Nevada Natives: Story of Thanksgiving still taught in schools ‘a fairy tale they made up’
Michelle McCaulley was frustrated by what she saw.
It was about five years ago when McCaulley, a Native music educator, noticed a kindergarten class at an elementary school in Sun Valley reenacting “the first Thanksgiving story.”
Some kids dressed as pilgrims, others dressed as American Indians, all of them pretending to partake in a harmonious Thanksgiving feast.
“They had on construction paper headbands and headdresses with construction paper feathers,” remembers McCaulley, a member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. “And I was like, this is still going on?”
Indeed, the story of the first Thanksgiving, as most American schoolchildren have been — and continue to be — taught is not exactly accurate. Specifically, this widespread idyllic picture is often painted: friendly Native Americans taught struggling European Christians how to survive in the New World, and everyone celebrated with a three-day feast in 1621 and lived happily ever after.
Cue: a yellow construction paper sun smiling above the scene.
“It’s like a fairy tale story they made up in place of what really happened,” McCaulley told First Nation’s Focus.
According to the New York Times, in 1621, the pilgrims did celebrate a successful harvest with a three-day gathering that was attended by members of the Wampanoag tribe. At least 90 men from the Wampanoag tribe were present, according to TIME magazine.
The deadly conflicts that came after, however, are practically erased from school textbooks, McCaulley pointed out.
In fact, many scholars argue Massachusetts Colony Gov. John Winthrop proclaimed the first official “Day of Thanksgiving” in 1637 to celebrate the safe return of a group of heavily armed colonial volunteers. The men returned from what is now Mystic, Connecticut, where they had massacred 700 Pequot Indians — men, women and children.
“The real meaning of why it became a holiday is just atrocious and it’s sickening,” McCaulley said. “They’re giving kids false stories of what was actually a really horrific experience and changing (the story).”
This unfortunate reality spurred McCaulley to attempt to educate fellow educators via her YouTube page, focusing on what to avoid when teaching kids about Thanksgiving. She’s also a part of a website called DecolonizingTheMusicRoom.com, which “aims to help music educators develop culturally competent pedagogy.”
Notably, McCaulley said she is currently not working for a school district because “she doesn’t want to get fired” for sharing this information to teachers.
Despite McCaulley and her fellow advocates’ efforts, it’s clear that the softened, out of context, false narrative of Thanksgiving is pervasive in schools in Nevada and beyond. Not to mention, every Thanksgiving, a bevy of insensitive stereotypes — wearing Indian headdresses, creating fake Indian names — are enforced in schools.
Amber Torres, chairwoman of the Walker River Paiute Tribe, said just recently she got a phone call from a parent concerned about their young child’s Thanksgiving-themed schoolwork.
“In kindergarten, they’re passing out a little coloring book that says, ‘pilgrim, pilgrim, what do you see? I see an Indian looking at me,’” Torres told FNF. “That’s what they’re teaching in school. They’re still dressing in our traditional wares, as if it’s something to reenact or as if it’s OK to dress in other people’s cultures.”
Though nothing points to that changing anytime soon, Torres said Nevada tribal leaders have said “for some time” they’d like to be able to tell the true story of Thanksgiving to the schools so teachers can “relay it in a competent way to the kids.”
“That way they understand,” Torres continued. “That will give people a newfound respect and open people’s eyes as to what our people had to go through and the historical trauma they still go through.”
The truth is, for many Americans, Thanksgiving is a time for family, feasting and football. The slaughtering and oppression of Native Americans doesn’t enter their consciousness.
Travis Numan, a member of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, said the country as a whole needs to be willing to have the “cringe-worthy” conversations and acknowledge the “ugly” history that is continuously glossed over.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a healing or a moving forward past the purgatory that we’re in unless we acknowledge everything,” he said. “Not just the things that make us proud to be American.”
Numan, a former teacher who is pursuing his Ph.D. in environmental sciences from the University of Nevada, Reno, offered an analogy to further illustrate his point.
“It’s like if you’re in a relationship or you’re married to somebody, unless there’s truthfulness and trust between everybody involved, you’re never going to move forward in a good way,” he said.
Torres agreed. With November being Native American Heritage Month, she said the whole month is an opportunity to “educate non-Indians and state or federal partners” on who Natives are, what they do, and, more importantly, what they’ve been through.
In other words, Thanksgiving is a day for Native Americans to continue celebrating being indigenous, just as they do every single day, Torres said.
“The biggest thing is just showcasing the fact that we’re resilient,” she added. “We’re still here.”
I am over the moon with how strong our school-community relationship is, how easy it was to grow, and surprised by the willingness of my community, students and parents alike, to move in this direction too.