Thanksgiving and Native American Culture in the Past, Present and Future Revisited

US cities and states are increasingly renaming Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples' Day (Credit:

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

Originally Published November 22, 2018

One of the hallmarks of living in a democratic society is idea that the voices of all citizens can be heard. Diversity is one of the core values in a democracy. The United States is made up of many different types of people with a variety of cultural backgrounds. We can take this Thanksgiving holiday as an opportunity to learn about First Nations and the important role they played in American history and in present times.

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 social studies classes when we learn American history it is often Eurocentric, but Native American history is often a greatly overlooked part of the discourse. After all, Native American history is American history, when accurately taught. The Thanksgiving season is a good time of year to get a greater understanding of native American culture.

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.

Social studies classrooms are the ideal place to teach students to value other cultures and people different from themselves. A unit or lesson that teaches youth about the past and present of the Wampanoag Indians is an important part of the larger conversation about the value in diversity. This curriculum can give them an understanding and appreciation of the past, present and future of Native American peoples. Below are a number of resources and lesson plans teachers can use to further educate  students about Native American culture.

Lesson Plan Ideas:


Social Studies Standards
Ohio Grade Eight Social Studies Standards Theme: U.S. Studies from 1492 to 1877: Exploration through Reconstruction
Content Statements:
11. Westward expansion contributed to economic and industrial development, debates over sectional issues, war with Mexico and the displacement of American Indians.

National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)- Standard ICulture: Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of culture and cultural diversity.


  • Students will learn several aspects of the history of a specific Native American tribe.
  • Students will familiarize themselves with a Native American language that is spoken in the United States today by a large group of people.
  • Students will learn several words from the language of a particular tribe.
  • Alternative Objective:
    Students will learn several words from from a nearly extinct Native American language.
    Students will learn strategies and processes in trying to vitalize an extinct language.

Have students explore a particular Native American language today that is still spoken. A good example would be the Apache language which is still spoken by over 14,000 people or the Navajo language, spoken by nearly 150,000 people today.  Students could learn important words from the language, they could learn the alphabet and be introduced to the idea of learning a language that is indigenous to our country.
NOTE: Students can also choose a nearly extinct language to learn such as the Clallam in Washington (Only five speakers), the Coeur D’Alene in Idaho (Only 40 speakers) or the Coos in Oregon (Sadly only one known speaker left).

Suggested Assessment:

Students can create several artifacts that demonstrate what they learned about the Native American language. Examples include:

  • Collaborating with the art teacher and having students do some calligraphy using the Native words.
  • Students can have a short conversation using some of the Native words.
  • Students can describe themselves or a friend using the Native words.
  • Students can create a personal letter using some of the Native words.
  • Here is a resource that can help students get started with the project:
    The Endangered Languages Project
  • Indigenous Languages Spoken in the United States (by Language)


Social Studies Standards
Ohio Grade Eight Social Studies Standards Theme: U.S. Studies from 1492 to 1877: Exploration through Reconstruction
Content Statements:
11. Westward expansion contributed to economic and industrial development, debates over sectional issues, war with Mexico and the displacement of American Indians.

National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)- Standard ICulture: Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of culture and cultural diversity.


  • Students will learn aspects of the history of the Wampanoag Indians.
  • Students will learn the culture and current state of the Wampanoag Indians.
  • Students will learn several key words from the Wampanoag language.
  • Via the Internet, social media and the teacher’s assistance, students will contact an individual from the Wampanoag nation.

Suggested Assessment:
Assessment One:
In collaboration with the art teacher students can create artwork or cultural artifacts that hearkens back to Wampanoag culture and history. The work should reflect their knowledge of Wampanoag culture and history. This could include an illustration, digital art, photography, a short film, poem or song.
Assessment Two:
When many people think about Native American dwellings they think of teepees, but the Wampanoag dwelt in thatched huts called Wetus and longhouses. Students can collaborate with the art teacher to create drawings, sculptures or small replicas of Wampanoag dwellings.
Assessment Three:
Students will contact an individual from the Wampanoag nation and create digital pen pals with other youth from the Wampanoag nation. They could choose from a variety of media resources including: Facebook, Messenger, twitter, SnapChat, Instagram, Email, Google Hangout, Skype or Email. This project can get students involved in efforts to resurrect dead or nearly extinct languages.
Students can visit this site to find contact information for representatives from the Wampanoag tribe.

Videos/Documentaries on Wampanoag History and Culture

Wampanoag Cultural Preservation

The Wampanoag Indians and Thanksgiving- Video

We Still Live Here: Black Indians of Wampanoag and African Heritage

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. I didn’t know that the pilgrims wore clothing that was colorful instead of black and silver. I also didn’t know that for the pilgrims, thanksgiving was a day of betrayal from the Europeans. I wish that schools would go deeper into correctly teaching history, instead of the point of view from the colonizers. I really like to understand what the tribes went through and how they lived.

  2. This article showed just how misleading American history can be. It also showed how history taught in the us need to be updated to be more inclusive of Native American history and how colonizers truly affected them.

  3. This essay is an excellent example of how textbook history may be changed to be more inclusive, varied, democratic, and well-rounded. To this day, Native American tribes are still feeling the consequences of what we did to them.

  4. This is a great article to view if you want the real deal of Thanksgiving, misinformation is constantly spread. I personally don’t see why we celebrate Thanksgiving, as the real facts behind it are always hidden. Why should we celebrate the covering of the Native Americans. In my opinion, Thanksgiving is a holiday we should not celebrate.

  5. We were absolutely lied to about Thanksgiving and why it became an American holiday. Growing up all I knew was that the Native Americans, or “Indians” as they referred to them when I was young, helped the Pilgrims farm the land and that they were friends. Thanksgiving was their way of celebrating their togetherness. There are still communities of Native Americans that feel the ripple effect of what we did to them to this day. Tribes are sequestered into Reservations, having gotten land ‘back’ from the white men. Christopher Columbus was a monster and America was founded on blood.

  6. This article is very informative because it sheds light on common misconceptions about pilgrims and what truly happened during the first Thanksgiving. It wasn’t as peaceful as we would like to think. Native Americans were often killed for their land. There were also hundreds of tribes of Native Americans that spoke tons of different languages, but when learning about them in class they are often grouped together. The article shows how textbooks can inaccurately depict different events in time. Native American history is still American history. This is why it’s so important to have a diverse curriculum.

  7. I thought this was a really neat article that explained the misconceptions of different things taught in history. I think it is really important that students learn all sides of American History. The Native Americans play a really important role in history and I think it is important that students learn both that and the Eurocentric side. There is a lot of education behind the Native Americans that is important for students to learn. It shows the the diversity behind our cultures. I also really enjoyed the various resources included in this article that I plan to use when teaching.

  8. I really enjoyed reading this article as I agree with the statement that the American history we typically learn about and teach is quite Eurocentric and I think that the Thanksgiving holiday is a great opportunity to dive deeper and take a closer look at Native American history. It is quite upsetting to me that the education system doesn’t enforce and spend more time focusing on education of Native American tribes. They offer a rich history and provide an opportunity to educate students on culture and diversity in our own country.

  9. This article is a great example of how traditional, textbook, history can be updated to be more inclusive, diverse, democratic and well rounded. Thanksgiving is an important tradition in the United States, but the history of it isn’t entirely wholesome as we know. These resources work against victimizing natives and instead educate us and our students on Wampanoag and other native traditions, culture, and lifestyle. I also think it’s important to remember that history is alive and around us all the time; as you mentioned many Wampanoag natives still live on their land.

  10. Again, this article presents an opportunity to truly see and think about the power within the classroom setting. The ending, “Social studies classrooms are the ideal place to teach students to value other cultures and people different from themselves,” clearly demonstrates this opportunity. If anything, Social studies is a place to bring cultures together, try to understand them, and above all, respect them for their diversity. I believe this makes the importance of teachers very stark, because teachers are the ones responsible for creating people who respect the past, and the injustices that have occurred throughout it.
    American history in our schools is definitely Euro-centric, with textbooks and resources starting with the “Age of Exploration”, and then adding context of the American continent as if that’s not truly a part of American history. If anything, American history should be about the geography of this nation and the people who have always lived here. It wasn’t until my undergraduate studies that I read some Native American literature and had classes focusing on it. Students everywhere would benefit from reading Momaday, Welch, and Louise Erdrich, among many others. A true American history class should definitely include Native American origin myths, and the stories that still survive today.
    Native culture has been overwhelmed by Disney’s “Pocahontas,” and other sources like it, which is often the first thing that children see or hear about Natives. Historical misconceptions, such as the usage of the term “Indian”, continue to build on each other. These misconstrued sources still glorify the Europeans, with the humanization of the Native peoples feeling like an admittance than a celebration. This article and others like it shed light on wrong ideas and sentiments that most Americans live with, never realizing that they are backwards and ignorant.

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