Lessons on the History of Thanksgiving and Native American Culture

Campbell House Museum

Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

One of the most important ideals in a democratic society is to give voice to people from every sector of society. As it relates to Thanksgiving, Native Americans are often inaccurately portrayed in historical accounts of the holiday. Indeed, American Indians are one of the most often neglected ethnic groups in the United States. Much of their culture and history has been overlooked and even lost because of racial prejudice. During the Thanksgiving holiday we can take the “opportunity to learn about First Nations and the important role they played in American history and in present times.” While Thanksgiving in the US is a celebration of family and a time for feasting, it can also be a time to learn about and share a more historically accurate account of its origins and further explore Native American history. In an article posted last Thanksgiving we addressed some of the historical inaccuracies presented in popular history. Some of the information presented in our previous article is presented below.   

“Often the narrative we learn about the first Thanksgiving is overly simplistic, historically inaccurate and censored. We hear a good deal about the Pilgrims coming to North America for religious freedom (Which of course was true). But we also learn that the Pilgrims wore austere black clothing with shoes and silver buckles. This was not true at all. Their clothing was much more colorful and cheerful. Furthermore, it is often thought that Europeans and Native American share a mutual reverence for the Thanksgiving holiday. In reality, the holiday for the Native Americans is a reminder of betrayal and blood shed by the Europeans.”

In a recent article we focused on the establishment of Indigenous People’s Day. The holiday was established to challenge the notion of Columbus Day and critique the life of Christopher Columbus, bringing attention to the atrocities he committed against Native Americans. The Indigenous People’s holiday was birthed out of The Indigenous Peoples Movement, which is a movement that focuses on an overall celebration of the culture and history of Native Americans. In the spirit of learning more about first nations, we can point to our Thanksgiving article from last year on the Democracy and Me site. We offered more history and information about Native American culture. See below:       

“Many people do not realize that there are currently 573 federally recognized Native American tribes in the United States. There is a wide range of diverse Native American cultures and languages spoken today in North America. There are roughly 150 Native American languages still spoken in modern times and many of the old traditions are still maintained on reservations (Sovereign tribal lands)…. Furthermore, there is not a great deal taught in public schools about those Native Americans who already lived in the Plymouth Rock region before the settlers came. The tribe that the European settlers feasted with on that fateful day in 1621 were called the Wampanoag Indians (Also more correctly written as Wôpanâak). Often when we think about Native Americans or First Nation peoples we think about history and the past only. But the Wampanoag are alive and well today. During the 1600’s the Wampanoag were several tribes that were loosely aligned, but today many are a part of two federally recognized tribes; the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head in Massachusetts. At the time the Pilgrims arrived there were approximately 40,000 Wampanoag people, but today as a result of genocide and disease there are only about 4,000-5,000 Wampanoag Indians. Even though the Indians rescued the Pilgrims from starvation and exposure when they first arrived, the Europeans went on to still systematically massacre them for their land and resources.

For a more in-depth discussion of this topic please check out our previous article entitled Thanksgiving and the Wampanoag People: Native American Culture in the Past, Present and Future. The article contains a number of teacher resources and lesson plans around the study of Thanksgiving history as well as Native American culture. A recent New York Times article entitled Everything You Learned About Thanksgiving Is Wrong also offers a wonderful historical essay and addresses more of the myths of the first Thanksgiving and offers more of an authentic history.  

Resources  and References

Wampanoag Homesite

Wampanoag People

Wampanoag History

First Thanksgiving (National Geographic)

1620s Daily Life: The Wampanoag and the Pilgrims (Fictional Dialogue with Wampanoag and Pilgrims.)

Federal Registry (Bureau of Indian Affairs)

Most Common Native American Languages (by number of speakers today).

North American Indian languages

7 Most Popular Native American Languages in U.S.

List of Indian reservations in the United States

Maps of United States Indians by State

More Lesson Plans

Native American History Lesson Plans:

Native American History and Culture Lesson Plans


  1. When I was in elementary school, I can remember only talking about Native Americans when Thanksgiving rolled around. I also remember learning that it was this huge happy feast that fixed the relationship between the Native Americans and Pilgrims. Once I got older and learned that this was not the case, I was upset that I was given inaccurate information to make history seem more simple and happy because it kept me from learning the reality of how things were, no matter how grim. We as teachers need to teach about Native American culture more accurately and teach it more than just when Thanksgiving rolls around. Our students need to more educated on history from the perspective of groups that are often neglected such as Native Americans because it helps to make them more educated and informed. We also need to educate on them that Native American tribes are still very much around, but their numbers are very small due to all genocide and hardships they have to face.

  2. The article Lessons on the History of Thanksgiving and Native American Culture has opened my eyes to things I want to research more about. Embarrassingly, I have never heard of the genocide of Native Americans that happened during what we now know as Thanksgiving. This is extremely bothersome to me as I have always thought of this holiday as a celebration with close friends and family. I am a perfect example as to why we need to be teaching our students accurate history. I have not known the truth for 31 years and now am finding myself asking what else I don’t know the truth about. This article has motivated me to want to do research to see what else I may not know the facts for.

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