Thanksgiving Thought: When Myth is a Lie (Which Mom Taught Not to Do)

by Jennifer Harvey

I was in fourth grade and The Hobbit—a full-length animated film (a big deal back then)—was coming to my school. Those of us who were part of the gifted and talented program were going to get to see it. My “non-g/t” classmates were jealous. My mom was pissed.

Years later I would learn my mom was already suspicious of g/t and ambivalent about my participation in it. It’s not that she didn’t think I was smart or deserved great education. She just couldn’t quite stomach the idea that I deserved more resources and nurture than any other kid in my class who, she believed, deserved the same. The Hobbit plan put her over the edge. I vividly remember her marching into my classroom, engaging my teacher, arguing with other parents in the week long fracas she created by insisting the school let all the children take part in this special treat.

I secretly agreed with my mom, but begged her to just let it go. My best friend was furious mom was trying to take away our elite treatment and, when mom won and all the kids got to see the movie, Rachel gave me the silent treatment for a week!

So I’ve been preparing to channel my inner-mom as I’ve waited to see what my 4 year old might bring home from school this Thanksgiving week. My mom and I disagree about many, many things politically. But my earliest sense that you stand up for what’s right when people are being harmed or excluded began with her.

School. It’s a new thing for our family. We suddenly have to think about how to engage, expand or even challenge what our daughter might now be taught by other people. What did they teach her about “strangers” and safety—and did we want her to learn this so young? How should we deal with her saying the Pledge of Allegiance—something my partner and I both object to, though for different reasons? What will she learn about the founding of this country? And, the question I dread most: When is she going to come home having made a headdress of feathers?

I’ve long known I’ll have to fill in large gaps when it comes my kids’ education on U.S. history and race. They’ll be taught a cleaner version of slavery than is true. They won’t be told how devastating Japanese American internment was. But I don’t worry they’ll come home wearing some play, dress up version of “enslaved (or free) Africans” or spouting cartoon notions of what Japanese Americans “used to be like” (as if they were no longer here).

Something different happens with Native Americans though. You can’t teach U.S. origins honestly without genocide and massive, fraudulent land theft hovering near the surface. So, we don’t. Instead we make up happy stories and create “indians” who fit the roles we (U.S. citizens) need them to play.

Why do we lie like this? Hint: it’s not just because we’re protecting our kids from horrifying histories, otherwise we would eventually teach them the full story, just like we do with the Holocaust.

And, why am I so filled with dread at the thought of confronting this at my daughter’s school?

The answer to both of these questions is the same. Our account of the founding of this nation is told more through myth than history. Now, when I say “myth” I don’t mean something necessarily made up (though in this case there is a ton of that). Myths are sacred stories—stories that tell us who we are and teach us what we value. The story of Adam and Eve, for example, is a myth. Whether Christians agree that this story is historically factual or not—and, believe me, they do not agree about this—they do agree it conveys the sacred truth that all people are made in God’s image.

Because myths are sacred people get really worked up when you challenge them—even if you do it gently, even when they are blatant lies.

Imagine saying, “slavery was wrong.”

Now imagine saying, “Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder who passionately insisted on Black inferiority and real history means we get honest about that, even on the fourth of July.”

The first statement is unlikely to raise an eyebrow. The second—well, why don’t you try it at your Thanksgiving dinner and let me know what happens? Depending, of course, on which U.S.-Americans are sitting at your table, you are very likely to have just run full speed into a national myth.

Naming genocide really messes with our Thanksgiving story. Talking about broken treaties makes it hard to celebrate our founders as the fathers of liberty.

The fact is humans need myths (which don’t have to be religious) to help us live into our better selves, both individually and together. But that’s why embracing myths that are based on deadly lies, lies that continue to harm real people is so wrong. And to allow our children to frolic in utterly inaccurate and deeply offensive “indian play” is to do just that.

I’m a lot less nervous about taking this on as a parent when I remember that I’m only risking people being mad at me. For Native American parents and their children, U.S. myths come at the cost of their communities’ cultural, political and economic survival. So, if being an educator, a citizen and a person-of-integrity means I care about what school does to and for everyone’s children, I can’t possibly be less fearless than my mom.

It turns out we dodged the bullet this year. My daughter came home yesterday with nothing remotely related to Thanksgiving. And who knows, maybe I’ll end up pleasantly surprised and her schools will never teach her that this land was mostly empty, Indians were all alike, now they are all gone, and it’s okay to create stereotyped artifacts about them in arts and crafts.

But I’m almost certain that at some point the feathers will come home. So, what will I do? Well, if it’s Thanksgiving, we’ll sit down and learn about the actual kinds of food and clothing common among the Wampanoag Confederacy. We’ll read what Native Americans have to say about the significance of feathers. We’ll study Squanto’s life story including when and where he met the Pilgrims (I’ll wait until my kids are older to get to the painful part about it being on the land where his people had lived before they were decimated.) We’ll read about Massasoit, and how he came for a feast with the Pilgrims along with his 90 warriors. (And, again, when they are older, we’ll wrestle together with the incomprehensible truth that it was within the life time of this same man who was invited to “our first Thanksgiving” that some of the most unspeakable massacres of Native Americans by Europeans took place.)

As we do this together, over time, I hope the process we are in helps us create and embrace new myths—myths that make it possible for honesty, repentance, and more complex forms of gratitude to be present at our Thanksgiving table.

Jennifer Harvey is a writer and associate professor of religion and ethics at Drake University. She’s interested in how social structures shape who we are—and how we can transform ourselves into people who create more just, compassionate social structures. Professor Harvey is the author of Whiteness and Morality: Pursuing Racial Justice through Reparations and Sovereignty (Palgrave Macmillan 2007; 2012) and other articles on racial justice.

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  1. […] game and she lamented the whole way home that she “felt bad” your team clobbered them. But I’ve written elsewhere about the lessons this part of her living gave me about always speaking up when something is […]

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