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As Thanksgiving Approaches, ‘Unlearning’ History Continues

By Mark Lieberman — November 22, 2019 1 min read
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Not too long ago, it was common in K-12 classrooms for students to use construction paper to craft stereotypical renderings of Native American headdresses, and to pose as colonists and Natives harmoniously sharing a meal together.

Now? According to Jacob Tsotigh, citizen of the Kiowa tribe and the tribal education specialist for the National Indian Education Association, “There’s less and less of that, as more people are made aware of that version being a myth, and our realization that there is a really different perspective that needs to be considered.”

Thanksgiving became a national holiday during the administration of President Abraham Lincoln, and the myth of familial relations between colonial settlers and Native Americans has persisted in American culture ever since.

In recent years, though, some educators have begun a slow, complex process of “unlearning” the widely accepted American narrative of Thanksgiving. Tsotigh said he’s seen more classroom teachers reaching out to Native scholars and other members of Native communities. “They’re really trying to connect to authentic teaching sources,” he said. “And that speaks well.”

To help students appreciate colonial oppression of Natives and the violence that ensued from it, Tsotigh recommends reframing the holiday as an opportunity to honor representatives of Native communities who greeted European visitors with open arms.

“They didn’t perceive them as invaders at the time because their numbers were so small,” Tsotigh said. “They felt from the mindset of Native people that we share with those less fortunate. That was part of how that myth evolved.”

Education Week’s project Citizen Z: Teaching Civics in a Divided Nation has been exploring the evolving cultural understanding of Thanksgiving through the lens of the K-12 classroom.

Related Video

Thanksgiving is often seen as a quintessential feel-good holiday—but many argue the way it’s taught in schools perpetuates a myth and dishonors Native Americans:

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