A teacher at the Star School, a Navajo educational facility, teaches pupils in her tribe's language the traditional native weaving techniques on Feb. 23, 2018, in Leupp, Arizona. At the foot of dry hills on a high plateau in Arizona, the Navajo Star School, one of the most ecological schools in the country, wants to protect the Earth and its threatened culture by drawing inspiration from Amerindian values. (DOUGLAS CURRAN/AFP via Getty Images)

This year’s Thanksgiving holiday marks the 400th year of a meal shared between early settlers and Wampanoag Native peoples that laid the foundation for American mythos of collaboration and cross cultural unity—or so the story goes. In a broad cultural shift, more schools are considering shifting away from the narrative most who were educated in the public school system are familiar with: one of benevolent and vulnerable pilgrims who sought alliances with Native peoples.

In reality, Thanksgiving was a massacre, one that kicked off the enslavement of Native peoples, colonization of Native-stewarded land, and kidnapping of Native children for their placement in assimilationist boarding schools. Thanksgiving is the origin point for the story of how America became a nation. For Native peoples, that story connotes something different than it does for white people, who, in response to calls for accurate and racially just education, are pushing back against school officials.

The pushback against school officials’ new desire to highlight the historical inaccuracies and harm of Thanksgiving includes a critique of what now might be a familiar refrain: critical race theory.   

In Denver, one public school recently announced that it would offer an approach to teaching Thanksgiving that included “more of an indigenous history,” according to a letter sent to parents. The letter also explains that teachers would be “dispelling some of the common myths and misconceptions that are often associated with the holiday.” 

One parent claimed that by teaching accurate history, the school was attempting to “indoctrinate” students. “That’s what this is all about,” the parent, who is also the founder of a libertarian think tank, told The Denver Channel. “If you really want to help these kids understand oppression, the best thing you can do is teach them how to read and teach them how to think instead of what to think.” 

And while that parent didn’t mention “critical race theory” verbatim, the rhetoric is common with what white opponents of the academic framework believe—that schools are teaching white children to hate themselves. 

That understanding of critical race theory belies its origins, though it does fit into the model proffered by former President Donald Trump late in his term. In September 2020, Trump authored a letter to all heads of federal departments demanding that they cut contracts or ties with agencies that spent money on critical race theory “training,” or as was written in the letter, “propaganda effort that teaches or suggests either (1) that the United States is an inherently racist or evil country or (2) that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil.” 

An executive order signed two weeks later reiterated Trump’s disdain for the tenets of so-called “critical race theory,” claiming, “many people are pushing a different vision of America that is grounded in hierarchies based on collective social and political identities … rooted in the pernicious and false belief that America is an irredeemably racist and sexist country.” Thus launched a cultural clash between people who wanted to talk about experiences of racism and those who wanted to hear nothing of it.

In reality, critical race theory is a term coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in the 1980s that intended to critique “how the social construction of race and institutionalized racism perpetuate a racial caste system that relegates people of color to the bottom tiers,” according to the American Bar Association

Instead, the term has come to represent a political dog whistle against racial justice efforts. The backlash against teaching the real story of Thanksgiving isn’t situated in one state, either. A school district in the suburbs of Kansas City, Kansas, announced this year that it would pause Thanksgiving meals district-wide and one internal memorandum to the district’s food service staff suggested the decision might have been motivated in part by concerns about inclusion, stating that “[a]s we learn more about diversity, equity, and inclusion, we are evaluating our practice of having holiday-themed meals.” An op-ed published by a local non-profit media outlet decried the decision, and likened the shift to “brainwashing.” But a spokesperson for the district told the Kansas City Star that there had been no discussion of cancelling the Thanksgiving meal for reasons outlined in the letter—though that didn’t stop rumors from circulating on social media. The Star says it hopes that no celebration will include “construction paper headbands and feathers that are supposed to represent Native Americans but are actually stereotypical images that perpetuate historical inaccuracy.”

Other districts have faced public pushback against implementing school policy changes that simply seek to acknowledge the existence of Native and Indigenous people. In May, for instance, a New Jersey school district attempted to change the names of holidays that commemorate colonization, such as Columbus Day, instead referring to it as Indigenous People’s Day. The move is not an uncommon one—at least 100 cities and 12 states have made the switch. Even President Joe Biden signed a proclamation making Oct. 11 Indigenous People’s Day, though the administration did not end Columbus Day as a federal holiday. But the backlash against Randolph Township School Board members in New Jersey was so swift, with thousands signing a petition calling for members’ resignation, that the change was reversed a month later.

The lack of understanding about who Native peoples are and how each tribe maintains distinct cultural practices can lead to instances of racist stereotyping in schools. A district in Riverside, California, has recently been made all too aware of this, when a teacher performed a racist depiction of a “Native American” by putting on a fake feathered headdress and mock-chanting in an attempt to teach a trigonometric concept. 

In response to the incident, which a student recorded on his phone and later posted on social media, the Riverside Unified School District’s Board of Education conducted a study session with local state assembly members and tribal council members “to enact ways of engaging Native American communities and strengthening cultural competency, diversity, and equity across the school district,” a district representative told Prism. The Board of Education agreed on a list of action steps including implementing a Native American Task Force and accountability of classroom teachings for cultural sensitivity, though the board did not provide further details on how the teacher in question would be held accountable and what resources would be made available for Native students who witnessed the event. 

With just a handful of states requiring public schools to teach Native history, students in most states receive no Native history lessons, except for the false and racist ones offered around Thanksgiving. Without comprehensive Native education, advocates say that teaching the real story of Thanksgiving is the least schools could do.

Ray Levy Uyeda is a staff reporter at Prism, focusing on environmental and climate justice. Find Ray on Twitter @raylevyuyeda.