As the splendor of autumn unfolds and preparations are made to celebrate Thanksgiving in the U.S., educators have a unique chance to deliver timely and historically relevant lessons around this holiday and in celebration of Native American Heritage Month.
Beyond the well-known narrative of pilgrims and Native Americans sharing a bountiful meal lies an opportunity to embrace a more comprehensive understanding of history—one that encompasses the diverse perspectives of indigenous communities.
Here, we aim to underscore the importance of incorporating Native American experiences into Thanksgiving lessons, fostering a more inclusive and accurate portrayal of the historical events surrounding this national holiday.
In doing so, classrooms become spaces where students explore the diverse cultures, traditions, and histories of indigenous peoples, moving beyond a singular narrative and embracing a more historically accurate Thanksgiving story. We’ll provide practical ways to infuse authenticity into Thanksgiving lessons and beyond, helping you share the voices and experiences of Native Americans in your classroom.
Learn about the first Thanksgiving
A great place to start with your students is learning about the history of the first Thanksgiving in 1621, involving English colonists and the Wampanoag people. Cultural, political, and economic factors all played into how the first Thanksgiving came about and what happened after. Exploring this history is likely to prompt questions from your students that you can use for further exploration together.
Use these resources to help students see the first Thanksgiving events from various perspectives, making the history come alive for them:
- This teacher toolkit includes five primary source units about the 1621 harvest celebration, as well as the history and culture of the Wampanoag people.
- Book a virtual visit with the Plimoth Patuxet Museums based on grade level to learn about different aspects of colonial and Native American life in the 1600s.
Make local connections to student learning
Study the Native American tribes in your community, as well as the lands they historically lived on. Ask students to study the movements of indigenous people in the area you live in, and explore why they moved or were forcibly moved from their land.
- Native Americans have lived in what is now Virginia for thousands of years. There are currently eleven state-recognized tribes.
- Learn more about the eight tribes and four urban Indian organizations spread throughout North Carolina, as well as brief histories of their movements in the state.
- This guide to indigenous people in South Carolina offers historical information as well as a list of current state-recognized tribes.
Engage in open dialogue with Native American communities, inviting guest speakers and collaborating with local cultural experts to bring authenticity to classroom activities. You may also be able to visit local reservations if they have events open to the public throughout the year.
More resources for studying Native American experiences
There are lots of great resources for Native American Heritage Month that can help your students explore the rich history and cultures of indigenous people. Here are just a few compilations to get you started:
- Celebrate Native American Heritage from Learning for Justice
- Native American Heritage Month from The Library of Congress
- Free Learning Resources for Native American Heritage Month from Common Sense Education
Incorporating indigenous viewpoints in Thanksgiving lessons not only enriches the educational experience but also fosters a sense of cultural appreciation and understanding among students. Moving beyond conventional narratives and diving into the diverse histories, traditions, and contemporary contributions of Native American peoples empowers students to think critically and embrace a more complete and accurate perspective on this historical event.
By cultivating an atmosphere of respect and curiosity, classrooms can be spaces where the true essence of Thanksgiving is celebrated—a time for acknowledging the contributions of all communities and reflecting on the interconnected histories that shape our collective identity. Let’s nurture a generation that honors the stories of all who have contributed to the rich tapestry of our nation’s history.
For more timely resources, see Four Thanksgiving Stories to Start Conversations in the Classroom.