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. It was very interesting reading more in-depth about the real history behind the first thanksgiving and not the inaccurate version we know by heart. I had no idea that pilgrims wore colorful outfits. In elementary school, we dressed up as pilgrims and native americans every thanksgiving. I wore a black dress, a white apron, and a bonnet. I had no idea that their are 573 federally recognized Native American tribes in the US currently. I like the sample lesson where students can learn about the different languages spoken. I would also like to learn more about those. 

  2. History is such an important part of America and the fact that it seems our education system has left out the majority of the important stuff is disappointing. Thanksgiving is a major holiday for us and I loved seeing other perspectives

  3. This article really helps readers understand the different between past and present Thanksgiving holiday traditions. It is great to see a different perspective than what and how we celebrate our holiday. This is yet another reason to continue educating our youth so they understand different cultures and how ours differs.

  4. By perpetuating the Eurocentric narrative of Thanksgiving, we are reminded of previous opinions and notions about Native Americans (belief they are barbaric) rather than the truth. In addition, learning the true events of the origin of Thanksgiving can also give rise to better understanding the diversity of early America.

  5. This article by Dr. Childs is very eye-opening and interesting. History is what made us so I feel we all have a duty to learn about it. I loved getting to hear about a holiday we all know and love in the United States (Thanksgiving) and how it is celebrated in another culture. Diversity is very important and I believe learning about other cultures makes you become a good citizen as well. Also, as a future teacher this is helpful to me in knowing that I should focus a lot on diversity in my social studies lessons because there is always more history to be learned and improved on in today’s world. I had no idea there were so many Native American tribes in the United States and that shows me I need to learn more already!

  6. I wanted to read this article because of the time of year that it is. I figured that it would be a good correlation but to be honest it was an eye opener as an educator. I’m working in a 5th grade classroom right now and they are learning about the settlers coming over to the new world and how they made connections with the Indians but as far as anything else goes they haven’t talked about it. I do find that interesting because that is an important part of history and the new world isn’t just a place that the europeans came to, there were already people here. It’s also interesting in the article that it discusses how many Native American tribes are still around today; that is something that I never knew because it was never taught to me as a child. Overall I enjoyed this article because it gave me information that I personally did not know but that I could incorporate into the classroom like the facts about the Wampanoag tribes and how they have decreased over time due to massacre of the tribes.

  7. I think when it comes to being a teacher is is very important to makes sure you are unbiased and try to show as many view points of the subject as possible. Growing up, I remember sitting in my Kindergarten classroom and my teacher expressing how it is of the upmost importance to refer to the Natives as “Native American’s and not “Indians” because that is incorrect. Still today I hear many people call them Indians and I think that just shows that even the small things you teach your future kids in schools, can make a world of difference in terms of how they respect other people around them. using the correct term in this case, would be showing respect.

  8. This article really puts Thanksgiving into a non-traditional, but correct perspective on a nationally-recognized holiday. In modern-day, Thanksgiving is a great holiday to celebrate because everyone is forced to slow down, celebrate with loved ones, and be thankful; however, the story behind the holiday is much more complex than what is taught. Like what I wrote in the black cowboys article, our American history IS very Eurocentric, and we neglect African-American and Native American history in our education systems.

  9. this article is a very good resource to teach us about thanks giving and different cultures who celebrate them. it allows you to learn about different traditions and cultures that go into history lessons. it extremely important to learn this thing about other cultures so that you can understand them.

    • I find learning about the historical inaccuracies to be interesting. I know since kindergarten we learned about pilgrims wearing the stereotypical black on black on black with buckles. I find it strange to imagine them wearing anything else. I think this article brings up a good point on how we are taught history by the dominant relationship. Which seems to be the viewpoint of a white man. I know that when we learn about Native American history in school it is glazed over and I think I can only remember about learning of the Cherokee Indians. I also seemed to believe that we wiped out the original Indians that the settlers stumbled upon. I am glad to know that Wampanoag Indians still exist. It is sad that there is only about 10% of them left though.

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