Thanksgiving has been… well… it’s over. It was nice, but once again, the break flew past without pausing long enough for us to really appreciate it. I wanted to take time to talk to my 1st grader about what Thanksgiving is – and what it isn’t. Instead, she opted to watch Big Cat Diary on Netflix, and ultimately I’m just happy that she took the time to read a book or two.

Friday the 18th was her last day before the break. I picked her up and asked how her day was. She was really excited, because they got to watch a movie in class – Pocahontas. Disney. At least it was thematically appropriate, but I am still cringing that her big takeaway about Thanksgiving ended up being Disney’s take on Pocahontas. I’m sure they talked about other things – her spelling words were Thanksgiving related – but she didn’t mention any of that. Just… Pocahontas.

This is a big thing for me. My interest in Latin America started with Free Trade and the Zapatistas, but even before that was my burgeoning understanding that history and myth often tell us different stories. This is true in Latin America, and it informs my studies of the region. It is also true in the US, and Thanksgiving always reminds me of how disparate our myth of the founding of this nation can be from the history.

We all know (I hope?) that the European arrival to the New World brought about cultural tensions, displacement of people, wars, and dramatic changes in the way of life for all groups. We celebrate the positive aspects of that encounter during Thanksgiving, when the best of our nature is represented by our ability to come together and share the fruits of our labors. We gain much from emphasizing those positive tendencies, but we undermine ourselves when we ignore or hide the negative aspects. History proceeds by the accumulation of events, and our interpretation of those events, as we incorporate them into our personal and social narratives. We don’t unmake events by ignoring them when the consequences reverberate through society.¬†Prevailing attitudes and biases do not shift unless and until they are brought into the open and investigated through all levels of society.

Generally, the idea of social or national memory is a bit fuzzy; how can we remember something we didn’t experience? But it is clear that we tell our children stories about our society, and the story of Thanksgiving is both integral and primary in our roster of national stories. We know, perhaps vaguely, that Washington chopped down a cherry tree, that “Honest Abe” didn’t lie, and so forth. But Thanksgiving remains a story of people who came together to sit down to a feast. I learned as a child that the American Indians helped the Pilgrims to have the food they needed, not only to celebrate the harvest, but to survive the coming winter – it was through this generosity that the Plymouth colony succeeded. This story feeds our perception that we are a “melting pot,” a nation in which disparate peoples come together and flourish, a nation that welcomes immigrants and the poor who would improve their lives through honest labor. We build on that narrative with Manifest Destiny, as the US pushed into the west with god-granted favor (all the while quietly continuing slavery and genocide).

Now that her school has opened the narrative with Pocahontas, what story do I tell my daughter? My first step was to caution her that Disney doesn’t teach history, or truth, but rather stories and tales. But what to replace it with, now that seed is planted? So much detail informs the story of the Americas, where does one begin? Even taking Thanksgiving as ¬†a starting point: is this a story of religious persecution versus religious freedom (bearing in mind that my Quaker ancestors might have a unique perspective of the religious freedom in colonial New England); a story of the generosity and bounty that would shape an economic powerhouse; a story of American Indians who paid dearly over generations for their generosity; or perhaps a tie to ancient heritages celebrating the harvest? Knowing my daughter’s¬†predilections, perhaps the story really does begin with Pocahontas – what we do know about the woman who came to be known as Pocahontas, how she became a part of our national identity, and how even that became a simple love story when Disney got a hold of it.

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