I recently sat down with my 3-year-old son to watch "The
Mayflower Voyagers," a classic though oft-forgotten Peanuts cartoon that tells the story of the first Thanksgiving. I
hadn't seen the show in years. Maybe even decades. It certainly isn't the sort
of cultural touchstone that "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" and "A
Charlie Brown Christmas" are for me. Nonetheless, I was willing to give it a try to sate my kid's desire for all the Charlie Brown-themed shows he could watch.
My son and I watched Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus and the gang navigate the "New World" and the lives of the Pilgrims and Native
Americans. At one point he suddenly exclaimed, "I don't want those bad guys stealing my
I didn't know exactly what he was going to say, but I
had a good idea. I kind of dreaded his response.
"Those guys," he said, pointing to the television. "The
ones who the guys with the guns are chasing. Those guys, with the feathers on
their heads. They're bad, right Mommy?"
as I thought," I said to myself. "The Native Americans."
'Why do you think the Native Americans are bad guys?' I asked my son.
I did what many panicked culturally and
historically sensitive parents have done before me: I started rambling.
"Actually, those guys with the guns are kind of bad
guys. They didn't treat the Native Americans very well. And…"
"Who are the Native Americans?" my son asked.
"They're … they're the guys with the feathers on their
heads," I said. "And many of them don't like the name 'Indian.' 'Native
American' is a better way to talk about them. And lots of people like the
Pilgrims gave them blankets that made them sick. And then one of our presidents
made them walk for a long, long way, far away from their homes, and thousands
of them died along their journey. It's really just another chapter in the
horrors of colonialism!"
That's right. I actually used that phrase—"the horrors
of colonialism"—in front of my preschool-aged child. I might as well have
spoken a foreign language to him. Honestly, he probably didn't understand
anything I said after "the guys with the feathers on their heads."
I took a deep breath and tried to get hold of my own
"Why do you think the Native Americans are bad guys?"
I asked my son.
"Because those guys with the guns are scared of them!"
"But why are they scared of them?"
He didn't really have an answer for this question.
As Charlie Brown himself would say, 'Oh, brother.'
He thought for a moment. He never really responded to
this question either. But I could see by the way he narrowed his eyes and
scrunched his face that he was thinking about my question. To be truthful, I wasn't really ever
looking for a response in the first place either. Instead, I was just looking
to get the wheels turning. To get him started on the path of questioning the
stories and portrayals and narratives that he now receives, and that he will
receive, all throughout his life.
"When we don't take the time to get to know people," I
told my son, "we can end up treating them very badly. And that's what many of
the Pilgrims did to the Native Americans."
I left it at that.
At this point in the cartoon, the Pilgrims had
befriended Samoset and Squanto and Massasoit. They were getting ready to eat
turkey and pie—another historical inaccuracy, but I was picking my battles by
now—and everyone was happy.