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Thursday, November 27, 2008

A Thanksgiving Story

A story in Tuesday's L.A. Times recounts a controversy in a suburb of L.A. about two grade schools' longstanding tradition of the students dressing up as Pilgrims and Native Americans, visiting each other and reenacting the classic Natives-meet-Pilgrims story.  That practice has now come under attack by a Native American-heritage parent -- and a professor at U.C. Riverside -- who argues that its demeaning and dehumanizing (her words, according to the newspaper story).  The issue was addressed Wednesday morning on a local NPR news station's call-in show, where one woman (again of Native American heritage) recounted her own history of doing these pageants and how they negatively affected her.

I'm curious what people think.  Personally I'm a little conflicted.  The easiest case seems to be slurs.  I can't believe, for example, that the NFL still allows the Washington team to be called the Redskins.  I also certainly understand that cultural stereotypes are harmful in all sorts of ways, so even seemingly positive mascots and depictions might be harmful.  But I'm not sure what the stereotyping is in this case (that word was used a lot during the radio program discussion I heard).  Is it that the kids dressed as Natives were dressed in "stereotpyical" Indian dress?  Is that dress historicallly inaccurate, or is the problem that it sends a message about Native Americans today?  Note that one of the kids in the article -- a child with some Native heritage -- expressed pride in the Native costume he created.  And what message does this classic story send?  I would think the Natives come off pretty well in the story; they save the Pilgrims and essentially offer to share the land.

One thing I heard in the discussion was that this story sends a false message about what happened to Natives later on in American history.  That's true enough, but is the proper remedy to erase the story, or to supplement it with teaching about what came later?  And finally, of course, there's the issue of age-appropriateness.  Nobody would think junior high kids should be learning at this level, but is this pageant really a bad way to begin younger kids' learning about the role of Native Americans in American history?  Like I said, I'm conflicted on this.  I'd love to know what others think, especially anyone who's part or full Native American or who has thought about Native American issues.

Posted by Bill Araiza on November 27, 2008 at 01:13 PM in Current Affairs | Permalink


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I'm not sure if this goes to stereotypes, but here are a few thoughts, with some spousal-promotion. My husband wrote a Thanksgiving op-ed, which you can find at www.commondreams.org/view/2008/11/26, and which begins:

Thanksgiving We Can Believe In
by Steve Hendricks

Seven years before Tisquantum (Squanto, to most of us) helped the Pilgrims recover from their disastrous first winter in America, he was kidnapped by an English cod fisher and fur trader who was diversifying into the human trade. Tisquantum and other stock were shipped to Spain under hatch, a murderous passage, and most of the survivors were sold into slavery. Tisquantum was among the lucky, rescued by friars before he could be auctioned, though perhaps held a few years to ensure his salvation by Christ. We do not know how Tisquantum made his way to London and finagled a job as guide and interpreter on a ship bound for New England. But in 1619, four years after his abduction, he returned to America only to find his town of Patuxet in ruins and nearly all its 2,000 Wampanoags dead of European pox. When the Pilgrims arrived the following winter, they founded Plymouth on Patuxet's remains--a cruel symbol, that.

We do not hear much of this history on Thanksgiving. We hear instead that in the spring of 1621 Tisquantum taught the Pilgrims to grown corn and catch eel. We hear that come autumn, gratitude suffused the harvest feast, that beautiful gathering of men who had seen Shakespeare in his lifetime and men ignorant of paper but living lives of plenty. These things are indeed true, but a fuller truth is that Tisquantum helped the Pilgrims as much from fear as from charity and that alongside the goodwill at the first Thanksgiving were mutual mistrust and just-restrained hostility. The mistrust, on the Wampanoags' side at least, was well founded, as their destruction by colonial America soon proved.

America is not alone among nations in making mythology of history. Myth comforts. History, which is to say truth, instructs, often painfully. And it is a painful truth that the guns, germs, and steel of our forebears precipitated the great bloodletting that rid Indian Country of Indians and damned the few survivors to POW camps (now called reservations) where they remain the poorest, most diseased, and worst schooled among us. The link between our myth-making and their destitution is direct. For to forget that our nation virtually destroyed theirs is to absolve ourselves of a duty to make amends. We have been absolving ourselves for half a millennium now.

The consequences are written all over America's most populous reservations ...

[On the question of older versus younger kids, we read this with our six-year-old and have talked about this history on other occasions.]

Posted by: Jennifer Hendricks | Nov 29, 2008 10:45:41 PM

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