Accuracy in Media

It is important that kids not understand Thanksgiving as a holiday that celebrates American settlers sitting down with Native Americans for a three-day feast designed to bring them closer, according to a story Monday on the Time magazine website.

The lead of “’I Was Teaching a Lot of Misconceptions.’ The Way American Kids Are Learning About the ‘First Thanksgiving’ Is Changing” by Olivia Waxman deals with a workshop in Washington, D.C., entitled “Rethinking Thanksgiving in Your Classroom,” where about two-dozen elementary and secondary school teachers were taught to stop teaching Thanksgiving as they had previously and adapt a much more sinister view of the holiday.

“The teachers at the Nov. 9 workshop … were there to learn a better way to teach the Thanskgiving story to their students, but first, they had some studying to do. When [Renee Gokey, teacher services coordinator at the National Museum of the American Indian and a member of the Shawnee tribe of Oklahoma] explained that the early days of thanks celebrated the burning of a Pequot village in 1637 and the killing of Wampanoag leader Massasoit’s son, attendees gasped audibly,” Waxman wrote.

Only, what is recognized as the first Thanksgiving occurred in 1621, before the alleged killing of the chief’s son – the chief indeed was a guest at the first Thanksgiving – or the burning of the village. And although some claim the 1621 event was not the first Thanksgiving because it was unlike later celebrations, other historians say otherwise.

“The Pilgrims did not have those precedents when they attempted something new, intentionally based not on old English tradition but on biblical and Reformed example,” wrote Jeremy Bangs, former chief curator of the Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Mass., in a piece entitled “The Truth About Thanksgiving Is that the Debunkers Are Wrong.”

After quoting a second-grade teacher from nearby Alexandria, Va., saying “I look back now and realize I was teaching a lot of misconceptions,” Waxman explained what needed to happen in the boutique field of Thanksgiving education.

“It can sometimes seem that the way kids are taught about Thanksgiving, a staple of American education for about 150 years, is stuck in the past; an elementary school in Mississippi, for example, drew backlash for a Nov. 15 tweet that included photos of kids dressed up as Native Americans, with feather headbands and vests made of shopping bags,” she wrote. “But the approximately 25 teachers at that Washington workshop were part of a larger movement to change the way the story is taught.”

Then, to drive home the point, it quoted another teacher saying: “I believe it is my obligation as an educator to ensure that history does not get hidden.”

Waxman then declares what most Americans understand to be the story of Thanksgiving to be false.

“But, while the meal known as the First Thanksgiving did happen – scholars believe it took place at some point during the fall of 1621 in the recently founded Plymouth colony – the story reflects neither the 17th century truth nor the 21st century understanding of it. Rather, the American public memory of Thanksgiving is a story about the 19th century.”

The only eyewitness accounts come from Edward Winslow and William Bradford. Winslow describes a celebration that rings true to our common understanding of Thanksgiving. It said Massasoit brought 90 men to the feast – hardly the action of a man whose son had just been killed by the other participants in the feast – “whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor and upon our captain and others.”

Then, in a refrain that will sound familiar to modern celebrants: “Although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

Waxman explained how her view strayed so far from the eyewitness accounts. “The fact that so little was written about that 1621 meal left a lot open to the imagination,” she wrote.

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