How to tell your kids the true story of the ‘first Thanksgiving’

Cue the Mary J. Blige because when the corn comes around, there's no more drama.
(Jean Wei / For The Times)

This is the Nov. 22 edition of the 8 to 3 newsletter about school, kids and parenting. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox every Monday.

It’s a familiar story for many of us: Pilgrims who fled harsh religious suppression in Britain sailed to Plymouth, Mass., where American Indians showed them how to cultivate crops. The colonists’ first harvest culminated in a bountiful meal shared with the Native people to express their gratitude.

Though a harvest meal did occur in the fall of 1621 at Plymouth, the event is taught as a folk tale that greatly misrepresents the historical context of that time and excludes Indigenous perspectives. Yet it’s often the first time American schoolkids hear about the people who lived in North America for thousands of years before this land was colonized.


Things are slowly changing — more resources than ever before are available to help teachers instill a deeper knowledge of Native cultures and the European colonization of North America. In October, California became the first state to make ethnic studies a requirement for high school graduation. By 2025, school districts must implement coursework that examines the contributions and histories of racial and ethnic groups (including Indigenous peoples) that have been largely overlooked in the curriculum.

Even so, the sanitized Thanksgiving story that most of us grew up with remains the prevailing narrative in classrooms, according to Edwin Schupman, a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma and manager of Native Knowledge 360° at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

“My dream is that we begin talking about Native Americans in their full humanity and a part of the fabric of American life, instead of relying on these mythological, iconic stories that are in our collective DNA,” Schupman told me.

I spoke with Schupman and Traci Sorell, children’s author and citizen of the Cherokee Nation, about how to give kids a more nuanced understanding of the events we now call the “first Thanksgiving.” My hope is that you’ll use these suggestions as an entry point for an ongoing conversation with your family about the cultures of America’s first people.

(A note on language: The terms American Indian, Native American and Indigenous are all used by Native scholars. However, Native people often have individual preferences on how they would like to be addressed. It’s best to be tribally specific whenever possible.)

If you don’t already, you’ll need to understand the history yourself. I recommend this primer from the National Museum of the American Indian, and this story from the Washington Post (endorsed by Sorell) that does a great job of tying historical events to the modern realities of the Wampanoag Nation, which has inhabited present-day southeastern Massachusetts and eastern Rhode Island for more than 12,000 years.


What you tell your kids may depend on their developmental level and is up to your discretion. For younger kids, Schupman recommends this rough sketch:

“You should set the stage by saying that these Native Americans had been living in this place for thousands and thousands of years. They had their villages, governments, their own beliefs about religion, just like people in other places do. And one of the things they did to survive was agriculture and farming,” Schupman said. “They grew corn, squash, and other vegetables. And then these other people — Europeans — came from a really different place. They couldn’t speak the same language. They dressed differently, looked differently. Native people pretty soon understood that what these people wanted was their land. They had to figure out how to get along, or not get along. ‘Should we just throw them back in the ocean, or let them live here? Do we help them?’ Meanwhile, the settlers are starving.”

You can tell your kids that the Wampanoag did teach the colonists how to farm, and the colonists held their first harvest feast — a three-day affair — in 1621. But the relationship between the settlers and Natives was uneasy at best, and the Wampanoag weren’t invited to the gathering. They showed up only after the English shot off their muskets in celebration; Wampanoag warriors came running, fearing war had been declared. The Wampanoag laid down their armor and joined the meal as a gesture of diplomacy.

Peace was short-lived. The English kept attacking the Wampanoag and stealing their lands. War between the settlers and Wampanoag broke out in the 1670s.

Just before the colonists arrived in Plymouth, the Wampanoag had been nearly wiped out by an illness that was probably brought over by other Europeans. Nearly half of the surviving tribe died in the war, and many Wampanoags were sold into slavery in the Caribbean.

Sorell firmly believes that even younger kids can handle these difficult truths.

“They are very good at taking in reality, and they also understand justice and fairness in ways that many adults don’t give them credit for,” she said. This is especially true of this generation of children, who have lived through a pandemic.

Both Sorell and Schupman stressed the importance of talking about Native peoples in the here and now; using only the past tense reinforces the myth of the “Vanishing Indian” and negates the experiences and the dynamic cultures of Native peoples today. A study of U.S. history standards across the country found that 87% of the content that is taught about Native Americans takes place prior to 1900. For example, many kids are never taught that tribal nations were sovereign before Europeans arrived and still have their own governments and laws.

When Sorell’s son was in preschool, she was unable to find a single picture book that depicted contemporary Cherokee people (of which there are at least 392,000). This prompted her to write “We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga,” a children’s book about the ways the Cherokee people express gratitude throughout the year. Though many people now read this book with their kids during Thanksgiving, that was not her intention.

“Cherokee people are taught to be grateful every day, every season,” Sorell explained. “But there are also difficulties in our lives, the bittersweet in each season. I wanted to show that balance.”

Generosity and giving thanks are common themes in many Indigenous cultures, expressed through ceremonies, dances and prayer recitations that are unique to each tribe but often honor a reciprocal relationship with nature.

Schupman hopes that learning about such Native practices will inspire families to find their own ways to express gratitude. These traditions should be “admired but not emulated,” he said.

“Imagine if we all grew up with a better understanding of how important the environment is to us. Would we be as likely to destroy it? Can we find a better balance of being respectful toward things that support us while also meeting our needs as people, as a society?” Schupman said. “Teaching those kinds of values from early childhood can really make a difference.”

Recommended Reading for Kids

“If You Lived During The Plimoth Thanksgiving” by Chris Newell

“History Smashers: The Mayflower” by Kate Messner

“We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga” and “We Are Still Here!: Native American Truths Everyone Should Know”
by Traci Sorell

“Giving Thanks: A Native American Good Morning Message” by Chief Jake Swamp

“Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story” by Kevin Noble Maillard

“Four Seasons of Corn: A Winnebago Tradition” by Sally Hunter

Other resources

Rethinking Thanksgiving Celebrations: Native Perspectives on Thanksgiving

Framework for essential understandings about American Indians

Other helpful tips for talking with kids about Thanksgiving, from the National Education Assn.

It must be C Week: We’re writing about COVID, Colonists and Chuck E. Cheese

The Los Angeles Unified School District is relaxing its COVID protocols somewhat. It is phasing out weekly virus testing, and allowing most students to shed their masks outside. But most rules remain. Most notably, all students must be fully vaccinated by the Jan. 10 start of the second semester or they will not be allowed on campus. Times’ education writer Howard Blume explains.

Anaheim High School has been the home of the Colonists for a century, and a lot has changed in that time. Not surprisingly, the name recently came up for reconsideration. Was it glorifying white imperialists who trampled on the rights of native peoples? Or was it simply acknowledging Anaheim’s history as a city founded by German immigrants who wanted to build a small German colony? Students, a majority of whom are Latino, voted on the issue earlier this month — and they overwhelmingly decided to keep the Colonist name and mascot. Gabriel San Román of the Times-affiliated Daily Pilot dug into the fascinating debate.

If you’ve never taken your kids to a Chuck E. Cheese pizza parlor, consider yourself unusual — and perhaps lucky, although this newsletter is a Chuck E. Cheese judgment-free zone. It turns out that we nearly lost the animatronic rodent to the pandemic. But it’s back, out of bankruptcy, and ready for more cacophonous birthday parties. My colleague Samantha Matsunaga writes about how the company, which has been around for 44 years, has made it this far.

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What else we’re reading

Here are some tips for keeping your family’s Thanksgiving COVID-free. Sacramento Bee.

We hate to be the bearers of bad news, but apparently, the pandemic didn’t kill head lice. Now that kids are back in school, so are the lice. KQED Mind/Shift.

Social media is especially dangerous for teenage girls, according to Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the New York University Stern School of Business. Instagram, especially, he writes, “takes the worst parts of middle school and glossy women’s magazines and intensifies them.” The Atlantic.

Despite efforts by the state to redress inequity, California continues to have an outsized achievement gap separating poor children and English learners from more privileged students. Columnist Dan Walters followed the money, and found that a loophole was allowing some districts to squirrel away state money that should be going to close the gap. CalMatters.

Here’s what President Biden’s $2-trillion social spending bill would mean for child care and universal preschool. EdSource.

Two groups are collecting signatures for initiatives on California’s November 2022 ballot that would divert public school funding into private “education savings accounts” for parents. The former head of EdSource sees this as a Republican-led assault on California’s public schools. San Francisco Chronicle.

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