‘Tis the season for Thanksgiving plays with kids in bonnets and turkey hats. At work, we offer a field trip musical about Thanksgiving to all of the elementary schools in our area. It’s a cute show, but it only comes around one month out of every year. The premise is that the turkeys have grown suspicious about the rapid disappearance of their families during Thanksgiving, so they have called off the holiday. After hearing testimony from Pilgrims, football players, Native Americans and even cranberries, the turkeys finally decide that Thanksgiving isn’t really about them at all; it’s about giving thanks. Genius.
One of the songs that I teach is about Native Americans showing the Pilgrims how to plant and yield a great harvest. I usually start off each song by asking the students to answer a couple of simple questions about the topic. What kind of foods did we eat at the first Thanksgiving? Can anybody tell me the name of a Native American tribe? Did you know that it is now considered offensive to sit ‘Indian style’ instead of ‘criss-cross applesauce?’ You know; things like that.
Usually, the kids are spot on with their answers; they have been training for this field trip for weeks. This day, however, came with a slight surprise.
‘How did Native Americans help with Thanksgiving?’ I asked. Several hands were raised, but I could only pick one. ‘Yes, Jonathan. Can you tell us?’
‘Well, the Native Americans tried to be our friends, but since white people are mean, we killed them.’
‘Okay, thank you, Jonathan. Anyone else?’
‘Then they got mad at us for eating all their food at Thanksgiving,’ he continued. ‘So they started shaving our heads with tomahawks and dancing to make rain to make us drown.’
‘Excellent. Now, everyone turn to page 18…’
‘That made us really angry, so then we decided to take everything away from them and make them move to where it’s cold because we like to live on the beach. White people made the Native Americans move where nobody wants to live. In Minnesota.
‘Then we started littering and that makes the old man Native Americans cry. I think that’s why we have Thanksgiving.’
My head was swarmed with visions of small children wearing Pilgrim hats & Indian headdresses, textbook images depicting the Trail of Tears and the Minnesota Vikings football team, television shows featuring Martha Stewart roasting Cornish game hens and commercials showing a single tear slowly falling down the leathery cheek of a Chief standing on the side of I-95. As a child, how do you separate all of these picture book images and pop culture references into their proper categories and come away with even the faintest understanding of what Thanksgiving is really all about?
We tell children that it is to give thanks to God for a bountiful harvest, but these kids don’t know what it means to harvest because they’ve never even seen a farm, and mentioning God in school is only permitted during the Pledge of Allegiance – whatever that is. We tell them it is a time for family. That is, a time for the family that we only want to see on major holidays when it’s easy to make idle chatter about your sweet potato recipe or, my goodness, how the children have grown this year. We tell them it is a time to give thanks, but how can we teach them about gratefulness and good stewardship on a day followed by women in battle armor dueling for the best Day-After-Thanksgiving purchase? In short, how can we expect for children of this modern age to have even the slightest understanding of Thanksgiving, when it all seems to be holiday propaganda mixed with the idea of a loving family?
So I asked. ‘Why, Jonathan? Why do we have Thanksgiving?’
‘We have Thanksgiving to be nice to the Native Americans and thank them for giving us all their stuff. Then we eat a big meal to thank the grocery store for giving us food and then we go shopping and thank the store for giving us presents and we thank mommy and daddy for giving us little sisters. We get things and say thank you for them. That’s what Native Americans did for Thanksgiving.’
Well, the philosophy is a bit off, but I guess the truth is in there somewhere. Maybe we’re not doing such a bad job after all.