I have very mixed feelings about Thanksgiving.
I like the idea of a day dedicated to giving thanks. Gratitude is a big part of my spiritual practice. Frankly, it’s one of very few things that I believe can never cause harm and can only make things better. Taking time to recognize the bounty (and privilege) of our lives is a valuable practice. It may be even more valuable in these hard economic times because, even though it is cliche’, it’s also true that the most important things in our lives are not things. They are people, relationships, moments, acts of love and kindness, learnings… There is much for which to be grateful. And there is power in stopping our ordinary lives, coming together, and expressing thanks.
But then there is the “Thanksgrieving” part. I get incredibly frustrated when I hear that kids are once again being taught the myth of the first Thanksgiving, with its “simple and generous Indians” and “suffering and grateful Pilgrims.” I want us–my communities and even this whole nation–to be able to grapple with the complexity of the truth. The Pilgrims did suffer, but they also saw themselves as superior and began the process of colonization that inevitably decimated the native nations. The Indians were generous–but that generosity was not simple. It was a part of one culture (among hundreds) that was nearly lost when faced with the brutality of European conquest.
And oh, the stereotypes! This drives me particularly crazy because it seems to me that we should be smart enough by now to want to tell truth, not perpetuate horrid, cartoonish images. “Young children’s conceptions of Native Americans often develop out of media portrayals and classroom role playing of the events of the First Thanksgiving. That conception of Native Americans gained from such early exposure is both inaccurate and potentially damaging to others,” says Debbie Reese in “Teaching Young Children About Native Americans,” an ERIC Digest (May 1996).
For example, a visitor to a child care center heard a four-year-old saying, “Indians aren’t people. They’re all dead.” “This child,” Reese says, “had already acquired an inaccurate view of Native Americans, even though her classmates were children of many cultures, including a Native American child.”
“Teaching About Thanksgiving” offers a handful of the “old stereotypes” that are often reinforced in classrooms across the United States. According to the article, here are some things to consider:
- Indians should wear appropriate clothing. NO WARBONNETS! A blanket draped over one shoulder is accurate for a simple outfit.
- Squanto and Samoset spoke English and were noted for their formal speaking style. Other Indians would have said things in the Algonkian language.
- Indians in the Woodlands did not have tipis or horses, so these should not be part of any scenery or backdrop.
- Any food served should be authentic. The following would be appropriate: corn soup, succotash, white fish, red meat, various fowl (turkey, partridge, duck), berries (including whole cranberries), maple sugar candies, corn starch candy, watercress, any kind of bean, squash…
I want us to be able to understand that it does not diminish our Thanksgiving to come to understand the multiplicities and complexities of this day. I want us to truly believe that knowing the truth enriches us and helps us deal with the realities of our lives. My celebration of the bounty in my life is tempered by my understanding of the inequities in our world and my commitment to helping make the world a place where every person has much for which to be grateful. Gratitude is a good start, but gratitude that leads to commitment, generosity, and giving is even better.
So, as Thanksgiving arrives, I hope we will be open to continued learning, to embracing complexity, to honoring the sorrow and the joy of this day.