Last year, I watched as 20 second-graders reenacted a slave auction for a school’s annual Thanksgiving Day play. The play traded in on the cultural myth that Squanto was a born-again Christian, who had been bought from a slave auction by a Catholic monk. The monk, the myth asserts, converted Squanto and then set him free.
What was more upsetting than the children acting out a genocide — their small hands in mock stocks at a slave auction, while a little boy spoke of native bodies as “big” and “good for hard work” — was the sea of placid parental faces, smiling and clapping for it all.
I complained to the principal who told me it was history. But, what was being depicted, aside from relying on deeply racist stereotypes, was not actually history.
In classroom retellings, Squanto (a diminutive of Tisquantum), a member of the Patuxet, a band of the Wampanoag tribe, steps from the woods in the spring of 1621 to greet the Pilgrims. He ushers them through a long and hungry winter, he is a hero. In these stories, Squanto is the cornerstone of a Thanksgiving myth that seeks to ease white guilt over the genocide wrought on native people through our own manifest destiny.
What we don’t tell children is that little is actually known about Squanto’s life and much of what we teach comes from the writing of English Seperatists who had no understanding of Native culture or religion and is disputed by Wampanoag historians. We do know that Squanto was sold into slavery in 1614. When he did return, his entire village had been wiped out in a smallpox epidemic caused by European settlers. He lived like a ghost in his homeland. He did help the Pilgrims. But the settlement they built was on the graveyard of Squanto’s home. Relying uncritically on a whitewashed version of Squanto’s life does little more than reinforce racism and colonialism in our history books.
We have to teach all of history and not just the version we cling to because it reinforces our narrow worldview. We have to see the full consequences of our history before we can change our future. The reality of the first Thanksgiving is uncertainty, loss and murder. This land we give thanks for never truly belonged to us, and the history we teach often erases the history of others until the truth is lost in the palimpsest of cultural narratives.
We live in a fake news era, where the fictional accounts of our lived history are spun like webs from the highest seats of power. Our president is a sentient YouTube conspiracy theory video, who with every tweet undermines truth with power and power with corruption.
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It’s an ahistorical nihilism that says, if you don’t like the truth find a Reddit thread that proves you right. We must teach history, not as we wished it had happened, but as it did with all its pain and truth.
I spoke to the principal and wrote several emails, each carefully footnoted and sourced with historical references and comments from educators. Eventually, the principal canceled the play about Squanto.
This year, I learned there was another Thanksgiving play, this one about a bully — who uses his power to threaten and intimidate, which sounds a little bit closer to actual history, than the history we teach.
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