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How teachers are debunking some of the myths of Thanksgiving

School children in the U.S. often celebrate Thanksgiving by dressing up as pilgrims and “Indians.” But these traditions tend to perpetuate myths that are offensive to Native American communities. Education correspondent Kavitha Cardoza takes a look at a new movement aiming to reinvent the way schools teach Thanksgiving.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Thanksgiving is usually thought, of course, as a feel-good, quintessential U.S. holiday.

    But many argue the traditional narrative perpetuates myths, as well as being disrespectful to Native Americans, because it often leaves out the context of relations between them and the early immigrants, how the settlers brought diseases, for example, that decimated Native tribes, or information about the massacres of Natives that followed.

    Now there's a growing movement to help history teachers unlearn what they themselves were taught. But not everyone agrees about what should be taught to students today.

    Special correspondent Kavitha Cardoza, with our partner Education Week, has this report.

    It's for our weekly education segment, Making the Grade.

  • Man:

    The textbook, but there's a lot of bias and a lot of slant.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    There are about 50 social studies teachers at the Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. They're learning how to teach the first Thanksgiving in a way that is true to actual events and respectful of Native cultures.

    For example, Pilgrims weren't the first settlers in the U.S. Native Americans had celebrated fall harvest feasts for years already, and they had a sophisticated society.

    Teacher Diane Wright says she was taught the opposite in school.

  • Diane Wright:

    It was very much with a white focus and white presentation and European colonialism.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Renee Gokey is a member of the Shawnee Tribe and runs the workshop.

  • Renee Gokey:

    And we know that the stories are either inaccurate, they're incomplete, and they almost never tell a Native perspective.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    At the museum, teachers learn about the Thanksgiving story in context.

  • Renee Gokey:

    All of these federal policies, assimilation, the Dawes Act, American Indian removal under Jacksonian policy, these affected my people, you know, my community personally.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    And they see how the consequences are still being felt today.

    Educator D'adre Blake says textbooks often refer to American Indians in the past.

  • D’adre Blake:

    When you tell them that Native people are still here in America, they're like, oh, we didn't know that.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Here, teachers listen to first-person stories, analyze historical photos, and learn about traditional Native foods.

    Karen Brown is an arts educator. She says making Thanksgiving crafts like dream catchers or headbands with feathers is outdated and inappropriate.

  • Karen Brown:

    My colleague is Shawnee, and she taught me that feathers are very sacred. She was given one feather by her elder, and she keeps it and brings it out for special ceremonies. It completely changed the way I relate to feathers. They're not a craft item from the crafts store any longer.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    So she comes up with alternatives that are rooted in history, like making catalogues to understand how Native people traded seeds.

  • Woman:

    It's not a monolith.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Gokey says teachers may have to unlearn what they were taught, because simplifying the past is damaging not just to Native people.

  • Renee Gokey:

    They do a disservice to us as a nation and forming our identity. I think that there's much more opportunity when we speak frankly and truthfully about the past. And I think, from then, we can start to heal.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    But how to teach the past is very controversial. What students learn in different school districts varies a lot across the country, influenced by social and political values, as well as a community's demographic makeup.

    Some see bias in the opposite direction. Roy White says America's rich culture is in danger of being lost to revisionist history. He's the founder of Truth In Textbooks, an organization that trains volunteers to review history textbooks for what they see as bias.

    They have successfully lobbied for change.

  • Roy White:

    We're trying to remove the political correctness that we found in a lot of the textbooks and begin to put back into the textbooks things that have been omitted purposefully over the years.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    He gives examples.

  • Roy White:

    Those who were founding our country were terrible towards all Indians. And that's really not a fair, accurate characterization.

    When you talk about World War II and what you emphasize is Japanese internment camps or the moral dilemmas of dropping the atomic bomb. When you talk about the falling of the Berlin Wall and all you talk about is Gorbachev, and you never talk about Reagan.

    So, there was a constant berating of America. And suddenly now you, as a student, says, well, I'm not proud of America anymore. I mean, why would I want to be proud of those kinds of things?

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    White believes history textbooks should emphasize American exceptionalism and the country's roots as a Christian nation.

    Eric Shed teaches history teachers at Harvard University. He says understanding the past is all about narratives or stories that help us make sense of the present.

  • Eric Shed:

    Narratives are fundamentally important to us as a society in terms of, they're what binds us together.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Shed believes including the difficult parts of history teaches children empathy and citizenship.

  • Eric Shed:

    All civic issues are rooted in history, right? We just didn't have sort of issues today around immigration, economic policy, women's rights. Those aren't — those very important issues today are fundamentally rooted in the past.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    In Colorado Springs, at Fremont Elementary School, Rebecca Daugherty's third-graders have started a week-long unit on Thanksgiving.

  • Rebecca Daugherty:

    So are you guys ready to have your mind blown?

  • Student:

    Yes.

  • Student:

    Yes.

  • Rebecca Daugherty:

    So if you guys can take one thing away from social studies in third grade, I want you to take away the Pilgrims overtook the Native Americans and took everything that they had worked so hard for.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Daugherty herself graduated college still believing in the Thanksgiving myth, so she's determined to teach her students the truth.

  • Rebecca Daugherty:

    They're going to be the future of this country. And if everybody has a misunderstanding and nobody tells them the truth, then we're a nation built on lies. And so I did burst their bubble, but, hopefully, I taught them to not always believe what they hear first time, but to look further and investigate more.

    If Native Americans and Pilgrims didn't get along, then why do these pictures show that they did?

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Students analyze how Thanksgiving has changed over time.

  • Student:

    I can see like, back then, there's no, like, phones.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Oh, and this picture has a phone.

  • Student:

    Yes, there's tons of phones I see.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Joan Jahelka oversees social studies for almost 30,000 students in this district.

  • Joan Jahelka:

    The way we taught social studies was very much about, how do we win on the game of "Jeopardy"?

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    So a lot of dates, a lot of names?

  • Joan Jahelka:

    Yes, very much a stereotypical history class.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Now she says they have moved away from history textbooks to teaching students to become historians.

  • Joan Jahelka:

    When students rely fully on a textbook, somebody else has done the thinking for them, whereas, when students interact with primary sources, they're really learning about those sources and how they are significant in understanding our story as America.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    She says it helps students learn to ask questions, research information, and analyze material, life skills.

  • Rebecca Daugherty:

    And I want you to talk about what from this picture puzzles you or confuses you or you don't get.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Eric Shed, the Harvard professor, says when students learn about our country's problematic past, it makes the stories of our achievements more powerful.

  • Eric Shed:

    It's really that conversation between our ideals and our reality, that striving to meet these wonderful goals that we are founded on is really, I think, what makes America truly an amazing place.

    So, I do think that there's a tendency to be overly critical or blindingly patriotic. And I really think we would move ourselves tremendously forward if we could do both together side by side.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    For the "PBS NewsHour" and Education Week, I'm Kavitha Cardoza in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

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