In kindergarten, if you lived in America, you probably had a black-and-white construction paper “pilgrim hat” headband plopped on your head, if not an “Indian” paper feather headdress. For children as young as preschoolers around the country, November continues to be the one time a year where teachers tell of the first, great Thanksgiving feast shared here. Yet, as many of us know, the stories we were once told depict a tale far from the truth.
More than 15,000 years ago, the ancestors of Native Americans crossed the Bering land bridge from Asia to settle in the North American wilderness. They spread and developed vast networks of tribes which acted as individual societies and cultures with great variety. Estimates of the pre-Columbian population of America reach as high as 100 million.
Yet, with the arrival of the Spanish, English and French explorers, and later those fleeing religious persecution (including the famed Pilgrims), native people were nearly obliterated. Through the Columbian exchange, millions died of smallpox, influenza, and other diseases to which natives had no immunity.
Once English settlers had colonized the land, revolted and formed the United States, westward and southern expansion was sought. Ethnic cleansing began, and through massacres and the brutal Trail of Tears, native Americans were torn from their tribal land and forced to assimilate to European culture, leading to mass starvation when they were placed on infertile land. Fighting over land with the esternmost tribes lasted beyond the American Civil War and even into the early 20th century. Most aboriginal people tried to maintain their culture to the best of their ability in the reservations they were forced into, and many of their descendants still live there today.
It was not until 1924 that all people of all tribes were named U.S. citizens. In 2000, the Bureau of Indian Affairs stated a formal apology for its participation in the “ethnic cleansing” brought upon Western tribes, and in 2009, the U.S. government apologized for the “many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native Peoples by citizens of the United States.”
Despite this long, difficult history of genocide, most Americans learn only of sugar-coated, white-washed and nationalistic history. And about halfway down this long list of atrocities is where Thanksgiving, a symbolic and possibly fictional meal of deer, fits in.
Obviously, the topics of ethnic cleansing, slaughter, slavery, and colonization aren’t exactly easy conversation with young children. However, many of today’s kids are presented with the traditional model of education surrounding the interaction between Europeans and indigenous American peoples that our great-grandparents received, even as historians continuously increase their estimates for the populations that were wiped out.
Instead of learning of a friendship between the two that was soon betrayed, modern educators should be focusing on the customs of the native people that were extinguished. Additionally, northeastern children usually learn solely about the customs of the Wampanoag, Iroquois or Powhatan tribes, and nothing about the Apache tribe of the Southwest or the Sioux of the Midwest.
I personally was not taught about the differences in lifestyles, customs or religions between the tribes until I took AP United States History late in high school. A basic concept of the diversity of the tribes across the country, even how some caught fish and others hunted in the forest, should be instilled to help children extract correct understandings from the diverse groups of people previously presented as a homogenous blob of “Indians.”
Beyond that, most young adults seem to have a gaping knowledge of how Native Americans continue to exist in this country. Children should learn about wigwams, teepees and adobe, but they should also know that there are still Native Americans today; they represent real, enduring cultures, not just stories from the past. The federal government currently recognizes 567 tribes, as well as indigenous Hawaiians and Alaskan natives, according to the BIA.
While cultural appropriation through Halloween costumes and NFL names are often covered on the evening news, many of these groups struggle with very real, systematic, and even deadly problems. Collectively, they face mass incarceration rates, unemployment, poor education and healthcare, increased domestic violence, and rapidly climbing youth suicide rates. Also, according to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, “Native Americans, 0.8 percent of the population, comprise 1.9 percent of police killings.” That figure accompanies the fact that per capita, they are the racial demographic most likely to be targeted. On Nov. 8, a 14-year-old boy was shot and killed outside of his family home on a Wisconsin reservation after an officer received a call about a male suspect in the area with a knife. This generation of children should know that there are kids just like them around the country who descended from the native Americans they’re learning about, and once they get older, this foundational understanding may just lead to a population more dedicated to supporting native communities than the lawmakers we have today.
These advanced problems will not be solved in a day, and coming to terms with our less than favorable history as a nation is, admittedly, no easy task. A great place to start this difficult undertaking is with our children, a blank slate.
Teaching kids that aboriginal people lived here before “Columbus sailed the ocean blue” and the pilgrims in funny hats arrived in the Mayflower is essential. The mistreatment and neglect that the descendants of indigenous Americans continue to receive is unacceptable, but many Americans have such limited knowledge of them to begin with that widespread activism is nearly impossible. The idea of two diverse groups of people sharing a meal is incredibly pure, but it’s not telling the whole story.
By focusing on the legacy of the many tribes that spanned this land and lasting presence of native Americans in the United States today, we can alter education to reflect true history and preserve diverse cultures that otherwise will continue to disappear.