Thanksgiving didn’t start in 1621. It was a Native American tradition.


Thanksgiving has become a time to gather with family and eat turkey, but the holiday can be more complicated for Native Americans. Their ancestors’ stories, which were part of the 1621 meal known as the First Thanksgiving, are not told with the same importance as the pilgrims’ stories. Among those settlers were about 100 settlers who had arrived from England the previous year.

Renée Gokey, a member of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, is the teacher services coordinator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian. She recently spoke to KidsPost about how to respect Thanksgiving history while incorporating Native American traditions.

Ask: What happened between Native Americans and settlers (in what is now Massachusetts) in the 17th century?

Answers: There were 69 autonomous villages within the Wampanoag nation, and each leader (or sachem) of their village would collect tribute from the people of his particular village, such as a share of the hunt. The harvest and food were often redistributed to people in need in the village. People took care of each other. The [Pilgrims] who came here in the 1620s were, we know the story, looking for more religious freedom. And they really relied on the native people to teach them some ways to grow crops.

Q: Can you tell us about the Native American practices of gratitude?

A: So Indigenous people have always had bigger ceremonies, and we still have them [or] seasonal ceremonies of gratitude. In my tribe we honor the corn. We have a bean dance. We’re having a pumpkin dance. … Traditions of thanksgiving extend throughout the year and are abundant and diverse in Indigenous communities today.

Q: How do Native Americans and people who study Native American history feel about the current Thanksgiving tradition?

A: There isn’t one answer to it. My friend Dennis Zotigh wrote a really nice blog about “How do Native Americans feel about Thanksgiving?” And the answers are very diverse. Some people celebrate like other people, perhaps bringing food from their culture and tradition. … However, there are some Native Americans who consider it a day of mourning because it represents a story that is not fully told, which does not specifically include Wampanoag voices and the people who are its descendants today.

Q: Are there things young people can do to better understand Native Americans’ connection to Thanksgiving during this holiday?

A: Pick one dish on the table and actually start talking about it, and this could happen once a week with your family. What is a dish on the table that you want to know more about? What [are] its origin? Where is it from? Do people still eat it? And how have new cultures adapted it?

“Keepunumuk: Weeachumun’s Thanksgiving Story,” by Danielle Greendeer, Anthony Perry, and Alexis Bunten (ages 3 to 7). A beautiful picture book about the Native Americans and the natural treasures of what America would become in the run-up to the first Thanksgiving.

“1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving (National Geographic)”, by Catherine O’Neill Grace (ages 8 to 12). An illustrated photo essay showing a more balanced and historically accurate version of the 1621 Harvest Festival.

Do all Indians live in teepees? Questions and Answers from the National Museum of the American Indian (Second Edition),” by the National Museum of the American Indian (ages 13 to 17). This book debunks myths about Native Americans and provides useful information about Native American history and culture.

A reminder from the KidsPost team: our stories are aimed at 7 to 13 year olds. We welcome discussions from readers of all ages, but please follow our community rules and make comments appropriate to that age group.

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