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Psychology sophomore Kaila Ennen remembers celebrating “Pilgrims and Indians Day” at her private preschool for Thanksgiving. She and her classmates were assigned to be either a “Pilgrim” or an “Indian.” The “Indian” students dressed up in brown outfits and headdresses decorated with feathers. The “Pilgrim” students wore white long dresses or black pants. Her school then held a feast of friendship between the children dressed as Indigenous people and those dressed as colonizers.
Ennen said looking back she realizes the narrative she was taught about Thanksgiving was “one-sided.”
“Just not knowing the truth, it just feels so betraying,” Ennen said. “It’s crazy that’s what they put in our minds.”
In reality, Thanksgiving was a massacre or act of vigilante violence, Ethnic Studies professor Lydia Heberling said. Heberling has a Ph.D. in English and is an expert on American Indian literature.
“We celebrate it as this multicultural benevolent exchange of culture, and I think that’s a palatable narrative for non-Native folks here in the United States,” Heberling said.
There are elements of truth in the Wampanoag tribe supporting and feeding settlers when they needed it, but it’s not a complete story.
“The part of that that gets left out is the ambush and the slaughter,” Heberling said.
The Thanksgiving feast acted out by Ennen and her classmates took place in 1621 between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The popular narrative is that the Native Americans, led by Ousamequin (often referred to by his leadership title, Massasoit) helped the Pilgrims through their first winter in the new land. The Wampanoag tribe taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn and hunt venison. They gathered to enjoy their harvest with a feast, or so the story goes.
This is the history taught to children, like Ennen. This history — brimming with misconstrued or false information — leaves out context about how the relationship between these two groups evolved. The evolution was bloody.
The colonists celebrated Thanksgiving in the following years. Two notable Thanksgivings took place in 1637 and 1676 following the slaughter of their Native neighbors.
The settlers ambushed Mystic Fort in 1637, killing hundreds of Pequot in the name of God. This event was escalated by multiple conflicts between the Indigenous people and the colonists.
Between June 1675 and May 1676, King Phillip’s war took place. It was a year-long conflict between the Native tribes in New England and the white settlers.
In May of 1676, Indigenous people from the area of Peskeompskut raided a community of colonists, capturing cattle. Enraged by this and other conflicts, the English colonists planned a surprise attack on the Native encampment at Peskeompsket in the Battle of Great Falls.
Hundreds of Indigenous people were killed. One colonist was killed.
Thanksgiving is just one historical event that has been re-narrated as progressive and civilized, Heberling said. She covers many other topics in her ethnic studies class from alternative perspectives.
As an ethnic studies professor, Heberling said that one of the most difficult things about introducing ethnic studies in college is that ideas about how the world should be ordered are already cemented in some students’ minds. Requiring ethnic studies education earlier will normalize conversations about settler colonialism in the United States, Heberling said.
Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation on Oct. 8 that requires local educational agencies and charter schools to offer at least one semester course of ethnic studies for high school students in California, according to a news release.
Beginning with the graduating class of 2029-2030, all high school students will need to fulfill this ethnic studies requirement before receiving their diplomas.
Heberling said that this requirement offers students an opportunity to problem solve settler colonialism at an early age.
“Young people are brilliant, and they are so logical,” Heberling said. “I think if you pose the problem of settler colonialism early to students, they are going to come up with these amazingly innovative answers.”
But Heberling said that most students weren’t taught ethnic studies, or the history of Native Americans, earlier because “we aren’t supposed to know.”
“We have re-narrated those origins of violence as origins of benevolence,” Heberling said.
This justifies the theft of indigenous lands, and therefore justifies the existence of the U.S. as a country, she said.
“Unfortunately, the United States exists because we stole native lands,” Heberling said. “That’s an unpleasant and unsettling truth, so we’ve created narratives to help us sleep at night.”
Electrical engineering senior and member of the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma Wyatt Kohler said that the Ethnic Studies requirement is the bare minimum. He said there should be a required series of Native American studies classes.
“[Settlers] don’t understand that Native American history is American history,” Kohler said.
Kohler said that being taught history from the perspective of white colonialism has resulted in the loss of his culture and the loss of his Indigenous self.
“[Indigenous people] have to actively fight to learn… and piece together what…your history is,” he said.
Kohler said he has noticed an ignorance at Cal Poly about Indigenous issues that non-Native people “don’t really pick up on,” including false beliefs that Indigenous people don’t pay taxes or pay for schooling.
“You can kind of tell that [some Cal Poly students] have no idea that the kind of struggles that Native Americans go through,” he said.
Kohler said in his traditional schooling system, he did not learn anything from the Indigenous perspective. He and his siblings had to look outside their education system to learn Indigenous history.
Ennen said she remembers sitting in her English classroom during her junior year of high school. The topic of discussion was Christopher Colombus. She said she remembers realizing at that moment that Columbus was “bad.”
It makes Ennen angry that history is described from the perspective of white elites. She said this view of history serves the American government and white elites because they want Americans “to love our country and be patriotic when really [the U.S.] stems from oppression, racism, and genocide.”
Sociology junior Vi Fajardo said that she thinks Cal Poly students are generally uneducated about issues affecting Indigenous people, both historically and currently.
She said she would like to see more Native Americans in educator positions and accessible, lower-division classes that educate students on these topics. As a student of such topics, Fajardo would like a more comprehensive history of the United States, told from the perspective of Indigenous people.
“A lot of U.S. history classes start when the Europeans get there, but I feel like that’s not right,” Fajardo said. “If we’re going to have a class that’s only U.S. history post-colonial times, then that should be its own class, but that shouldn’t be what U.S. history is called.”
Going into this Thanksgiving, Heberling offers ways students can approach the holiday with more sensitivity.
Heberling said Cal Poly should start calling the upcoming break Fall break — rather than Thanksgiving break — as a way to acknowledge that Thanksgiving can feel “traumatizing or difficult for Native families.”
Thanksgiving is also an opportunity to engage with family and friends in dialogue about the holiday, she said.
“In addition to mentioning all the things that we are super grateful for, you can also acknowledge that we arrive at this table on someone else’s homelands,” Heberling said.
Editor’s Note: This article contains a brief, non-comprehensive history of the conflict between Indigenous people and European settlers.