As Americans ready themselves to see family and friends while overeating and watching football in a few days, it seems to me that we all know that there are questions progressives as well as everyone else need to ask about the “yet to be United States of America’s” peculiar holiday. Bill Bigelow & Bob Petersen have just rereleased their 1991 collection Rethinking Columbus, which interestingly was one of the books banned by the Tucson Public Schools earlier this year. Their summary of the book speaks to Columbus “discovering” America.
The Columbus myth is a foundation of children's beliefs about society. Columbus is often a child's first lesson about encounters between different cultures and races. The murky legend of a brave adventurer tells children whose version of history to accept, and whose to ignore. It says nothing about the brutality of the European invasion of North America.
The same issues, of course, surround Thanksgiving. Vera Stenhouse wrote on the theme last year at this time in a pre-holiday article in the progressive magazine Rethinking Schools. Writing on the lessons taught about Thanksgiving cooperation between the Indians and the Pilgrims, Stenhouse asserted that “these happy stories maintain children’s ignorance and reinforce stereotypes.”
She addressed what we teach and what we don’t teach in American schools:
1. The Pilgrims from Europe came to the New World and celebrated their survival by sharing their bountiful feast with the Indians.
Of course the New World wasn’t new as indigenous people already lived there. In addition, the survival of the Pilgrims’ was made possible through the knowledge of these indigenous people. And in fact, there is actually no proof that there ever was a first Thanksgiving dinner that children learn about in our schools.
It is also not taught that Colonists initially stole food and other things they valued from the indigenous people and eventually violently stole Indian land.
2. In schools starting after Halloween the Thanksgiving story is taught through drama, books, and homework. Children wear Indian garb and sometimes even reenact the multicultural dinner.
But in fact, it wasn’t multicultural at all. Instead the lessons reinforce racial stereotypes and reemphasize a world of we and them – we as the civil and them as the savage. Stenhouse explains that Thanksgiving Day is considered a Day of Mourning by many American Indians—a time to acknowledge the ongoing painful legacy of removal from their homelands, enslavement, and deaths from diseases.
After learning of the myths of Thanksgiving, one of her teacher education students in Atlanta Georgia exclaimed:
I’m beginning to question what the bigger message should be. Is the holiday real? Is there really something to celebrate? I mean, sure, I’m glad to be here, and I’m thankful for the blessings in my life, but am I celebrating at the expense of others?
So the bigger question isn’t so much about Thanksgiving, but rather the continuing dangerous nonsense of American, and capitalist creation of We and They. That is certainly the case in Israel and Gaza and in the austerity movement in Europe and the United States.