Goeun Park: Forget what you learned in grade school; the real history behind Thanksgiving comes out
I remember glue and glitter. Sugar cookies and apple cider.
To celebrate Thanksgiving, my second grade class constructed Pilgrim hats and Native American headbands during arts and crafts time. Being the over-achieving perfectionist I was back then, I spent ages picking out the prettiest feathers for my headband.
Later, we scrubbed out the glue and the grime from the tables and recreated the first Thanksgiving dinner with pumpkin pie and ice cream. As we scarfed down our holiday treats, the teacher talked about the good ol’ Mayflower and the Pilgrims’ search for religious freedom.
She didn’t mention genocide. Nothing about how settlers engaged in biological warfare by distributing blankets infected with smallpox to wipe out entire populations. Nothing like that.
I can understand why she didn’t; talk of misery and massacres probably doesn’t sit well with pie. Moreover, we were only 7. We were too young to acknowledge how cruel adults could be. Too young to know about the truth.
But that was then. It’s different now — if I strutted down the street wearing a traditional headdress today, I would definitely offend someone. Given that my college has a strong culture of political correctness, I’m sure someone would call me out for cultural appropriation in the first five minutes.
I didn’t question history back in elementary school. I don’t think I questioned history in high school for that matter. But lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about history and “history.”
It’s a concept we talk a lot in my Ancient Mediterranean class: if history is what happened, “history” is what people say have happened. They’re two sides of the same coin but one is more memorable than the other and hint, it’s the latter. What we say have happened in the past has a direct consequence to our future.
Now that I know that, it bothers me that my first exposure to Native American history was so watered down. It bothers me that I didn’t hear about the dirty details of Manifest Destiny until sophomore year of high school. Above all that, it really, really bothers me that I grew up singing, “In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” and thinking Columbus was a decent guy when in reality, he abused the indigenous people in the most grotesque methods.
Those historical blips are worrisome because over time, they can obscure the truth. By hiding the ugly and uncomfortable past, we have glorified a mass murderer into a man worthy of a national holiday. We reshaped history in the present.
I recognize that history is rarely pretty, but I think it’s important we face it directly. History is there so we can learn from it, because if it’s not there, what would prevent us from making the same mistakes?
Goeun Park graduated from Detroit Lakes High School and attends college in California.