Navajo Nation • Willson Atene remembers making feather headdresses out of construction paper at his school in San Juan County. He also remembers being taught the traditional Thanksgiving story of friendship between the Pilgrims and the Indians.
Atene lives in Salt Lake City and his younger siblings attend schools in the San Juan School District. They also learned that Native Americans helped the Pilgrims survive, taught them farming techniques and celebrated with them at a big feast.
When Atene, 27, rejoins his family for the holiday weekend, they’ll be honoring a different story.
Atene’s family is one of many in San Juan County that acknowledge the holiday with a different perspective on the 400-year-old tale of the feast between the Wampanoags and Pilgrims for the first Thanksgiving, a story that is shared in elementary schools across Utah.
The predominant version of the Thanksgiving story often skips an uncomfortable history. For instance, in the real story, the alliance between the colonists and the tribe soured quickly as the Europeans found ways to take more and more land, resulting in King Philip’s War, which ended with the deaths of about 40% of the tribe.
For many Native Americans, the first Thanksgiving marked the beginning of a brutal colonization of Indigenous peoples.
‘Entrenched in the curriculum’
The San Juan School District serves students who are mostly Diné (Navajo) and Ute. How much of the traditional Thanksgiving story gets taught is up to local teachers and schools.
Across Utah, second graders learn about Thanksgiving as a civic holiday, and fifth graders begin to look at the impacts of colonization, including the historical record of how Native Americans were in conflict with European colonists, says Mark Peterson, public relations director for the Utah State Board of Education.
“We don’t take positions on how people teach things,” said Robert Austin, humanities coordinator for Utah State Board of Education. “We have standards and then school districts teach those standards.”
Brenda Beyal, a former elementary school teacher in the Nebo School District in Utah County, said the state curriculum in Utah needs to change around Thanksgiving.
“It’s entrenched in the curriculum, and I use the word entrenched deliberately,” says Beyal, who is Diné. She is the program coordinator for the BYU Arts Partnership, which has created resources for teachers in Utah, including the Native American Curriculum Initiative.
The BYU Arts Partnership, along with the Utah Education Network (UEN), sent out guidance to teachers about the cultural sensitivity around the holiday. The guidance also informs teachers how to teach about Native American Heritage Month, which is November. Utah State Board of Education Social Studies and Utah Division of State History also support the guidance from UEN.
“I never taught the colonized version of Thanksgiving,” Beyal said. “I taught that there are many Native Nations that hold harvest dinners. And it was a time for us to be grateful for things. And I also used it as a time to help them recognize that they were on ancestral lands of people who lived here long ago.”
This year Beyal will honor “thanks-hyphen-giving,” by acknowledging how Indigenous foods remain an important aspect of this harvest season.
A focus on local traditions
Renae Gene will spend eight hours on Thanksgiving roasting a turkey in the ground with fire and coals in honor of her Diné and Ute culture. It’s how her father and great grandfather cooked, and how she is teaching her three children history they won’t learn in a classroom.
She plans on sharing the meal with family and friends.
“Yeah, it has more flavor and juice and everything,” Gene said from Westwater, which is just outside Blanding, “so it’s very delicious.”
She does not read too much into the historical context of the Thanksgiving holiday. Instead, she focuses on being a mother and provider to her family and makes the holiday match the values of her cultures.
Before the pandemic, Gene said, her three children were taught the classic first Thanksgiving story while attending class in the San Juan County School District, but the lesson didn’t come up this past year with school being taught remotely.
The district gives out gift cards on Thanksgiving to help families, and Gene appreciates that tradition.
Dalene Redhouse likes to decorate for Thanksgiving and says she celebrates by being grateful for her life and family. Her late father grew up as an orphan and learned to celebrate holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas while working as a cowhand in Blanding. Her mother, who had siblings, was raised with Christian teachings.
This year, Redhouse plans to make side dishes to go with the turkey her daughter will prepare.
Tara Benally, who is both Diné and Hopi, won’t be celebrating with a turkey. She says she does her best to “decolonize” American and Utah holidays, like Thanksgiving and Pioneer Day, with traditions from her Diné and Hopi cultures.
For Atene, the turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans and pies won’t have much to do with the holiday.
“We do not necessarily celebrate the westernized, local Thanksgiving of Natives coming together with Pilgrims,” he said. “We hold ceremonies and open that day with healing and for us to reconnect with each other as family.”