Here’s what many of us learned in school about Thanksgiving: In 1620, the Pilgrims fled religious suppression in Britain on the Mayflower and arrived at Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts. They struggled to survive the harsh winter conditions, but fortunately, a group of Native Americans showed them how to cultivate the land. The following fall, after a bountiful harvest, the pilgrims organized a celebratory feast and invited their Native American allies to join in as thanks. This was America’s “first Thanksgiving” and lasted for three days, and we’ve been feasting on turkey and pumpkin pie every November since.
And while it’s likely true that this feast did in fact occur, this heartwarming account doesn’t tell the full story. Thanksgiving didn’t actually become a national holiday until the Civil War when it was used as a way to unite the country and—most importantly—this happy tale leaves out what happened to the Native and Indigenous communities over the next few centuries (including genocide, slavery and disease).
“It’s a myth, just like Santa Claus,” says Karen Gillespie, a child and family therapist who has worked with Native American communities. “Sadly people are more comfortable talking about how they learned that Santa Claus wasn’t real than they are about learning about the media version of Thanksgiving,” she adds. Why? Well, because we’re used to celebrating Thanksgiving and examining this event too closely isn’t exactly cause for celebration.
But if we don’t speak to younger generations about difficult moments from America’s history, we are perpetuating a narrative in which Native Americans are invisible. And in a year full of difficult conversations, it’s time to talk turkey about, well, more than just turkey. So how can we reframe the Thanksgiving story for kids? Consider these words from sociologist and author James W. Loewen: “The antidote to feel-good history is not feel-bad history, but honest and inclusive history.” With that in mind, here some ways to talk to children about Thanksgiving this year.