Read This Before You Teach About Thanksgiving

"The First Thanksgiving"

It almost pains me to write this post in November, because it is a month when many are just beginning to teach about the people that are native to America. As a Black woman, I want my culture to be represented throughout the entire school year. The same is extremely necessary for Native Americans, as they were the first to live on this land and still continue to contribute to the country. However, as we near "Thanksgiving," I want to share information and alternatives to the ways this holiday has been celebrated by schools in the past.

Before we begin, I want to share this video from the series "One Word" produced by Cut. This video, along with many others in the series, pulled immensely at my heart strings. It evoked emotions that words on a paper just couldn't do. I hope it does the same for you, and signifies why this work of truth telling is important.

A Brief, Brief, BRIEF History of Pilgrims, Wampanoags, and the First "Thanksgiving"

In December,1620 the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth Harbor. The English settlers that were on the Mayflower, who are now referred to as Pilgrims, settled in an area that was once Patuxet, a Wampanoag village abandoned four years prior after a deadly outbreak of a plague, brought by European traders who first appeared in the area in 1616. The Wampanoag didn't interact with the settlers upon their first arrival.

“They (Wampanoags) had seen traders and fishermen, but they had not seen women and children before. In the Wampanoag ways, they never would have brought their women and children into harm. So, they saw them as a peaceful people for that reason.” -Tim Turner, Cherokee, manager of Plimoth Plantation’s Wampanoag Homesite and co-owner of Native Plymouth Tours

Beginning the voyage from England to America in September resulted in the settlers arriving during the winter season. They were not prepared to withstand the conditions, which resulted in more than half of them dying. It wasn't until March 16, 1621 when Samoset, of the Abenaki people, first walked onto the encampment and greeted the settlers, "Welcome! Welcome, Englishmen!" In Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers, documents record, "He (Samoset) discoursed of the whole country, and of every province, and of their sagamores, and their number of men and strength." The following day, Somoset returned with Tisquantum, aka Squanto.

Squanto was believed to be the last surviving Wampanoag of Patuxet. During the time when the plague swept through Patuxet, Squanto was not in America because in 1614, he, along with 20 other Native Americans, were kidnapped, and enslaved, by Europeans . They were brought to Spain and to England, which is where Squanto learned to speak English. Squanto was traded/sold to an English shipbuilder and trader named John Slaney. He traveled with Slaney on a number of expeditions to the New World, looking for fish, furs and new lands. In 1619, one of these expeditions brought Squanto to Cape Cod, not far from his home. It was on this voyage that he was able to escape.

Samoset and Squanto played a major role in initiating contact between the great sachem (leader) of the Wampanoag, Massasoit, and the English settlers. Both parties met and exchanged gifts and entertainment. Squanto became an interpreter for the English and showed them how to plant corn, fish and gather berries and nuts. That March, the Pilgrims entered into a treaty of mutual protection with Ousamequin (Massasoit).

Sometime in September or October, the Pilgrims harvested their first crops, and they had a good yield. Historians believe that when the settlers sent four men fowling, Massasoit got word of the gun fire in the Pilgrim village. Thinking the settlers were being attacked, Massasoit and the Wampanoag went to bear aid. When they arrived, the Wampanoag were invited to join in their feast. Since the Wampanoag were not originally invited to the feast, there wasn't enough food to feed Massasoit and his 90 warriors. Massasoit sent his men hunting, in which they returned with 5 deer to gift the settlers.

The harvest feast, that we now know as Thanksgiving, lasted for 3 days. Roughly 50 settlers and 90 Wampanoag took part. Venison (deer meat), fowl (possibly turkey), seafood, maize bread, pumpkin, and other squashes were most likely enjoyed.

So...What's the Big Deal with Dressing as Pilgrims and Indians?

It's not so much about what happened on the day of the harvest. It's about what happened after. Due to a continuous influx of English settlers, the protection treaty between Massasoit and the English became extremely strained. The English settlers began asserting control over Wampanoag life and taking over more land. Indigenous people died from what colonists referred to as "Indian Fever," which is the same illness that resulted in Squanto's death in 1622, only one year after he began helping the settlers. I was unable to narrow down exactly what "Indian Fever" is, however, a list of diseases brought to North America by Europeans are: bubonic plague, chickenpox, cholera, the common cold, diphtheria, influenza, malaria, measles, scarlet fever, sexually transmitted diseases, typhoid, typhus, tuberculosis, and pertussis (whooping cough). Many times exposure to these diseases wasn't accidental either, in fact, sometimes it was used as a type of biological warfare.

The treaty in place between Massasoit and the Pilgrims lasted for only 50 years. As time continued on, Indigenous people were massacred, robbed of their land, and forced to assimilate into American culture. These were all extreme efforts by the "Founding Fathers" and the United States Government to eradicate the Native American culture. Today, we continue to witness the mistreatment of Indigenous people as treaties that protect their land and culture are still not being upheld. A couple ways this can be witnessed is by the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Supreme Courts refusal to overturn North Dakota's controversial voter ID law, which required residents to show identification with a current street address in order to vote in the 2018 Midterm Election.

Therefore, some Indigenous People and Americans don't recognize Thanksgiving, and instead have "A Day of Mourning." For some, Thanksgiving isn't a day to celebrate the unity between Nations (Native & English). It is instead a day to protest and remember the lives that were lost and destroyed by European colonizers. Dressing in their traditional, sacred garments in order to assimilate a culture that our country tried to completely destroy, does nothing more than create ignorant, insensitive and racist citizens.

Lesson Plans that Get it Right

If you really enjoy creating lessons, you can choose to use the information above and the list of cited resources below to write your own plans. In addition, I've taken the time to research other lesson plans and included a few suggestions that you can tailor to your students/grade-level.

Beyond the Thanksgiving Myth

Harvest Ceremony: Beyond the Thanksgiving Myth is a 5-page article/study guide with facts about Thanksgiving and Indigenous people. If used independently, the study guide is best suited for 9-12 students. In order to use this text with 6-8 students, you will definitely need to review vocabulary and possibly allow them to read it together as a whole class/group first. The text is broken down into 6 sections: The First People, The Immigrants, Contact, The Harvest Celebration, Afterward, The Wampanoag Today. Since the information is in parts, you could separate students into groups of 6 and assign each student one part. Each student would then be responsible for teaching the other members of their group about the section they read. This is also referred to as "The Jigsaw Method." There are also 3 discussion questions included at the end of the guide, however, I recommend combing through the article to create even more critical thinking questions to fuel classroom/group discussions. To download the pdf of Harvest Ceremony, click here.

LaNesha Tabb & Naomi O'Brien November Social Studies Bundle

This November Social Studies Unit by LaNesha Tabb & Naomi O'Brien was made with K-3 students in mind, but can easily be adapted for upper grades. It is an entire unit that can be used throughout the month of November (Native American Heritage Month) or to specifically focus in on common misconceptions about Thanksgiving. The unit is also up-to-date with current influential Native Americans to highlight their accomplishments and continuous contributions, so that you can incorporate their culture in your classroom all year long. Click here to learn more about what is included in this bundle.

Recognizing Native American Perspectives: Thanksgiving and the National Day of Mourning is a lesson plan for 9-12 grade students provided by National Geographic. In this lesson, students will analyze point of view from a European perspective vs. Native American perspective. Students will use a primary source document, written by a Native American, Wamsutta James, to answer questions that will help them to understand the perspective of many Native Americans. There are also extension activities included that allow them to explore the history of contemporary Thanksgiving, Indigenous People's Day, current influential Native Americans, and current barriers that were put in place in an attempt to limit the success of Natives. Click here to visit the National Geographic website and learn more about this lesson plan.


Thank you for taking the time to learn more about how you can teach the true events and meaning of the first Thanksgiving while honoring and remembering the Indigenous people, Wampanoags, that made it all possible. I look forward to seeing the lessons that you are doing with your students. Please tag us on Instagram (@teachermagic) or Facebook (@myteachermagic) for a chance to be featured.

Happy Holidays!

Cited Resources:

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