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Teaching The True History about the Wampanoag and Thanksgiving

Teaching the Truth about Thanksgiving

From the food served to the people who celebrated, there are so many misconceptions about Thanksgiving. Many generally held misconceptions can seem fairly harmless. Unfortunately, misconceptions can perpetuate a cycle of oppression against certain people and cultures. Our understanding of history shapes our perceptions about the world we live in and the people we share it with, so it is important we push past generally held misconceptions by learning and teaching the truth. With the holiday approaching, this is a great time of year to incorporate the true history of Thanksgiving.
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An Aha Moment

I was having a conversation with my mother, and she told me she had saved the “Indian” costume she made for me for Halloween when I was a little girl. She wanted to know if my daughter would wear it. I was a little taken aback by her question because I thought it was commonly understood that…
  • It is improper and generally offensive to refer to Native Americans as “Indians.”
  • It is inappropriate to dress as a Native American for Halloween because this is clear cultural appropriation in every sense of the word. (Cultural appropriation is adopting elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture. Often, the original meaning of cultural elements is lost or distorted and viewed as disrespectful.)
  • It is unacceptable, and frankly, racist to generalize all Native Americans because their clothing, culture, and traditions vary greatly by region and nation.

We Can do Better

While I am absolutely not an expert on cultural appropriation, I am continuously trying to learn and share with others. As teachers, understanding cultural appropriation and correcting our misconceptions about history can have a huge impact on those around us. Appropriation can cause lasting consequences for cultures that have been, and still are, oppressed. Additionally, informed parents, teachers, and students are more likely to nurture kindness and inclusivity.
I was born and raised in Connecticut and went to college in Rhode Island. We vacationed in Cape Cod, and my family frequently stopped at Plymouth Village on the way. Despite growing up in this area, we were taught MANY falsehoods and misconceptions about the Pilgrims and Wampanoag, and misconceptions about “The First Thanksgiving.” To reiterate the flaws in my education around this topic, we were really only taught about the Mayflower, Pilgrims, and “The First Thanksgiving,” and learning about the “Indians” was only in the background. I do not ever remember (until college) learning about the history and culture of the Wampanoag people. The perception we were given of “Indians” was that they were a wild, uncivilized group who were background guests at “The First Thanksgiving.”
I still remember having a Thanksgiving feast in Kindergarten. We made black pilgrim hats and stereotypical Native American headbands with colorful feathers. I was upset that I was chosen as an “Indian”. Cultural appropriation and historical misconceptions taught nearly all of us to believe that we should want to be a Pilgrim.
This memory makes me cringe. WE MUST DO BETTER FOR FUTURE GENERATIONS!

Where Do We Start?

Learning about some general misconceptions can help you stop the cycle of perpetuating myths about our collective history.

Here are a few common misconceptions about the Wampanoag:

Misconception
Truth
The Pilgrims took over empty land, and the Natives had no fixed settlements.
The village the Pilgrims took over was once a Wampanoag village called Patuxet. Patuxet was abandoned because so many people died of plague brought by previous settlers. The village already had homesites, tilled fields, graves, and trails.
The English helped “civilize” the Wampanoag.
The Wampanoag were an established group and culture who lived differently than the white settlers. They used many resources from the land and had a deep respect for the environment. Due to English settlers’ efforts to assimilate the Wampanoag, their language Wopanâak declined.
English settlers were kind and helpful to the Wampanoag.
While some settlers were kind and developed an alliance with some natives, it is also recorded that Europeans kidnapped Native people. At least 29 Wampanoag men were kidnapped and held in Europe for years.
The natives helped the settlers.
For a month after landing at what is now Provincetown, Cape Cod, the English exploited the natives and stole supplies and food from the Wampanoag.
Natives wore blankets and feathered headdresses while Pilgrims wore black clothes and hats with buckles.
The Wampanoag wore beautifully decorated clothing made from animal skins. Pilgrims wore dresses and waistcoats of various colors including red, yellow, blue, and purple.

Here are a few common misconceptions about “The First Thanksgiving”:

Misconception
Truth
Thanksgiving is a tradition that is based on a single historical feast the Pilgrims shared with the Native people.
The American tradition of Thanksgiving stems from only one paragraph in one letter written in 1621 about a harvest gathering.
The First Thanksgiving feast included turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie.
There was no cranberry sauce or pie because sugar was sparse. They may have eaten turkey, but corn, cod, and venison were more common foods.
Thanksgiving is a religious gathering to give thanks.
The first gatherings in 1621 were not religious, but likely a harvest celebration. The first religious thanksgiving occurred two years later.

The True Impacts of History

Today, The Wampanoag do not celebrate Thanksgiving. To them, Thanksgiving is a solemn reminder of the arrival of Europeans that brought destruction and death to their people.
Frank James, an Aquinnah Wampanoag stated, “This is a time… to look back, a time of reflection. It is with a heavy heart that I look back at what happened to my people.”
While these truths are nowhere near as cute and fun as more “traditional” Thanksgiving stories, it is critical we teach our children of all ages the truth about the Wampanoag and Thanksgiving.

Looking for More?

The book “1621, A New Look At Thanksgiving” is a great read with many more eye-opening facts about the Wampanoag people and the true history of Thanksgiving. If you ever get a chance, I recommend you visit Plymouth Plantation, where they are working hard to rewrite history with facts from all perspectives from this time period.
1621 book cover showing Native American Wampanoag woman holding a basket looking out across a lake
This quote from 1621 A New Look at Thanksgiving really resonated with me and shows how important historical accuracy can be even 400 years later.
“Unquestioning acceptance of biased interpretations can affect the way we treat one another, even today.”
Also check out my Wampanoag differentiated reading passages and writing activity for sale in my TpT store.
Wampanoag and Pilgrims reading passages

What other misconceptions about history and other cultures did you learn in school? I’d love to head your experiences and ideas on how to correct misconceptions for our children.

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