Native American Life in Your Thanksgiving Curriculum

| By Yonah Kirschner, Program Manager, DigitalJLearning Network

Many schools traditionally emphasize the lives of the Pilgrims in teaching the Thanksgiving story. However, as our country develops a deeper relationship with its complex history, the focus has shifted to more appropriately include educating students about the Native Americans as well. The Wampanoag Native American tribe is especially important, because they were the first group to interact with the Pilgrims.

Teachers who wish to provide a historically accurate and authentic account of Native American lives will be able to use the websites below. As November is Native American Heritage Month, and the day after Thanksgiving is Native American Heritage Day, it’s the perfect time to take a look at these online resources. They will give your students a more comprehensive picture of Wampanoag life at the time of the Pilgrims, and also give them insight into the lives of Native Americans both in the past and today.


You Are The Historian: Investigating the First Thanksgiving
The Plimoth Plantation developed an online interactive site for students to take on the role of history detectives and investigate what really happened in 1621. Two young descendants, a boy from the Wampanoag tribe and a girl whose ancestor was at the harvest celebration, guide students through an exploration of primary sources, oral history, pictures, myths, and facts. Expert historians are on hand to further explain information provided on the site by clicking “Visit the Expert”. In the end, students create a museum exhibit showcasing what they learned. A Teacher’s Guide is provided! (Description via
For students who learn better through listening than reading, this website will be a great resource. Students will be able to live stream two different genres of Native American music - contemporary and traditional. One potential activity could be to have students compare and contrast the contemporary music with the more traditional melodies and sounds.

Four Wampanoag Folktales for the Classroom
Education Week has links here to four Wampanoag folktales, each with a different life lesson. Teachers may want to assign these folktales to students in rotation groups, with each group reading and interpreting a story together. By analyzing the stories, students will be able to learn about the Wampanoag culture, their values, and the lessons they taught their own children. (Note: the link to the fourth story is broken at the link above and can be found at this new location.)

The First Thanksgiving
This interactive website from Scholastic is simply awesome and has many different options for student learning. Sections, such as Daily Life and The Feast, give short text descriptions along with great pictures. There are many slideshows where students can both read text as well as look at images. Historical fiction letters give students another glimpse into life in the 1600s for both the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag. Best of all, the Plimoth Plantation Virtual Field Trips, which includes videos of Plimoth Plantation and a slideshow, can serve as a great substitute for a real field trip (this teacher’s classroom virtual field trip is an excellent example, and even includes a video of the entire process!) One additional feature makes this website truly an educational winner. Almost every section of text on the site has a speaker button that can be clicked for text-to-speech, so every student can learn from the information.

We Still Live Here
This PBS documentary focuses on the revitalization of the Wampanoag language, but also addresses other aspects of Native American life and culture. Teachers may want to play specific clips from the film to coincide with certain lesson topics. For Judaic Studies or history teachers, the documentary also provides a great opportunity to discuss the parallels between the revitalization of Hebrew as a conversational language in Israel and Native American efforts to revitalize their languages. The official website of the PBS documentary is above, but teachers can find additional, shorter clips on YouTube here, here, and here (this last video is the first of a three clip series).

National Museum of the American Indian
This museum has one of the world’s largest collections of Native American artifacts. The museum’s online collections is also quite extensive, providing students a huge variety of materials to explore for a research project. Students can search the digital collections database by people/culture, place, object type, and more.