Thanksgiving, the Wampanoag People and Native American History: With Resources and Lesson Plans

Dakota Native American

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

It seems like we barely get through Halloween and the Thanksgiving season is upon us. Furthermore, as a society, we often rush right through this season because retailers are chomping at the bit to get to the Christmas season to make a profit. But as a culture it is important for us to slow down and embrace the notion of Thanksgiving, that is the idea of being grateful. One thing that can help us appreciate the holiday a little better is learn the history of Thanksgiving. Educators can help youth in their classrooms do this by going beyond the mythology surrounding Thanksgiving history. We are re-publishing an article we did previously to bring these ideas home.

“The Pilgrims Landing” By Edward Percy Moran (1862–1935)

This article was originally posted October 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

Please share what resources you find useful for your teaching.

We are open to feedback and discussion. If you see any typos or grammatical errors please feel free to email the author and editor at the address below:


  1. I enjoyed reading this article and completely agree with it because Native American tribes and people are not talked about enough in public schools and private schools. It is not talked about in society either. I also agree that society only focuses on Native American people during Thanksgiving time and this is not right. I am Native American and I am part of the little shell tribe and wish more people understood what my family’s ancestors went through. There is not enough taught about Native Americans in school but I believe we can change this not only during Thanksgiving season but every day!

  2. I learned the truths of Christopher Columbus and Thanksgiving in 9th grade from my Spanish teacher. Not my history teacher, but my Spanish teacher. In his short lecture about Thanksgiving, he encouraged us to “seek the truth” in history as most of history is primarily through a white person’s perspective due to systemic racism and this makes complete sense now that I learn on my own. Most of Eurocentric history erases the “bad” parts and replaces them with more tolerable parts. For example, in a 5th-grade class that I was substituting for they were learning that slaves were indentured servants and came willingly from Africa to work for the new pilgrims of America. Thanksgiving is also a perfect example of Native American erasure as you are never corrected throughout your early educational careers as to what Christopher Columbus and those aboard the Mayflower actually did to Native Americans. Erasing history and not properly learning from the mistakes of the past means that we will repeat them in the future if we are not careful.

  3. I chose this article because I realize that the stereotypical story told in Elementary school is not the whole truth about the events that happened. Since I know that is the case I want to learn more about what happened and how I as a future educator can help change the false narrative. I really like the part in this article about how important it is to teach all history because it’s American history. I also like the part about teaching students to value other cultures and people with differences. The lesson plans on this article have some really good ideas for how to teach students this history and I definitely look forward to incorporating some of these ideas into future lesson plans. I also loved seeing all of the video links because watching videos can be a fun way for students to experience something different and new. Students need to understand the truth of our past and that means telling all parts of history. Thanks for sharing some amazing and important ways to teach about thanksgiving and the native American tribes.

  4. This article, in my opinion, is an excellent starting point for teaching the youth about the truth behind Thanksgiving. We are often taught that the Pilgrims “saved” the Native American people when it’s really the other way around. I think we as a society should understand the sins that were done on the Native American people, and the first step is understanding that Thanksgiving isn’t a holiday that had a happy beginning or end. This article explains the different tribes that still exist, and I think that’s a great way to teach the youth about the history of the United States because, just like the article above mentioned, Native American history is not only a part of American history but one of the most important ones. The school system often overlooks this history, and when it doesn’t, we usually hear the sugarcoated version, but I think it’s really important to start educating on the huge role the Native American people played in history and how much they lost during those times. It is not only important to understand the harsh realities and struggles that the Native American people have gone through, but it is also important to celebrate their culture and contributions to American history.

  5. The article I wanted to pick dealt with Thanksgiving, and the different point of view that was brought by looking at Native American history. The title of the article was “Thanksgiving, the Wampanoag People and Native American History: With Resources and Lessons” and the name gives a great overview of what is talked about in the article. In my placement for this semester, my teacher allowed me to teach lessons that showed the students the perspective of Native Americans in specific events in history. I will definitely be keeping this article bookmarked for future references, because I want to break the stereotypes of the innocence around Thanksgiving. I specifically like all of the websites that were included at the end of the article that gave resources to use for not only thanksgiving, but for Native American history in general.

  6. I really like how this article brings up the importance of getting students to learn and be interested in the past, present, and future of a Native Americans. Native Americans still aren’t given the appreciation they deserve in modern education. I think that learning about the history behind holidays like Thanksgiving will get students more interested and that interest could lead into further discussion about Native American history. Overall, I like how this article brings up the importance of educating students on different cultures and holidays.

  7. I think this article is a great reminder of the importance of this time of year. Thanksgiving often is brushed past and forgotten– there are already radio stations playing Christmas music– but it is very important that we teach our students the origin of the holiday. This article provides a very useful launch point for these discussions and could even be used to start a class discussion. The resources included at the end of the article are very useful for planning lessons around the Thanksgiving season. Great article!

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