Re-Teaching Thanksgiving

A turkey is one of the most common animals associated with Thanksgiving. The turkey represents the harvest and feast the Pilgrims and Native Americans had together. Photo by Ashish Sharma.

At some point or another, every U.S student learns the history of Thanksgiving. The story taught to students as young as elementary school level never really gets fully explored. Everyone knows the story: the Pilgrims and Native Americans sat down to feast after a good harvest. Gregg Garcia, who is one of the AP U.S History teachers here at Franklin, added, “It’s almost a slice of Americana, it’s between that and the red apple you give the teacher, it’s almost something that no matter where you go, you are always exposed to it.” 

U.S history is very complex. It’s made up of many different peoples’ stories all combined. Without the varied perspectives, you could never really understand it fully. “One of the problematic aspects of teaching the first Thanksgiving is there is only one perspective told,” Garcia commented. We need multiple points of view to understand the story, and right now we are not all being taught that way. Everyone knows about the Pilgrims’ perspective, but the Native Americans’ story is rarely mentioned. We hear the viewpoint of the Pilgrims, so they are the ones who control the story. If you only focus on one perspective, then you are lacking critical details. You get one opinion of the event. 

Another aspect to consider when talking about the history of Thanksgiving is that this history is focused on primarily one event: the meal between the Pilgrims and Native Americans. To understand an event fully is to understand what has been happening and what will happen in history. To study the first Thanksgiving, like any other historical event, you should understand the context of the event as well as the consequences. The Pilgrims came over on the Mayflower in 1620. Not being prepared for what they faced, many died within their first winter. The Native Americans, specifically the Wamponoag, helped the Pilgrims with the harvest in 1621. Together they had a feast which is what we now celebrate as Thanksgiving. After the feast and harvest, the Pilgrims and many other English colonists who would come, pushed the Native Americans off their lands and prioritized their needs over theirs. This full history is rarely discussed. 

Thanksgiving has been part of U.S traditions for as long as it’s been a country and even now, we are still not always getting the full story when introduced to it. Many remember learning about this holiday in elementary school, and with this introduction we get a basic history. If we really want to teach this, then we should teach it well. In high school classes, the first Thanksgiving is only ever really mentioned once, other than it being a holiday we now celebrate, it is now clear that the harvest and feast itself isn’t the most important aspect of the full story. This idea leaves out the changes in relationship between the Native American and Pilgrims, which affects U.S. history as a whole.  

This holiday, however, is not the only event in U.S history that is misrepresented. Without exploring both the context and consequences of the event but also looking at it through multiple perspectives, our understanding of history is not complete. “As an educator, a lot of people tend to teach the European American perspective and as a professional historian, also a person of color, I find that to be negligent,” Gracia explains. To avoid this negligence, teachers like Garcia have started incorporating varied perspectives while teaching. These steps towards teaching U.S history as well as the history of holidays are moving in the right direction, and we need everyone on board to make it work. 

When teaching history, you can never really get the full story without biases, because whoever is telling you it is choosing the important aspects to share. But if we try and be diligent in the way we teach our history, our understanding of it will improve. 

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