As society tells us, we aren’t doing Thanksgiving right if we don’t have the following dishes on our table; turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, green bean casserole, macaroni and cheese, sweet potatoes with marshmallow topping, apple pie and pumpkin pie.
From a young age, Americans are told the classic tale of the first Thanksgiving between the pilgrims and the Native Americans. They “broke bread” at a long table and ate a glorious meal with all the fixings that present-day Americans find at their tables on the fourth Thursday of November.
It’s a story of unity, friendship, and togetherness for two groups of people from two different places. It’s endearing for young ears to hear the story. It’s magical almost.
It’s also not the whole story.
Our modern understanding of the holiday leaves out the important story of the treatment of Native Americans by pilgrims and the later generations of settlers that would call North America home.
My earliest memory of being told the story of Thanksgiving was in the third grade where we would spend time looking at picture books filled with colorful illustrations of the elaborate feast. It painted a picture of ‘a ring around the rosy’ friendship between the Native Americans and the pilgrims. Living side by side in a perfect harmony, you could say.
My introduction to the story of the two groups did not include the horrible atrocities against the Native Americans, the genocide of multiple tribes, the stealing of land and the other injustices involved. This makes sense.
These violent truths are not suitable for young ears and minds that are at the same time being told the importance of sharing, friendship and understanding others. It just wouldn’t work.
At the same time, it’s deeply unsettling to find out when you are older the true story. To learn that everything you learned isn’t true and that the story isn’t as happy as you thought is sad. But it exposes the harsh reality of American history and the trickiness of teaching it correctly due to its sensitive contents.
American history is complicated. From the relationship with Native Americans, slavery, civil rights, war and inequality, every century finds itself with a complicated period. Even more complicated are some of the other holidays that we celebrate throughout the year.
Thanksgiving is not the only American holiday that fails to recognize the complicated history that comes with it. Columbus Day celebrates Christopher Columbus, the legendary man who sailed the ocean blue in 1492 and “discovered” North and South America but does not acknowledge the atrocities committed by Columbus against various indigenous populations.
The Fourth of July recognizes the signing of the Declaration of Independence, an important document in early colonial America, but doesn’t acknowledge that the during the time of the signing, many settlers owned slaves and saw it as their right.
It’s obvious that early American history being taught in elementary school won’t include all the grim details but its censorship doesn’t help in the process of coming to terms with our history. We weren’t founded on rainbows and daisies but on civil rights violations and the enslavement of those that were deemed inferior.
It is important as we continue to grow as a country and learn from past mistakes, that we fully understand our history.
Next Thanksgiving, as we sit around our tables with those we love and are thankful for, we should reflect on where we started, where we’ve been and where we are going as a nation.