanksgiving in a socially responsible way, while IllumiNative provides lesson plans for educators. And the National Museum of the American Indian’s Native Knowledge 360° Education Initiative provides resources to educators that include Native perspectives.

Experts, including Sweet, also encourage parents to find out if teachers are sharing information about Indigenous people throughout the school year. Sweet says that in the American K-12 system, as well as at many colleges and universities, students learn “very little” about Native Americans beyond the 19th century.

A 2019 report by the National Congress of American Indians supports that: The report found that 87 percent of state history standards do not broach the subject of Native American history after 1900, and 27 states don't mention a single Native American in their K-12 curriculum. Though that is slowly starting to change as more states, including North Dakota and Connecticut, pass laws that require schools to teach about Native American history and cultures.

“Despite this difficult history, the Wampanoag people who met the Pilgrims in 1620 are still here,” Sweet says. “Native people are still here and still have vital cultures. Students need to know that Native Americans didn’t disappear and that they still have rights as sovereign nations.”

For parents, Thanksgiving can serve as a reminder to have these important conversations with kids and to start to change the narrative. “Thanksgiving is a time for families to gather, share good food, and give thanks,” says LeeKeenan. “We can also use this time to tell the truth, and provide a counter-narrative to the harmful myths and learn more about Native peoples.”

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