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. Teaching different cultures in the classroom is a vital piece in shaping the future of our country’s ideals and practices in equality and human rights. This article does a great job of promoting social studies and history lessons for cultural diversity, and in particular the Wampanoag People. Understanding that Thanksgiving is actually a “reminder of betrayal” is also an important piece of information, perhaps opening and encouraging more nuanced conversations about discrimination and ignorance.

  2. This article is a great resource when teaching students about Thanksgiving. It’s unfortunate that schools don’t teach the true idea and the true meaning of Thanksgiving to both sides of the situation. Just because Thanksgiving is supposed to represent a beautiful new lifer one side does not mean that is how the other side views it. The Native Americans and Europeans should be better taught in the school systems so that the students are not misguided into thinking/believing/learning the wrong ideas of Thanksgiving.

  3. I liked how the article talked about the culture and traditions that brought about the First Thanksgiving. We can think of this as just as time to eat a lot of food but it was more than that. The history behind it is important and should continue to be taught.

  4. Your thoughts and opinion on the issue covered in the article.
    This article was very informative. I have heard of the Indians having a different feeling about Thanksgiving before but it was a good refresher for sure. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday and to know the history behind it is very important in my opinion.
    When we discuss oppression and discrimination in class, it relates to this article because it discusses basically how the settlers came in and took Native American land and changed everything about their culture to what they wanted.
    Students should be taught of the Native American history and some of the important Tribes and people of it. Indians are still alive today and the best field trip I ever went on growing up was to an Indian reservation and seeing all the different techniques they had for making clothes and cooking and just their way of life. I lived in Washington state and can tell you now that Indians are highly respected and its a fascinating thing to see.

  5. This article was interesting to me. 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.

  6. It blows my mind to think that there are 573 federally recognized Native American tribes in the United States with 150 different Native American languages. When thinking about Native Americans, I typically think about the few popular ones such as the Cherokee, Navajo, and Apache. While reading this article I can’t help but think about the Indian Removal Act and how European Americans forced all of those Native American people off of their homeland after they saved them from starvation and teaching them the many ways of survival.

  7. This was a great article. Very informative and taught me a lot of things I did not know about the culture of Indian tribes and the way that thanksgiving actually was back then. I still don’t understand why the settlers decided that it was a good idea to go and kill all the Indians they came across. Why we couldn’t live in peace with the Indians is still a mystery to me.

  8. Definitely important to remember why this holiday was created. A lot of things from the original story have been forgotten and it is important to remember that this was a holiday to celebrate a very much needed peace between the Native Americans and the pilgrims.

  9. I have always been one to enjoy thanksgiving. However, my mother having a degree in history always wanted us to know the true events behind thanksgiving. I believe the idea of being thankful for your friends, and family is something that is great to do. A good way to celebrate that is by getting together for a large meal. Different cultures could participate in this in different ways by bringing different food and having different entertainment. I really enjoyed this article because in order to grow as a person you must learn from the past. We can all learn from America’s past and continue to grow as a nation.

  10. This article shows that Thanksgiving is actually a misunderstood holiday. I am sure a lot Americans believe that this holiday was to celebrate the peace between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans but there is more to the story than just that. It is important to recognize all those lives that were lost so we can understand the actual importance of this holiday other than just eating food.

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