by Alexandra Levy, staff writer

NOVEMBER 2021 – This year, many activists are boycotting Thanksgiving celebrations due to claims of cultural insensitivity.

Thanksgiving is known to be a holiday of cultural significance in America, centered around food and family. Schools offer extended time off for students and encourage them to spend time with their families. However, Thanksgiving also commemorates the slaughter of Indigenous peoples in America.

“I think it’s important that we educate people on our country’s history, but we need to stop spreading misinformation about Native American history,” said Bio-Med Science Academy junior Olivia Opritiza. “When you celebrate Thanksgiving, you’re really celebrating the genocide of Indigenous people.”

Opritiza felt that elementary education contributes to the spread of misinformation about Thanksgiving. Many Bio-Med students agreed, claiming that their earlier education misled them because their teachers sanitized history.

“America likes to avoid telling people about the bad things we’ve done in history. I was taught that the Pilgrims and Indians have mutually beneficial relationships, which I now know is really incorrect,” expressed Opritza.

Others argued that Thanksgiving and early American history can remain an early education curriculum, but students’ age and emotional maturity should be taken into account.

Bio-Med sophomore Irene Scherer said, “It’s important that they [children and young students] are educated on the real history, but we don’t have to say everything that happened because they are kids.”

Scherer believes proper education at a young age will result in a deeper empathic understanding of historical events.

“If people were taught the non-colonized version first, I think Thanksgiving would become less celebrated and more memorialized,” explained Scherer.

Mr. William Ullinger, Bio-Med freshmen history teacher, tries to encourage students to recognize privilege and learn that some comfort may be sacrificed for comprehension.

“I think there’s a lot of stuff that we do in my class to make sure that students understand ‘problematic history,’” Ullinger explained. “My class focuses a lot on imperialism. Imperialism and colonialism ideals and invading indigenous peoples mostly ties back to American and European history, especially American and European treatments of Native American, Indigenous people on North America.”

A children’s Thanksgiving coloring book page is pictured. On the left is a printed version of a painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris depicting the first Thanksgiving and on the right, a printed version of “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.” The latter has been questioned by many due to the historical inaccuracies it presents to children. Bio-Med Science Academy’s freshmen history teacher Mr. William Ullinger commented, “It goes back to the Charlie Brown episodes. There’s a Charlie Brown special that explains the friendship between Native Americans and how the first Thanksgiving came to be. I get that we want our kids to have a feel-good story about why we do stuff, but at the same time should I come up with fake stories about what happened?” Photo by Alex Levy.

Ullinger claimed that students should learn the accurate version of the story of Thanksgiving. However, he believes that education does not mean that the holiday should be boycotted overall.

“My Thanksgiving looks very different from a lot of other people’s Thanksgiving. When I was younger we used to invite random people that needed a place to go. That’s what we should be focusing on Thanksgiving. It’s helping each other out. These ideals were what we say we want to put in about Thanksgiving. Push those; don’t push the false story about why we follow these ideals,” he elaborated.

Professor and public history graduate director Theodore Karamanski of Loyola University Chicago agreed with Ullinger; the inaccurate story should be corrected.

“Thanksgiving can be portrayed in insensitive ways, particularly when the focus is on the connection with the Plymouth Colony in the 17th century. Yes, a harvest festival was held between Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians in 1621. The Pilgrims were dependent upon Wampanoag help for their survival in the initial years of their settlement, but in later years took more and more Indian land for themselves and eventually made war upon the children of the Indians at that first Thanksgiving. After a long and bloody war, many Wampanoags were sold into slavery. So, when the peaceful image of the 1621 feast is presented, it gives a false impression of the overall thrust of early American Indian-White relations,” Karamanski explained.

Karamanski teaches courses on American Indian history, the Civil War, and public history. He was the founder and director of Loyola’s Public History Program and has contributed to numerous books, both as an author and an editor, about Native American history.

The e-book edition of Karamanski’s book “Blackbird’s Song” is pictured. The book chronicles the history of another Native American tribe, the Odawa people, with the use of primary sources such as Odawan historian Andrew J. Blackbird. A copy of the book can be found here. Photo by Alex Levy.

Karamanski described the true history of Thanksgiving: “The true origins of the national holiday celebrated by Americans dates to the action of Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. His 1863 proclamation set aside the last Thursday in November to thank God for Union victories and to ‘heal the wounds of the nation.’ The holiday has been celebrated every year since. Today, there are widening political and social divisions in the USA. Extended families getting together for Thanksgiving too often fall into divisive disputes over political personalities. Perhaps they would do well to remember the danger of division and be grateful that the evils of slavery and Civil War have passed. That is what I am grateful for.”

Karamanski also agreed with Ullinger that early and elementary education could mislead students about topics of early American history. However, they both believed that there is progress being made to better educate the current and future generations of students.

“November is Native American Heritage Month in part because educators have gradually heightened awareness that the traditional Thanksgiving story is at best incomplete.” Karamanski concluded, “A feast is always more palatable than a massacre. American Indian activists have been successful in critiquing the general society’s tendencies to exploit the image of Indians, while obscuring their true history.”

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