Thanksgiving: Time to Share Some Native American Myths?
On this Thanksgiving vacation, I have a confession to make. I’ve been teaching my students false information. To make matters worse, I’ve been doing it since at least 2005, and maybe even longer.
Don’t get me wrong — it hasn’t been intentional. I fell into the same trap that my students have fallen into: I believed an information source that was biased. Teachers all over the world must be doing the same thing? How many parents teach their children about the happy feast shared by a group of cooperative Native Americans and peaceful Pilgrims?
Here’s what happened. Since before I even began teaching at Innovation Academy, 5th and 6th graders have been reading a speech that claims to be written by Chief Seattle. It’s a beautiful piece demonstrating how Native Americans viewed their relationship with the land differently than the way Europeans viewed it. It’s full of powerful language about environmental destruction. Students illustrate their favorite line, and this quarter, we decided to have a little contest to choose a few to be made into t-shirts. You can see the winners in this post and consider ordering one!
Unfortunately, it turns out that these beautiful words were not written by Chief Seattle, and they weren’t even written by a Native American person. When I was checking one of the quotes for accuracy, I came across a post on Snopes.com explaining that these words are likely fiction. Apparently, I never checked the reliability of my source! While some of the lines and ideas could have come from Chief Seattle’s words to President Franklin Pierce back in 1854, it seems like much of this speech was written for a 1972 movie. Many others have come to believe that the words are real history, so much so that they seem to have become part of American mythology. The ideas represented in the speech are probably accurate, but this seems to be another example of white people misunderstanding Native American people. The message is still very moving, and all the students created beautiful posters, not only our winners, Shayla, Jonathan, and Travis, but we need to read with a more critical eye.
Why do people spread myths like this? It happens because of bias, which we’ve been discussing a lot in Social Studies class. People try to describe historical events in a neutral way, but oftentimes their descriptions are colored by their perspective. When we read something that makes us feel good, or seems to fit with our own understandings, we want to believe it.
It’s too easy to believe that anything we read on the internet is true. In fact, last week, students explored the website All About Explorers, which is a fake historical site set up to teach students about internet safety. As they were researching, many students believed information that was unrealistic, such as Columbus was born in 1951 in Sydney, Australia, or Balboa’s children sold his armor on ebay. It’s easy to take for granted that the information in front of us must be true when it’s right there in black and white.
We try to teach multiple perspectives in our classes. Students participated in an overnight sleepover at Plimoth Plantation in which they got to visit a recreation of an English settlement in 1627 and talk to current day Native Americans. They are currently designing board games about European explorers, and their assignment is to teach players the story of their explorer in an unbiased way. We are learning that Columbus can be seen as a hero, or as a murderer, depending on your perspective. Expect to see more posts soon on both Plimoth and our unbiased board games. It’s all powerful learning, but is it enough? Are we teaching the truth about history, or just some story made up to make us proud to be American?
If you are a kid, check out Plimoth’s interactive website about the real story behind Thanksgiving (adults may prefer this article). As you explore, remember that most of our information in biased, no matter how hard we try to find accurate sources. Many of our primary sources are from the European perspective, and the Native American voices have often been silenced. We need to think critically and listen carefully.
This Thanksgiving, let’s be grateful for mistakes. Whether mistakes are made in history or made today, we have the power to learn from them and make positive changes for tomorrow. It’s not too late to make a difference — for Native Americans, for all Americans, and for the planet.