For many students, Thanksgiving is a time to express gratitude and be with family. Teachers often incorporate fun activities related to the holidays into their classrooms. When teaching about Thanksgiving, it is important not to misrepresent Native American cultures. Local traditions have evolved over thousands of years and are distinctive and complex. They are also specific to each individual tribe. Projects and crafts that attempt to adapt or copy Native traditions perpetuate the stereotype of Native Americans.
For example, we discourage the adoption of “native” clothing in your classroom. Instead, incorporate core knowledge into your lesson plans with the resources below. We encourage you to celebrate the vibrancy of Native American cultures through Native American art, literature, and foods as you celebrate Thanksgiving.
It is especially important to include the Native perspective when teaching the history of the “First Thanksgiving.” Giving thanks is an old and central tradition among most Native groups that is still practiced today. The First Thanksgiving is often portrayed as a friendly harvest festival where pilgrims and ordinary, nameless “Indians” come together to eat and give thanks. In fact, the political alliance of the Wampanoag Peoples and English settlers in 1621 had much to do with diplomacy and the pursuit of peace.
The Wampanoag people had a long political history of dealing with other Native nations prior to the arrival of the English. The Wampanoag shared knowledge of their land, food, and environment with the British. Without the help of the Wampanoag, the British would not have had the successful harvest that led to the first Thanksgiving. However, the cooperation was short-lived, as the British continued to attack and encroach on Wampanoag lands despite their agreements.
Interaction with Europeans and Americans brought rapid and often devastating changes to American Indian cultures. As with all lessons that discuss Native American culture and history, it is important to include accurate details, be tribal-specific, and practice cultural sensitivity when teaching about Thanksgiving. Just as they were before the arrival of the British, Native American peoples such as the Wampanoag people are dynamic and active participants in all aspects of society.
What Really Happened on the First Thanksgiving? The Wampanoag Side of the Tail
For Thanksgiving this year, ICTMN spoke with the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe to better understand what really happened on the first Thanksgiving 401 years ago, and what the Wampanoag do today.
When you hear about the Pilgrims and “Indians” sharing the “First Thanksgiving” meal in 1621, the Indians who are normally referred to are the ancestors of contemporary members of the Wampanoag nation. As the story usually goes, the Pilgrims who sailed from England on the Mayflower in 1620 landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and so Plymouth Gav had a good harvest the following year.
William Bradford organized a feast to celebrate the harvest and invited a group of “Native American allies, including the Wampanoag chief Massasoit” to the party. The feast lasted three days and according to historian Edward Winslow, Bradford sent four men on a “fouling mission” to prepare for the feast, and the Wampanoag guests brought five deer to the party.
And since then, the story goes, Americans have celebrated Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November. Not at all, Ramona Peters, tribal historic preservation officer for the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, told Indian Country Today Media Network in a conversation the day before Thanksgiving 2012—391 years after that legendary “first Thanksgiving.”
We know that what we are taught in the mainstream media and schools is fabricated. What is the Wampanoag version of what happened?
Yes, it was made. It was Abraham Lincoln who used the theme of pilgrims and Indians eating happily together. He was trying to calm things down during the Civil War when the people were divided. It was like a good unity story.
So it was a political thing?
Yes, it was PR. It’s kind of genius, getting people to sit down and eat dinner together. Families were divided during the Civil War.
So what really happened?
We made a treaty. At that time the leader of our nation – Yellow Feather Osmiquin (Massassosit) made a treaty with (John) Carver [the first governor of the colony]. While they were on the boat, they elected an officer. He had his own charter. They were still under the jurisdiction of the [England] king—at least that’s what they told us. So they couldn’t make a treaty for the boatmen, so they made a treaty between two countries—England and the Wampanoag nation.
What did the treaty say?
It basically said that we will let them stay there and we will protect them from any enemy and they will protect us from any of us. [The 2011 Native American $1 coin commemorates the 1621 treaty between the Wampanoag tribe and the Pilgrims of the Plymouth Colony.] It was basically an ‘I’ll watch your back, you watch mine’ agreement. Later we cooperated on jurisdictions and created a system so that we could live together.
What is the mashup version of 1621 food?
You’ve probably heard the story of how Squanto helped plant his corn. So this was their first successful harvest and they were celebrating that harvest and planning their thanksgiving day. And it’s kind of like what some Arab countries do when they celebrate by firing guns into the air. So that’s what was going on in Plymouth. They were shooting cannons and cannons in celebration, which alerted us as we did not know what they were shooting at. So Massasoit gathered some 90 warriors and showed up at Plymouth ready to engage, if that were to happen if they were carrying any of our men. they did not know. It was a fact-finding mission.
When they arrived it was explained through a translator that they were celebrating the harvest, so we decided to stay and make sure it was true, as we had seen at other landings – (Captain John) Smith, even The Vikings were here too—so we wanted to make sure we decided to camp nearby for a few days.
During those few days, people went out to hunt and gather food – deer, ducks, geese, and fish. There are 90 men here and I think there are only 23 left on that boat, the Mayflower, so you can imagine the fear. You have armed natives camped nearby. They [the colonists] were always insecure about new lands, new animals, even trees—there were no such trees in England at that time.
People forget that they had just landed here and that the coastline looked very different than it does now. And their culture—new food, they were afraid to eat many things. So they were very vulnerable and we protected them, not only supported them, we protected them. You can see in his journals that he was always nervous and unfortunately when he was nervous he was very aggressive.
Didn’t the Pilgrims invite the Wampanoags to sit and eat turkey and drink some beer?
[laughs] Ah, no. Well, lets put it this way. The people ate together [but not in what is portrayed as the “first thanksgiving]. This was our homeland and our region and we went around their villages all the time. How they behave, how they eat, There was a lot of difference between these two cultures to work with each other in how they prepared things.
But in those days, it was like today when you go on a boat out on the open sea and you see another boat and everybody is waving and being very friendly – it’s because they’re vulnerable and they’re trying to protect each other if something happens. There is a need to trust. In those days, the British really needed to trust us and yes, they were as polite as they could be, but they still considered us savages.
So you sometimes have dinner together, but not the great Thanksgiving meal.
No, we were there for several days. And that’s another thing: We give thanks more than once a year in formal ceremonies for different seasons, for the green corn Thanksgiving, for the arrival of certain species of fish, and whales, the first snow, our new year—there are many such celebrations and I think most cultures have similar traditions. It is not a foreign concept and I think that humans who recognize more souls would have to say thank you in some formal way.
What is the Mashpee Wampanoag taught about Thanksgiving now?
Most of us are taught about friendly Indians and friendly pilgrims and people sitting and eating together. They don’t really go into depth about that time period and what was going on in 1620. It was a completely different mindset. The focus was always on food because people had to go out and work hard for food, not the way it is now.
I remember when I was in junior college and Thanksgiving was coming up and I couldn’t come home – it was too far away and too expensive – and people were talking about Thanksgiving, then I went to Oklahoma to go to many different places. Was among the tribal people. Yes, Indian! And I said, yes, we are Wampanoag. they did not know! We are also not taught that as Indians, hopefully in the future, at least as Americans, we need to be a lot more scrupulous about other people.
So, basically, do the Wampanoag today celebrate Thanksgiving the same way Americans celebrate it, or celebrate it as Americans?
Yes, but there is one more thing that needs to be taken care of. The Puritans believed in Jehovah and they listened daily to Jehovah’s instructions and tried to find out what would please their God. So for Americans, there is a Christian element to Thanksgiving for the most part, so there will be formal prayer and some family going around the table and asking what you are thankful for this year. In Mashpi families, we make offerings of tobacco.
For traditionalists, we give thanks to our first mother, our human mother and Mother Earth. Then, because there’s no real-time for this, you acknowledge your thanks by passing them to the snuff without necessarily saying them out loud, but really giving thanks for so many things in your mind and soul at once. … Unfortunately, because we’re stuck in this cash economy and the 9 to 5 [schedule], we can’t spend the usual amount of time on celebrations, which would last four days for a proper Thanksgiving.
Do you consider Thanksgiving a positive thing?
As a concept, a heartfelt thank you is very important to me as a person. It is important that we give thanks. For me, it is a state of being. You want to be in a state of thankfulness, which means you use the creativity that the Creator has given you. Use your talent. You find out what they are and you cultivate them and it springs into action.
What else is your family doing for Thanksgiving?
Yes, we will take Pheras, make sure we contact family members, have food with friends, and then we all socialize on Saturday and dance together to the beat of the dhol.