Southern California schools rethink Thanksgiving lessons

A viral video that showed a math teacher hopping around her classroom in a mock Native American headdress spread outrage not just in Southern California, but across the country.

Now, about a month after that scene exploded on social media, the Riverside Unified School District is using the embarrassing incident to have conversations with the community and diversify its lessons. Part of its talks with local Native American leaders involve a question that reaches further than North High School, where the teacher was apparently trying to teach a complex math concept.

How should public schools teach about Thanksgiving?

Across Southern California, educators say the traditional image of pilgrims and Indians and the conventional myth that “all was well” needs to change. Not telling students the truth about how large communities of Native Americans perished due to failed pacts, war and disease amounts to erasure of history and facts, they said.

A screen grab from Instagram shows a viral video that began circulating Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021. In it, a math teacher at Riverside’s North High School is seen wearing a faux Native American headdress and dancing around. The teacher was placed on leave from the Riverside Unified School District. (Via Instagram)

Riverside school leaders have publicly resolved to educate students about Native American history and culture and to improve teaching practices.

As part of this effort, Henry Vasquez, chair of the Native American Community Council of San Bernardino and Riverside Counties, last week sent a preliminary list of resources to the school district. The topics included a section about how to present Thanksgiving in classrooms.

Historically, Vasquez said, the story of Thanksgiving taught to students this time of the year, is “very sad and inauthentic.”

“That kind of idea of dressing children as pilgrims and Indians, wearing paper feathers and hats — that’s pretty insulting,” he said. “It makes Indian kids feel really bad. I understand that for many, it’s a holiday experience, a fun experience. But, it’s also important to think about how it affects Native children.”

In reality, the tale of Native Americans welcoming the pioneering pilgrims to a celebratory feast is riddled with historical inaccuracies and myths, Vasquez said. Telling and retelling these falsehoods is harmful to the Wampanoag Indians and other Native people who know that lives and societies were forever damaged after the English arrived in Plymouth, he said.

The Riverside teacher’s actions dredged up pain for an entire community, Vasquez, said, but the new partnership and dialogue with the school district gives him hope.

“I understand we’re not going to agree with everything right away,” he said. “But I am impressed that they’re working on an ethnic studies curriculum and that they want to teach more authentic history.”

Riverside Unified spokesperson Diana Meza said the partnership is in a preliminary stage.

Other Southern California school districts also have been trying to prominently feature Native American history in their schools.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has a Native American Ethnic Studies course and is now “developing additional supplemental resources and lessons that reflect the diverse experiences of Indigenous people,” district spokesperson Gayle Pollard-Terry said.

She said the curriculum deals with a number of questions including the following: How did European explorers and settlers interact with American Indians? How did American Indians change as a result of the arrival and settlement of European colonists? Why did American Indians fight with each other? Why did they fight with European settlers? What role did trade play in both cooperation and conflict between and among European settlers?

The Los Angeles school board has also authorized $10 million for Indigenous education. The district will provide matching funds for schools that apply to receive services that support Indigenous students, she said.

There is an urgent need to rethink how the Thanksgiving story is told in classrooms across California, Riverside school board President Tom Hunt said.

“My generation’s education about Native history was flat and inadequate to say the least,” said Hunt, 66. “Our traditional Thanksgiving presentations and pageants have been inauthentic and offensive.”

Historians say that, while the meal known as the First Thanksgiving did happen, it took place at some point in fall 1621 in the Plymouth colony. When George Washington declared a national day of Thanksgiving in 1789, his proclamation made no mention of the three-day feast in Plymouth.

In 1820, an antiquarian from Philadelphia republished an account of the Thanksgiving feast in his 1841 “Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers” with the footnote: “This was the first Thanksgiving, the harvest festival of New England.” In 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation that Americans should take time for gratitude amid the bloodshed. It was then that the Thanksgiving holiday became linked to the story of Plymouth.

According to historian David J. Silverman, author of “This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving,” while the famous feast in 1621 was peaceful, the destruction of Native communities that followed was dropped from the Thanksgiving story.

History teachers should take a more active role in correcting myths around Thanksgiving, said Lindsey Charron, who has taught eighth grade U.S. history at Horace Ensign Intermediate School in Newport Beach for the past 16 years.

“When I was a student, I was taught the same myths as everyone else about Thanksgiving,” said Charron, who is on the board of the California Council for the Social Studies. “It’s important to correct these inaccuracies.”

One way to approach the issue is to start locally and recognize the Indigenous people who lived on the land, she said.

“We need to think about the tribes, the Indigenous people who were stewards of the land,” she said. “I explain to students about how these natives came to the aid of the pilgrims and how the pilgrims would not have survived without that help. We also talk about how their relationship took twists and turns. It’s good to be grateful on Thanksgiving Day, but it is also important to recognize multiple perspectives around this observance.”

Some Native Americans observe Thanksgiving as a national day of mourning, which Charron mentions to her students.

“We can be proud of our country, but parts of it are uncomfortable and we cannot deny that,” she said. “Historically, the narrative has been controlled by certain groups and Native American people have not been given the opportunity to share their perspective. But, now there is more opportunity to connect and there is an understanding that these are all voices that are part of our history.”

Thanksgiving pageants are “problematic” and should have been on their way out a long time ago, said James Fenelon, director of the Center for Indigenous Peoples Studies at Cal State San Bernardino, who added that he doesn’t buy the excuse that it’s a difficult issue to discuss.

“If you can talk about the Revolutionary War, you can talk about the Wampanoag,” he said. “Isn’t that equity? If we talk about friendship pacts, we should also talk about those pacts breaking down.”

These inaccurate presentations have a significant impact on Native children, Fenelon said.

“You’re signaling to these kids that they are less than,” he said. “If they talk about their heritage, they are shut down. This contributes to all kinds of traumatic behavior. Sooner of later, you’re going to have to tell the other side of the story.”

Older Post Newer Post