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. This article shows the importance of historical context and thinking that many do not even consider. The core of Thanksgiving is often overlooked and not even taught. Native Americans have truly been neglected and left behind in history. Not enough has been taught on Native Americans today and Thanksgiving is a great reminder to be lifelong learners and understand there are always two sides to a story. Native Americans are still prevalent in society today and we need to stop overlooking them and respect and celebrate their culture. Sometimes understanding the bad and looking at past mistakes promotes a better future. Therefore, we need to educate people about Native Americans and about what Thanksgiving truly represents.

  2. Native Americans have been overlooked when it comes to historiography, and their struggles deserve a larger place within the curriculum. Most of the education around Thanksgiving is given in lower grade levels, and unfortunately, it is usually through rose-colored glasses. While this is understandable for certain age groups, controversial topics such as the plight of Native Americans should not be forgotten. It’s an odd holiday where we seemingly push aside atrocities in favor of a commercial outlook.

  3. I believe there is a huge lack, but a huge need for these discussions to be had. When we celebrate this Holiday but ignore the atrocities that happened we do a great disservice to the dead, but also to future generations. They get this diluted, sugar-coated perspective on our history, which doesn’t allow them to also learn from the mistakes our country has made.

  4. There is a huge misrepresentation about Thanksgiving what it stands for the Native Americans because it was not a happy ending for them. Ever since the settlers came to North America the American people have abused and hurt these people by segregation, starvation, and plain murder. I have mixed feelings about Thanksgiving because I still want to celebrate and be thankful for all my good fortunes, but at the same time I cannot forget about the origin of the holiday.

  5. I agree that Native Americans are often overlooked and extremely neglected in our history. When talking about how there was not much history on Native Americans before European immigrants- it makes sense considering they could not effectively document their history and when immigrants came they could not always communicate well to find out, and many were killed by disease so their history died with them. The Thanksgiving feast happened in 1621 and became a federal holiday in 1863 by Abraham Lincoln. He wanted a holiday to unify Americans of all races. Thanksgiving was about breaking bread with your neighbors and giving thanks in 1621 and has continued to mean the same thing since. Native Americans were dramatically wiped out by Europeans’ disease and murder. Europeans did horrible things to Native Americans. I believe that Thanksgiving still holds its original meaning. I also believe that K-12 should be taught more about Native American history and present. There is much to learn.

  6. I was drawn to this article because I realized that I really know nothing about Thanksgiving. I do remember learning in Kindergarten about a great feast that the two cultures shared and that we still recognize today, but since then I’ve also learned that Christopher Columbus was not the man I believed he was which has lead to me forgetting most of the nice version of the story from Kindergarten.

    While the article did not go as in depth about the holiday as I thought it would, I did find a few things interesting. First off, the cartoons could have fooled me. I thought the pilgrims wore little black shoes and black hats with gold buckles and no color. I also had no idea that there were so many Native American tribes in the United States now. It has lead me to wonder the differences in all the tribes; they all got grouped together and depicted as one in earlier education. However, I imagine that, just like there is a culture difference between inner cities and rural counties, there are even larger cultural differences in the tribes! One more things of which I was entirely ignorant before this article: The Indigenous People’s Movement. I had never heard of it.

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