Thanksgiving and the Wampanoag People: Native American Culture in the Past, Present and Future

"First Thanksgiving" Art from (Bettmann / Corbis)

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

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 I
Culture: 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 I
Culture: 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. One section of the article that stood out to me was when the topic of when students first learn about Thanksgiving was mentioned. Thinking back to my days in elementary school, there were many aspects of the Native American culture that were censored and inaccurate. It wasn’t until later in middle school that discussion was brought up of the injustice demonstrated against Native Americans by the European settlers was truly emphasized. Much of the content taught in many of my social studies classes came from a Eurocentric perspective. With that being said, as a future elementary teacher, I hope to be able to build a foundation for students regarding cultural studies and embracing the value of other cultures than our own. The overall goal is to teach our children to preserve the value of diversity and appreciate what every person brings to the table. Although some curricula might seem very one-sided, it’s important for all students to understand that there is always a much larger picture than what is being presented.

  2. This article was very informative, especially in busting some “myths” that have been built up surrounding the idea of Thanksgiving Day. When people think about what they have been taught “historically happened” on that day hundreds of years ago, they think that everything was amicable and now years and years of genocide and abuse of a whole race can be set aside and forgiven as easily as your least favorite Thanksgiving dish. I appreciate being able to see that there are people who are trying to shine light on the truth.

  3. There are many historically inaccurate information that has been passed down generations. I believe this goes back to the idea that “perception is reality”. For the Europeans, this idea of Thanksgiving was thought to be the beginning of a beautiful new life with plenty of room to grow. However, for Native American tribes, this holiday marks the beginning of a series of horrific events. American Indians very much still exist today and their cultures live on and should be valued and respected in the same way that we respect other customs. It’s unfortunate that in schools we only get one side of the story.

  4. It is very interesting to learn how our typical idea and outlooks on the traditions actually are. I always assumed pilgrims to be the typical outfit all in black. This is very informative in letting students know the other ways that Thanksgiving played a role. This would be a good document for students to learn with the typical idea of Thanksgiving.

  5. This article was extremely informative and gave several informative facts as well as examples of how we can apply cultural diversity inside of the classroom. From the beginning of your article, you start off strong and tell the story of what actually happened with Thanksgiving. Many view this holiday as a time for celebration as to what we are thankful for and celebrate the bringing together of two people, however, (as you mentioned) this in fact not correct. For the Native American people it is a reminder of the betrayal of the pilgrims taking from them and killing their people. I loved the fact that you have reminded your audience of the importance of this so we don’t make those same mistakes twice.

  6. I like how in the article it talked about social studies not really being taught in schools. I think that when social studies is taught to kids in school it teaches them about the many different cultures that are different from themselves. Teaching social studies to students about the Indians from long ago to help them better understand diversity. This can teach them there. understanding from the past, present, and future.

  7. I loved reading about the First Thanksgiving. I also was intrigued by the stereotypes that they mention about the Pilgrims. I had no idea that Pilgrims didn’t wear black clothing with shoes and silver buckles. I had always thought this was true because of the stereotype that people made about them. Their clothing was actually colorful! I also have an immense amount of respect for social studies classrooms and teachers. It is so important to educate yourself on cultures and people who differ from you. I really enjoyed this article.

  8. It is very important for soon-to-be teachers to realize the importance of teaching every culture, European, Native American, and whatever else they see fit. I did not learn about the Wampanoag People until last year as a freshman at NKU I took a American History class and it actually was all about America, not just the Europeans. The family of these tribes might still live in America so it is important that they hear about their ancestors in school also.

  9. I found it so interesting how schools misinform students to shield them from the harsh realities of how their favorite traditions came to be. While I understand that you should not teach every gory detail to first graders, they should not be filled with wrong information. They need to learn what really happened so that they can understand that it was wrong, learn a lesson, and move on. It is unfair to teach others that Native Americans were savage people that harmed Pilgrims and each other. They still live in America and should be honored and valued for their rich culture.

  10. Reading this, I’ve noticed that we have two different views on Thanksgiving, which I know that the point of reading this article is to see the narrative of this tradition from a different perspective, but it’s an astonishing difference. I’ve never known pilgrims to wear black clothes and shoes with silver buckles, to me it’s more like feathers and a whole lot of beads. With that being said, the most compelling part of this article is that there are so many Native American tribes and languages that are still striving, despite the steady decline in the Wampanoag people. With access to this article, as a future teacher, I’m going to focus more on the variety of ways that Thanksgiving is explained to students, and make sure that I don’t miss a detail.

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