Teaching the real history behind Thanksgiving: Celebrating Indigenous and Native Peoples

Teaching the real history behind Thanksgiving: Celebrating Indigenous and Native Peoples

Re-thinking Thanksgiving curriculum

By Gabby Cushman

In the United States, Thanksgiving is widely celebrated for its happy narrative of Pilgrims and Natives coming together to share a first harvest amongst two vastly different communities. Companionship and gratitude are central themes of the holiday, now honored by families coming together to share a meal and spend time with each other. However, the Thanksgiving we’ve been taught is not an accurate depiction of the actual relationship between the Pilgrims and the tribes they interacted with. 

As educators and social justice activists, it’s essential to make sure we’re teaching our little ones the true history of our country to understand the oppression Indigenous peoples have faced over the years. Many Indigenous activists have called out the traditional celebration of Thanksgiving and asked that allies acknowledge the history behind the holiday. This blog will review what we know about the real first Thanksgiving and provide examples of activities to do in class or at home that celebrate Indigenous and Native peoples instead of traditional Thanksgiving activities.

The Myth of Thanksgiving

The story of Thanksgiving passed down through American schools involves the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony and the Wampanoag tribe (now the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah)) in what is now known as Massachusetts. It involves the celebration and gratitude of a cooperative relationship between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe. However, although it is correct a celebration occurred, this is not the whole story. 

There is no evidence that any Wampanoag people were even invited to the Pilgrims' celebration. In fact, their first encounter with the Pilgrims involved them stealing the tribe’s winter provisions. The leader of the tribe, Ousamequin, eventually did ally with the Pilgrims out of the need for survival because diseases brought by the European colonizers had struck the tribe. The first harvest, which Thanksgiving is supposed to celebrate, was actually followed by conflicts between the colonizers and Native peoples, where the Europeans seized their land and imprisoned, enslaved, and executed Native peoples. Future Thanksgiving holidays were held due to violent victories over Native communities, including the beheading of the Wampanoag leader Metacom in 1676.

The true history of Thanksgiving is necessary to learn about. Although you may want to leave out the violent details when talking to your young learners, it’s still vital for them to know what really happened. Along with talking about the real history behind the holiday, here are some activities you can do to celebrate Indigenous and Native peoples instead:

Create an Indigenous Land Acknowledgement Statement

Land acknowledgment is a tradition that has been practiced for centuries by Indigenous communities. Indigenous and Native peoples have a deep spiritual connection to the land. It’s not something to be owned and sold; it’s a reciprocal relationship where they take from the land and, in turn, give back to it. This relationship was cut off through colonization and displacement by European colonizers. Through land acknowledgment, Native peoples and non-Natives can honor that Native peoples are the original caretakers of the lands we now occupy. To create a land acknowledgment statement together, visit usdac.us/nativeland and check out native-land.ca to learn which Indigenous populations live or lived in your area. You can also visit nativegov.org/a-guide-to-indigenous-land-acknowledgment for tips on creating your land acknowledgment, including some great self-reflection questions you can discuss with your students.

Please note that land acknowledgments are only a start, and they don’t repair the harm that has been done to Indigenous communities. However, this does provide a tangible activity for kids to do together to learn about and respect Native cultures.

Go Over Respectful Language and Terms

Harmful language to refer to Indigenous peoples has unfortunately been normalized over the years. To practice good allyship, we must educate ourselves on respectful language and the correct terminology. Here are some language considerations to go over with your learners:

  • Saying “Native people” implies that there is one community of people who share the same culture. In reality, Native peoples are varied with different languages, values, and experiences. Using “peoples” shows that you are referring to many groups of people instead of a single homogenous group.
  • “Native” and “Indigenous” are synonymous with each other, though “Native” is mainly accepted by Native peoples in the United States. In Canada, they typically use the term “First Nations,” and in Australia, they use “Aboriginal.” Be mindful that different terms will be accepted in different regions. 
  • The word “Indian” is said to come from Christopher Columbus, who believed he had arrived in “the Indies” when he first came to America. It’s best to avoid this term due to its inaccuracy and instead use “Indigenous” and “Native” unless you’re told otherwise by a person from a Native community.
  • If you’re unsure what term to use when speaking to an Indigenous person, just ask them! That’s always the best way to know what is right for them. As with all issues of language in social justice, the correct term is the term the person or people you’re referring to prefer to be called. 

Learn About Native-Led Events Held on Thanksgiving

Indigenous peoples hold many alternative events on Thanksgiving day that acknowledge the true history behind the holiday and honor the ancestors lost due to violence from colonizers. These are just two well-known examples, but you can do additional research to see if any are happening in your local community.

  • National Day of Mourning: This protest is organized by the United American Indians of New England and has been held annually on Thanksgiving since 1970. It started after Frank “Wamsutta” James, leader of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head, was invited to speak at a Thanksgiving celebration in Massachusetts to honor the 350th anniversary of the first landing of the Mayflower. His speech, however, got rejected by the event organizers due to him giving his candid perspective on the holiday. He was offered an alternate speech to present written by the event’s public relations team; however, he decided to give his original speech at the first National Day of Mourning event he organized with fellow Indigenous leaders. Held at Cole’s Hill in Plymouth, demonstrators use the day as a remembrance of Indigenous ancestors while also protesting against the oppression Native peoples face to this day. To learn more about the event, visit http://www.uaine.org/

  • Indigenous People Sunrise Ceremony (Unthanksgiving Day): This event is held on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay in honor of a protest initially held in 1969. In this protest, Native peoples occupied the island under the terms of a treaty that allocated extra government land to Native groups. The occupation actually lasted for 19 months until the US government removed the protestors with force. Organized by the International Indian Treaty Council and the American Indian Contemporary Arts, the event commemorates the 1969 protest and the survival of Native tribes following European colonization. 

  • Thanksgiving can be a challenging topic to tackle with kids. Using these tips as a starting point, it’s crucial to do further research on the subject and learn from Indigenous voices why the accurate history of the holiday is essential to speak about. Through unpacking the complex history of Thanksgiving, you’ll teach your learners to think critically about the customs they engage in regularly and help them understand the oppression that affects Native peoples to this day. 

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