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Debunking the myth of Thanksgiving
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Debunking the myth of Thanksgiving

Teaching about Thanksgiving, Dr. Brouillet F. B., with an introduction by Chuck Larsen, Tacoma School, 1986.

This is a particularly difficult introduction to write. I have been a public schools teacher for twelve years, and I am also a historian and have written several books on American and Native American history. I also just happen to be Quebeque French, Metis, Ojibwa 1 , and Iroquois 2 . Because my Indian ancestors were on both sides of the struggle between the Puritans and the New England Indians and I am well versed 3 in my cultural heritage and history both as an Anishnabeg (Algokin) and Hodenosione (Iroquois), it was felt that I could bring a unique insight 4 to the project.

For an Indian, who is also a school teacher, Thanksgiving was never an easy holiday for me to deal with in class. I sometimes have felt like I learned too much about “the Pilgrims and the Indians”. Every year I have been faced with the professional and moral dilemma of just how to be honest and informative with my children at Thanksgiving without passing on historical distortions, and racial and cultural stereotypes.

The problem is that part of what you and I learned in our own childhood about the “Pilgrims” and “Squanto” and the “First Thanksgiving” is a mixture of both history and myth. But the THEME of Thanksgiving has truth and integrity far above and beyond what we and our forebearers 5 have made of it. Thanksgiving is a bigger concept than just the story of the founding of the Plymouth Plantation.

So what do we teach to our children? We usually pass on unquestioned what we all received in our own childhood classrooms. I have come to know both the truths and the myths about our “First Thanksgiving,” and I feel we need to try to reach beyond the myths to some degree of historic truth. This text is an attempt to do this.

At this point you are probably asking, “What is the big deal about Thanksgiving and the Pilgrims?”, “What does this guy mean by a mixture of truths and myth?” [...] The Puritan “Pilgrims” who came to New England were not simply refugees who decided to “put their fate in God’s hands” in the “empty wilderness” of North America, as a generation of Hollywood movies taught us. In any culture at any time, settlers on a frontier are most often outcasts6 and fugitives who, in some way or other, do not fit into the mainstream 7 of their society. This is not to imply that people who settle on frontiers have no redeeming 8 qualities such as bravery, etc., but that the images of nobility that we associate with the Puritans are at least in part the good “P.R. 9 ” efforts of later writers who have romanticized them. [...]

The Wampanoag Indians were not the “friendly savages” some of us were told about when we were in the primary grades. Nor were they invited out of the goodness of the Pilgrims’ hearts to share the fruits of the Pilgrims’ harvest in a demonstration of Christian charity and interracial brotherhood.

[...] They knew something of the power of the white people, and they did not fully trust them. But their religion taught that they were to give charity to the helpless and hospitality to anyone who came to them with empty hands. Also, Squanto, the Indian hero of the Thanksgiving story, had a very real love for a British explorer named John Weymouth, who had become a second father to him several years before the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth.

Clearly, Squanto saw these Pilgrims as Weymouth’s people. To the Pilgrims the Indians were heathens and, therefore, the natural instruments of the Devil. Squanto, as the only educated and baptized Christian among the Wampanoag, was seen as merely 10 an instrument of God, set in the wilderness to provide for the survival of His chosen people, the Pilgrims. [...]The Wampanoag were actually invited to that Thanksgiving feast for the purpose of negotiating a treaty that would secure the lands of the Plymouth Plantation for the Pilgrims. [...] Obviously there is a lot more to the story of Indian/Puritan relations in New England than in the thanksgiving stories we heard as children. Our contemporary mix of myth and history about the “First” Thanksgiving at Plymouth developed in the 1890s and early 1900s. Our country was desperately trying to pull together its many diverse peoples into a common national identity. To many writers and educators at the end of the last century and the beginning of this one, this also meant having a common national history. This was the era of the “melting pot” theory of social progress, and public education was a major tool for social unity. It was with this in mind that the federal government declared the last Thursday in November as the legal holiday of Thanksgiving in 1898.

Teaching about Thanksgiving, Dr. Brouillet F. B., with an introduction by Chuck Larsen, Tacoma School, 1986.

1. an Indigenous tribe living in the USA and in Canada 2. also known as the Five Nations (Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, and Seneca tribes) 3. experienced 4. understanding 5. ancestors 6. a person who is rejected 7. the principal way of thinking 8. that counterbalance some defects 9. public relations 10. simply
Voir les réponses


a) What job does the author do?

b) To which community does he belong?

c) Explain why he felt it was difficult to teach Thanksgiving.

d) Why does the author feel it’s important to change the way Thanksgiving is taught in schools?

e) What image of the Pilgrims is conveyed in Hollywood movies?

f) To what extent is this image accurate?

g) Explain in your own words what the Wampanoag Indians were like in reality.

h) What elements do you learn about Squanto’s real life?

i) What really happened on the first Thanksgiving?

j) Why was the myth of Thanksgiving created and perpetuated?


Chuck Larsen considers himself half Metis and half American. He was born in Canada and then settled in the US as a child. He is of mixed Scottish, French and Native American blood. Now a retired teacher, he has worked most of his life in public and tribal schools and colleges.

Your time to shine!

As a student, you were moved by the testimony of Chuck Larsen. You decide to write a letter to him to express your reaction (180 words).

You write an open letter to all teachers to tell them how you feel about Thanksgiving (180 words).


Use everything you have learnt about Thanksgiving in this unit. Compare today’s celebration to the original one.

Make references to Chuck Larsen’s arguments.

Think about the redefinition of Thanksgiving and its importance in American culture today.

Check the methods on how to write a letter.

Méthode Je m’exprime à l’écrit p. 247
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