They’re teaching that the roast turkey-filled holiday they celebrate every year, recalling inspirational stories from the early days of the nation, is based on a feel-good “myth.”
Instead of emphasizing the traditional story of goodwill and of cooperating with Native Americans, the pilgrims now stand accused of being unwanted invaders who used brutal violence to subordinate and oppress them.
Americans are being made aware of that traditional version “being a myth, and our realization that there is a really different perspective that needs to be considered,” Jacob Tsotigh, tribal education specialist for the National Indian Education Association, told Education Week.
“There’s less and less” of K-12 teachers having students learn the story of early American settlers sharing food with Native Americans,” he said, adding that the tribes at the time didn’t originally see the settlers as invaders because their initial numbers were small.
In a 2018 PBS report “Teaching the Real Lessons of Thanksgiving,” narrator Judy Woodruff said, “Thanksgiving is often seen as a quintessential feel-good holiday, but many argue the way it’s taught in schools perpetuates myths, as well as being disrespectful to Native Americans.”
The traditional Thanksgiving story “leaves out the context of relations between them and the early immigrants, how the settlers brought diseases, for example, that decimated native tribes or information about the massacres of natives that followed,” she said.
Of course, this account leaves out that little was known about infectious diseases at the time and that settlers didn’t knowingly bring diseases with them, as a means of waging deliberate biological warfare against the aboriginal peoples. They couldn’t have known that the immune systems of Native Americans wouldn’t have been able to counter diseases that were commonplace in Europe.
The Thanksgiving myth, Claire Bugos writes in Smithsonian Magazine, is that “friendly Indians … welcome the Pilgrims to America, teach them how to live in this new place, sit down to dinner with them and then disappear. They hand off America to white people so they can create a great nation dedicated to liberty, opportunity, and Christianity for the rest of the world to profit. That’s the story—it’s about Native people conceding to colonialism. It’s bloodless and in many ways an extension of the ideology of Manifest Destiny.”
The “unlearning” process, as some educators call it, is bolstered by Education Week’s project, “Citizen Z: Teaching Civics in a Divided Nation,” which, it claims, “has been exploring the evolving cultural understanding of Thanksgiving through the lens of the K-12 classroom.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Tolerance.org project encourages teachers to avoid “socially irresponsible” teaching and resist “the colonialist narrative of Thanksgiving.” The project attacks the very idea of Thanksgiving itself, mocking it as an “oft-romanticized holiday.”
George Washington University professor David J. Silverman writes in his new book, “This Land Is Their Land,” which “deconstructs the facts around the Thanksgiving holiday,” that “white America’s triumphs” were “borne on native peoples’ backs.”
Silverman rechristens Thanksgiving a “National Day of Mourning” that perpetuates ideas that are “hurtful to both modern native people and to Americans generally.”
Conservatives say the radical, revisionist perspective on Thanksgiving, which treats settlers as racist villains engaging in a kind of class warfare, is making headway in the nation’s culture.
Conservatives have long complained about a war against Christmas, a religious holiday, but now they say the Left’s effort to tear down the nation’s institutions has branched out into a war against Thanksgiving, a largely secular observance with strong religious overtones that pays tribute to inspiring stories of perseverance, mutually beneficial cooperation, and survival from the early days before the republic.
The radical critique of Thanksgiving is being countered by some conservatives. In one example, author and radio host Rush Limbaugh makes a practice each year of telling the “true story of Thanksgiving.” In Limbaugh’s telling, Thanksgiving involves early Americans overcoming a socioeconomic system, socialism, that was doomed from the outset to fail.
Thanksgiving is not, as some history textbooks have taught, merely “a holiday for which the Pilgrims gave thanks to the Indians for saving their lives,” Limbaugh said.
“Thanksgiving, in truth … is a devout expression of gratitude to God for their survival, which depend[ed] on a whole lot of things after they arrived … besides assistance by the Indians.”
The Mayflower Compact, which the earliest settlers in New England adopted, called for collective ownership of the community’s resources, Limbaugh wrote. The new governor of the colony quickly realized the system wasn’t working, as food quotas weren’t being met and colonists starved, he said.
“Long before Karl Marx was even born, the Pilgrims had discovered and experimented with what could only be described as socialism. And what happened? It didn’t work!”
Soon, as Limbaugh tells it, the governor “unleashed” the power of markets by giving each family a plot of land to work and keep the proceeds from. Production shot up, and the colonists were saved, he wrote.