Nancy Leifer and Nancy Maxson, co-Presidents, League of Women Voters Missoula 

This year the United States has been forced to reckon with the systemic racism that plagues our county by witnessing horrific videos of authorities terrorizing and murdering people of color. Still, some in our country deny that racism is systemic or institutionalized in our culture.  The first step in healing the racial divide is recognizing the issue exists. One example of how our culture has institutionalized racism is the narrative our education system teaches children about the Thanksgiving national holiday. 

The Thanksgiving myth glorifies colonialism and sanitizes the violent treatment of indigenous people. Thanksgiving is presented as a celebration of tolerance, welcoming and peace. School children are indoctrinated to believe these great virtues are the heart of Thanksgiving, of our national history and the foundation of the United States’ greatness. But the first “thanksgiving” in 1621 in Massachusetts was not a celebration of tolerance, welcoming or peace.

The Pilgrims, or Puritans, came to the “new world” to establish an ultra-conservative religious community. They shunned colored clothing because it was sinfully vain and criticized their fellow English Christians for a lack of piety. In their new colony they did not tolerate any religious dissent, rigorously enforced Puritan dogma and punished or exiled members who strayed. The intolerance they expressed for non-puritan Christians extended to non-Christian tribal people.

The Pilgrims faced starvation. Their first harvest ensured their survival, and they rejoiced in the way English farmers had for centuries with a multi-day celebration. Ninety Wampanoag men joined fifty Pilgrims in 1621 for part of the Pilgrims’ harvest feast. The Wampanoag brought welcomed food, but Natives and Pilgrims didn’t sit down together; the Native people dined on the ground, as they were accustomed, while the Pilgrims sat at tables. (See This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving by David Silverman).

The Wampanoag sought reduced tension between the communities by associating with the Puritans, not friendship.  But tensions continued to grow. In 1637 the Puritans burned a nearby Wampanoag village, killing as many as 500 men, women and children. William Bradford, the Governor of Plymouth, wrote that for “the next 100 years, every Thanksgiving Day ordained by a Governor was in honor of the bloody victory, thanking God that the battle had been won.” Since 1972 Native Americans have commemorated Thanksgiving Day as a National Day of Mourning.

Recognizing a Native American perception of Thanksgiving is a step toward healing racial divides. Teaching children about it is another step. But it can lead to missteps. Larissa FastHorse’s play The Thanksgiving Play takes a satiric look at white actors trying to create a culturally sensitive school pageant about the first Thanksgiving. FastHorse is a member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation and 2020 MacArthur Genius Award winner. ( The play demonstrates how even the best intentioned, supposedly culturally “woke” people, have inadequate education and knowledge of the historical truth of the holiday and Native American culture. 

Montana took a step toward expanding our children’s perspective about tribal people in 1972 when we adopted the new state constitution. Montana’s constitution requires recognition of the distinct and unique cultural heritage of American Indians and includes commitment to educational goals to preserve tribal cultural heritage. Every Montanan, Indian or non-Indian, is encouraged to learn about the distinct and unique heritage of American Indians in a culturally responsive manner. The Office of Public Instruction subsequently created the Indian Education for All (IEFA) Unit that works with districts, tribes and other entities to provide all schools with tools and resources necessary to honor IEFA requirements.

Montana’s IEFA program has been criticized for not doing enough fast enough.  It is a step toward teaching children to be aware of the dominant culture’s systemic racism and toward honoring Native American heritage.

The League of Women Voters has been registering voters and providing non-partisan voting information for over 100 years. Membership is open to men and women, citizens and non-citizens over the age of 16.  For more information about the Missoula League, go to our website:

Spotlight on Citizenship

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