Growing up I was that girl in elementary school who sat in the hallway during the class’ Columbus Day discussion and craft project. Come November I took a seat in the hallway next to the jehovah witness kid during the class’ Thanksgiving party. It wasn’t because I was in time out nor was it do to my religion, it was purposefully done by choice.
A choice that I as a child wouldn’t have made for myself. It was my Dad’s decision that we not be included in his words a “mockery of his people.” He didn’t want his daughters growing up to believe that Columbus discovered us nor did he want us to believe that the first Thanksgiving was all rainbows and sunshine. What really tipped the scales for him was the day I came bouncing home in a paper headdress. “My class put on a play Dad and I got to be the Indian,” I said with glee. He took one look at me and ripped the carefully colored paper headdress off of my head and threw it in the trash.
I was crushed, I worked so hard on coloring the paper feathers just right and it ended up in the trash. I started crying, he put out his cigar and pulled me on to his lap. I asked why he threw away my paper headdress and he explained to me that headdresses are sacred to our people and one should not make a mockery out of one. He explained why it wasn’t ok for the teacher to single me out and make me be the Indian for the play. I tearfully said “but I am Indian and no one else got to play it!?” He squeezed me tight and said “yes you are Indian, but you are not their nor will you ever be their monkey.”
I was to little to understand what he fully meant by that. In the years following my dad filled out a form to exclude me from such class room celebrations. When we’d return from Thanksgiving break the teacher would ask us one by one how our holiday was. That is until she came to me, they’d skip me and ask the kid sitting either behind or in front of me to speak. In forth grade I had enough of being skipped and yelled “it’s just a regular day at my house! My dad tells a story about how the pilgrims ate the Indians and we drive to the cabin to get our Christmas Tree. Thanks for asking!” My teacher Mr. Gordon was both dumbfounded and amused by me yelling out what I did. He asked me “do you think the Thanksgiving story is a lie?” Yes, yes sir I do. He just winked at me and moved on to the next kid.
When I was getting ready to leave that day Mr. Gordon asked me to come to his desk. He told me “your dad is right the Thanksgiving story is inaccurate, but sometimes we have to carry out an inaccuracy for other people’s happiness. Ok?” I said ok, but why? And he replied “because sometimes the truth makes people feel uncomfortable and they don’t like that.” But why I piped back. He just looked at me and said “I don’t know Mannie, it just does. Now get going Ms. Dorothy is probably getting cold standing on the corner waiting for you.” With those words I was off and ran down the street because I didn’t want Ms. Dorothy to think I was in trouble or lost.
This continued all through out my education. Even in High School, I would sit out in the hallway when my history teachers taught the “Indian Unit” in November. My Dad’s other pet peeve is that Native history is white washed by historians, he didn’t want us learning inaccuracies. He wanted us to learn our history from our people and not some history teacher who moonlights as the swim coach.
So when I got to college I minored in First Nations Studies, I wanted a better understanding of my history and culture. My freshman year I had returned from Thanksgiving break and headed over to Gary’s office for help with an essay I was working on. He asked me how my break was and I replied “Thanksgiving is just another regular day for my family…… we don’t have a feast or get dressed up, but we do go shopping and then we get our tree.” Puzzled he asked me why it was a regular day. “Umm because Thanksgiving is a lie, we all know the pilgrims were cannibals.” After I dropped that on him we sat in silence, a silence that soon had Gary cracking a smile.
I’ve never seen another human identify with me more in my life, he looked at me like he had just found his new best friend and said “you’ve never celebrated Thanksgiving? How do you feel about Columbus…..?” I just laughed and said “nope and I cannot stand the lie that is Columbus.” I went on to tell him the story about the paper headdress that started it all. Turns out Gary had also made one and was once the Indian in his class play too. That is the day he became more than a teacher, he became my mentor, and we bonded over our shared dislike of Columbus Day and the Thanksgiving story.
These days Thanksgiving is so over commercialized that folks forget about how the “pilgrims sat down with the Indians for a meal.” Instead we skip the story and go straight to the buffalo plaid table scapes with a perfectly roasted instagramable turkey that is surrounded by a smiling family. Some hurry up and eat just in time for the big game to start while others carefully plot their shopping trip while eating a slice of pie. The Thanksgiving story is being lost to time, while others chose to clutch on to the story as truth. A truth that they cannot bare to give up, even though archeologists have found evidence of cannibalism at Plymouth Rock.
Sadly schools are still encouraging children to carry out this day via pilgrim hats and paper headdresses in classroom plays. Children make turkeys out of their handprints instead of learning about the realities of what led to and what happened after that first Thanksgiving on Plymouth Rock. Part of me believes it’s because educators don’t want to teach the truth about Thanksgiving because they themselves don’t want to admit that they too believe in and celebrated a lie.