Thanksgiving and The National Day of Mourning

Storms blew the Mayflower towards Massachusetts, Photo by Matt Hardy on

Many schools continue to teach “The First Thanksgiving” to students, a heartwarming story of two cultures that came together.  In this story, Native Americans helped newcomers survive a harsh climate.  In turn, the newcomers hosted a celebration of the success of that encounter, exhibiting gratitude towards both God and their Native hosts. However, the heartwarming story is just that, a story loosely based on truth but fictionalized for dramatic effects.  Consequently, for the past 50 years, many Native Americans have advocated for a National Day of Mourning in place of celebrating that fictionalized account.  If we, as educators, want to teach our students sociocultural competence, then, we must understand and then, teach them the true story behind the beloved holiday.

As depicted in the First Thanksgiving story, the reality is indeed that the Mayflower Pilgrims, who were blown off course from their Virginia destination, would not have survived after landing in present-day Massachusetts if it weren’t for the help of the Native Americans.  But that’s where the truth in the story ends.  The reality is that the Pilgrims never demonstrated gratitude towards the Native Americans.  There was never a true friendship formed between the cultures.  In fact, many of the Native Americans did not survive because the new settlers killed the same Native Americans who had once helped them.  

Soon after the arrival of the Pilgrims, Squanto, a local Native who due to having been kidnapped and enslaved by Europeans was bilingual, helped the newcomers establish a peace treaty with the Wampanoags’ chief, Ousamequin.  The Wampanoags then taught the newcomers how to hunt and plant crops; in turn, the newcomers had a successful harvest and celebrated with a three-day Thanksgiving feast shared by 90 Wampanoags and 53 newcomers.  However, unlike the spirit of the traditionally peddled Thanksgiving story, the Pilgrims never actually invited the Wampanoags.  Instead, the Wampanoags likely came to investigate the jubilee and stayed to join the feast.  Furthermore, lasting friendship was not established at (or before) the feast.  In fact, after Ousamequin’s death, King Philip’s War, the deadliest war to have ever taken place on American soil, resulted in the burning of Native American villages, the killing of Native women and children, the enslavement of Native Americans, and the decimation of New England tribes.  Metacom, Ousamequin’s son and then chief of the Wampanoags, was, by the European settlers, hanged, beheaded, and quartered.  The White settlers displayed Metacom’s head on a spike in Plymouth for 20 subsequent years for all the world to see.  And of course, eventually, this genocide and cruelty was repeated throughout what is now the United States of America.

Thanksgiving, therefore, is not a particularly appealing holiday for many Native Americans.  In fact, even most white settlers did not celebrate the holiday until President Lincoln further idealized the feast in order to unite the two halves of the country after the Civil War.  

In response, Wamsutta, the Wampanoag chief in 1970, began the acknowledgement of a National Day of Mourning in lieu of Thanksgiving.  Wamsutta was invited to speak at a state banquet for Thanksgiving, but was denied the ability to speak of the atrocities faced by Native Americans.  Instead, he was given a prewritten speech that he was asked to deliver.  The speech written for him would have further memorialized the fictionalized accounts of Thanksgiving, so instead, Wamsutta, also known as Frank James, boycotted the event and read his speech at the first National Day of Mourning.  

The National Day of Mourning continues to be an opportunity to retell history from the perspective of Native Americans, to honor those Native Americans who died in the struggle,  to recognize the continued presence of Native Americans, and to strengthen all of our resolve to continue fighting for Native American rights.  Every year, the United American Indians for New England arranges a march with speeches given by Indigenous individuals with the intention of enlightening others about the truth.

How can we and our students take part in the National Day of Mourning such that we can be allies in the struggle?  Here are 5 ideas:

  1. Teach the real story of the first Thanksgiving.  Share with your class the First Thanksgiving story from the Wampanoags’ perspective.  Consider having older elementary, middle, and high school students read the original speech of Wamsutta or watch Honor the Truth About Thanksgiving.  With young elementary aged students, retell the story yourself or consider books such as If You Lived During the Plimoth Thanksgiving by Chris Newell and 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving by Catherine O’Neill Grace.  Ask students the following questions: How is the Native American perspective different from the White perspective?  Which perspective is more known?  Why is it important to talk about the Native American perspective?  
  2. Have students research about the different indigenous groups that belong to the land(s) where the target language is now spoken.  Consider using this map to determine what groups were there and what languages were spoken there before European conquest.  (This can be a one class period activity with just the interactive map linked above or a longer term project.)
  3. Read books and watch videos about the Wampanoags.  Suggestions: Books: People of the Breaking Day by Marcia Sewall and The Children of the Morning Light:Wampanoag Tales as Told by Manitonquat by Medicine Story.  Video: The Wampanoag Way. Talk about how the Wampanoag lifestyle differed from the European lifestyle.
  4. Have students explore ways to support Native Americans.  This may be by purchasing from Native American online stores, spreading the word about the original Thanksgiving, or understanding the many political issues facing Native Americans.  Supporting Native Americans should not be a “November” activity.  Consider using Thanksgiving as a launch for students to commit to something bigger.
  5. Have students celebrate the season without cultural appropriation.  Talk about why students are grateful.  Color pictures of leaves.  But avoid having students dress up as “Pilgrims” and “Indians.”  Dressing up as Native Americans by nonNative Americans is not only cultural appropriation, but it perpetuates a false narrative about Thanksgiving.

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