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Thanksgiving Is Another Reminder of What America Forgot

The absence of Native perspectives in American history books and classrooms has been remarked on for over 50 years. Will it ever change?

"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth," by Jennie A. Brownscombe/Museum De Lakenhal

In a December 1862 letter to the Senate, President Abraham Lincoln ordered the execution of 39 Sioux citizens. In 1851, the Santee Sioux had ceded the land known as Minnesota to the United States in a pair of treaties, in exchange for a constant supply of services and wares to be provided by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Like countless treaties signed by the U.S., the agreements were not honored. Corruption consumed the BIA, and basic food items were subject to price gouging. And so, on the brink of starvation in the early winter of 1862, several hundred Sioux raided white towns and villages, looking for the rations that the government had stolen from them and that the colonizers had previously refused to trade with them.

If one is to believe the historians, Lincoln’s decision to impose 39 death penalties for the Sioux Uprising was one of delicate political balance: He had to kill enough Native resisters so as to stifle any future uprisings but not so many that he provoked another. Thirty-nine was the number he landed on after reviewing the transcripts, down from the 303 execution requests made by the military leaders in Minnesota. His letter to the Senate simultaneously served as both the largest mass execution order and the largest clemency order in U.S. history. Ultimately, 38 Sioux were hanged by the neck until death for having the gall to try to keep their people alive. As they stood atop the trap door, with nooses waiting to deliver the final snap, the condemned men spoke their names and cried out “I’m here! I’m here!”

Ten months later, Lincoln signed another letter. This one was a proclamation: As of October 3, 1863, the president, hoping to bring a symbolic sense of calm and joy to a nation torn in two by the still-raging Civil War, declared the fourth Thursday in November to be “a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise.” Never mind the true history of the day Lincoln sought to memorialize, which, aside from its first peaceable but fragile iteration, had twice commemorated the slaying of Wampanoags in battle. Like the 38 Sioux, that was lost to the past: All that mattered was what the living told themselves and their children.

If you grew up going to public school in this country, you probably don’t recall much, if anything, about Lincoln’s execution order. In the long run, it was hardly exceptional for the U.S., save for how many Native lives it doomed, and even that figure was dwarfed by an endless number of massacres and “battles,” carried out by the military, private companies, and citizens. It was business as usual for a young nation with imperialist desires, with a touch of faux mercy to make it go down smoother for a president who would preside over the forced removal of the Navajo and Pueblo people and the Sands Creek Massacre of 1864. In truth, Lincoln, like many who would follow him, was not so different in practice from the more notoriously Native-hating Andrew Jackson: another chief executive who cared little for or about the Indigenous people he shared a continent with. But American textbooks only have room for so many villains.

It is a pity that so many Americans today think of the Indian as a romantic or comic figure in American history without contemporary significance. In fact, the Indian plays much the same role in our American society that the Jews played in Germany. Like the miner’s canary, the Indian marks the shifts from fresh air to poison gas in our political atmosphere; and our treatment of Indians, even more than our treatment of other minorities, reflects the rise and fall in our democratic faith.    

Just a little over 100 years after Lincoln signed the first Thanksgiving proclamation, these words by Felix Cohen appeared quoted in the opening to the 1969 Kennedy Report on Indian Education. The report was helmed by Senator Ted Kennedy and serves as a bedrock document in the Native education and political communities: For the first time, possibly ever, it signaled that major U.S. political players were finally paying attention to the erasure of Native communities from the American mosaic. As part of the report, a review of 100 educational texts taken from public schools across the country came to the belated conclusion that Native people were viewed as little more than “subhuman wild beasts in the path of civilization.”

While I was reporting last year on North Carolina’s decision to close down the High Plains Indian School and integrate my tribe, the Sappony, in 1963, I heard directly from family members about how such slanted curricula affected Native students’ experience. My uncles and aunts told me stories of the other kids at school asking them if they had scalped anyone or if they carried tomahawks, and of discriminatory treatment doled out by teachers and administrators to Sappony children, whose only crime was having skin that was a little darker than their own.

In the 50 years since the Kennedy Report was published, Americans have barely moved an inch when it comes to demanding an accurate historical or contemporary view of Native people be taught in public schools. And this has had a marked effect on Native children forced to listen to their histories being twisted to fit a narrative of deity-ordained land theft and warfare. Writing on this in 1985, Lee Little Soldier found that Native students still often felt “trapped between their birthright and the dominant society, losing touch with the former, but not feeling comfortable in the latter.”

But almost more important than the need for Native children to see themselves properly represented is for those who will have a say in how these curricula are established (in other words, the white-run PTAs and local administrative boards) to correct their own understanding of American history. They also need to accurately perceive the present, realizing that Native communities and individuals exist everywhere, from the reservation to the city to the suburbs. Only by engaging with these communities, including them in the lesson-planning process as living societies rather than mythical figures, can the American school system begin to teach its children how not to exclude and appropriate Native history.

This point was underlined in a 2006 article in the Phi Delta Kappan by Bobby Ann Starnes. While Starnes was relatively well educated on Native history, she found when she began teaching at a predominantly Indigenous school system that all of her knowledge had been historicized—she had no idea of what it meant to actually converse with and teach and befriend Native people, teaching history in a way that has moral weight in the present.What seem like small matters of word choice,” she wrote, “are important (e.g., did Indians wage war or resist aggression?).”

Recent years have seen small steps toward delivering teachers and students the overdue updates required to teach these new lessons. The National Educators Association now makes available materials on how to teach Thanksgiving in a historically accurate and culturally sensitive manner. Signed in December 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act, President Barack Obama’s replacement for No Child Left Behind, required states and local educational agencies to consult with tribes and tribal organizations as they developed their state lesson plans, should they hope to obtain Title I grant funding. Charter schools established to teach history through a Native lens have sprouted with increasing popularity in cities such as Denver and Oklahoma City and Seattle. (As a case in North Carolina recently showed, there are drawbacks to this approach.) But half a century after the federal government declared the country’s biased Indigenous history lessons an educational crisis, these partial measures feel shockingly insufficient.

Fall is a brutal time of year to be Native. Halloween brings “Sexy Indian Princess” costumes. Native American Heritage Month almost inevitably comes with fumbles that undercut the purpose, even without a president trying to squeeze “Founding Fathers” into the month as well. And then there’s Thanksgiving. Even in 2019, principals and teachers deem it appropriate to dress their children up as Natives and celebrate “an annual Pow Wow,” and then post pictures on social media, before being yelled at and quickly deleting their appropriative efforts to whitewash history. Nor are the stereotypes and questionable attempts at representation limited to rural schools, as Saturday Night Live’s recent skit with Will Ferrell, Fred Armisen, and Maya Rudolph dressing up as the relatives of Matoaka (commonly known as Pocahontas) and rambling off a series of shallow punch lines again showed.

Native children have never had the pleasure of seeing themselves and their people adequately acknowledged in their teachers’ lesson plans. Thanksgiving is handled with satin gloves for the sake of the white children. They can learn the name of the chief who sat with the pilgrims of Plymouth, but not that those same pilgrims mounted his son’s head on a pike above their town and left his body to publicly rot. To acknowledge the true history of Thanksgiving would only be the first step, a slippery slope to a nation daring to utter the word “genocide” when thinking about its foundations. It would be a screeching slam of the guitar in the middle of a rendition of “This Land Is Your Land.” It would be the truth.