Teachers Emphasize the Indians' Side

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Teacher Bill Morgan walks into his third-grade class wearing a black Pilgrim hat made of construction paper and begins snatching up pencils, backpacks and glue sticks from his pupils. He tells them the items now belong to him because he"discovered" them. The reaction is exactly what Morgan expects: The kids get angry and want their things back.

Morgan is among elementary school teachers who have ditched the traditional Thanksgiving lesson, in which children dress up like Indians and Pilgrims and act out a romanticized version of their first meetings.

He has replaced it with a more realistic look at the complex relationship between Indians and white settlers.

Morgan said he still wants his pupils at Cleveland Elementary School in San Francisco to celebrate Thanksgiving. But"what I am trying to portray is a different point of view."

Others see Morgan and teachers like him as too extreme."I think that is very sad," said Janice Shaw Crouse, a former college dean and public high school teacher and now a spokeswoman for Concerned Women for America, a conservative organization."He is teaching his students to hate their country. That is a very distorted view of history, a distorted view of Thanksgiving."

Even American Indians are divided on how to approach a holiday that some believe symbolizes the start of a hostile takeover of their lands.

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Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 11/19/2007

I did not suggest that the Pilgrims practiced "religious freedom." What they wanted badly enough to die for was the ability to practice their own version of a particular faith which was not tolerated in Europe. And that is what the small fry are not told--that the prime motive Pilgrims had for coming to America was to practice their strange religion as they saw fit. They were, in fact, quite intolerant, and it didn't take long for Roger Williams to peel away with his followers. "Religious freedom" as a permanent principle of the new land came 160 years later with people like Jefferson, and it worked pretty well, too, until intolerance returned in the late 20th century, driven into a mania by soi-disant and quixotic intellectuals.

Daniel J. Herman - 11/27/2006

Puritans were not interested in religious freedom. They were interested in purifying the Anglican church ... even if it meant establishing a new colony in North America. Had they pursued "religious freedom" as Mr. Hughes apparently conceives of it, the Puritans (and Pilgrims) would surely have permitted ordinary Anglicans, Quakers, Baptists, and perhaps Indian Animists to worship in whatever way they saw fit. Among all the Pilgrims and Puritans, only Roger Williams--who was exiled from Massachusetts Bay--preached the doctrine of religious freedom.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 11/23/2006

My quarrel with the teachers in elementary school is that they never tell the little darlings that these men in funny hats got on that leaky boat and died like flies after landing here because they wanted so badly to practice their Christian religion in exactly their own way, and the ability to do so is called "religious freedom." (No, you don't have to say it died at Waco, Texas, four centuries later under Janet Reno). Instead the children are told about the wonderful Indians who taught those guys in funny hats how to plant corn... I say when teachers cannot bring themselves to tell the truth in the elementary grades, they should avoid the subject completely.

Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs - 11/22/2006

The oversimplification as reported by the journalist deserves the ridicule.
However, to present the views of the Pilgrims and the views of the Natives equally has been the goal of recent educational material (books and the recent film). Usually, an essential anachronism is ignored. It's this: the views of the Pilgrims are known from their 17th-century writings. But the Native views are what has been invented in the last twenty-five years or so by people trying to imagine what their ancestors must have or should have thought. They have been making it up. There is no unwritten traditional knowledge, unaffected by published colonial writings, that goes back to the 17th century. What we have instead is 20th-century recollections of what had been recently passed down (perhaps stories or in any case attitudes communicated by grandparents or their contemporaries). And the people who provided the oral history of the 20th century were themselves representatives of a tribe that almost certainly has a longer tradition of literacy than any other in North America. In other words, the stories came from people whose "memories" were inspired by their own or their ancestors' reading, re-interpretation, and re-telling of the very colonists' writings against which they wanted to set up an alternative, that tells it the way they'd like it to have been described. The first published version of this re-telling is Ebenezer Peirce's rephrasing of Winslow and Bradford, at the request of Zerviah Gould Mitchell (1878). His anti-Pilgrim sneers have been considered to represent a 17th-century Native view, even though Peirce was not an Indian and his attitude is that of a moralizing Victorian castigating the hypocrisy of his own contemporaries who in the 19th century were oppressing Indians. The same style of revising Winslow was fairly well done by the late Anthony Pollard (who used the name Nanepashemet), in prose that adopts a quasi-Native stiltification of grammar and point of view. There are more recent practitioners of this rhetorical style. Journalists looking for balance have no difficulty finding some and dubbing whoever provides it a historian.

Sean M. Samis - 11/22/2006

Journalists do what they do because:
1. Journalists are averagely ignorant.
2. Journalists think they are especially well informed.
3. Journalists are not interested in "Truth" but only in stories.
4. Simple stories with simple themes are simpler to write.
5. Nuance is nothing but trouble.
6. Selling stories is how journalists put bread on their tables.

sean s.

Daniel J. Herman - 11/22/2006

The problem here is not that teachers ask students to consider Thanksgiving from an Indian point of view; the problem is that this particular teacher has a simplistic understanding of colonization. The pilgrims did not simply show up and insist that all was there's by right of discover. The process of displacement was more subtle and more gradual, and had as much to do with demography (rising English population; declining Indian population) as it had to do with greed or ideas about cultural or religious superiority.

But here's what's more important: why do journalists search out this kind of story, then ask a spokesperson from a conservative organization for comment? The message then becomes: liberals teach us to dislike our country, and conservatives teach us to love our country. Could anything be more simplistic, more ignorant, more demeaning to the American public? Here's one sort of ignorance, that of the teacher, against another sort of ignorance, that of the conservative spokeperson, publicized by a third sort of ignorance, that of the journalist, and propagating a fourth sort of ignorance, that of the public.