Teaching Thanksgiving from the perspective of Native Americans

Our guest blog post is written by Christina “Krea” Gomez and focuses on different resources and ways to help your students learn about Thanksgiving from the viewpoint of Native Americans. 

During the month of November, students all over the country can be found studying Native American culture and making cute little turkey hands in anticipation for Thanksgiving. Many teachers are hoping to achieve the goal of honoring the historical significance of Thanksgiving, but exploring this topic in an honest and meaningful way can be a challenge. While we wish to pay homage to the Europeans who braved the Atlantic ocean in search of a land where they could practice religious freedom, it is also necessary to recognize and teach about the tragic and heartbreaking impact this journey had on millions of American Indians as a result.

At our school, we have embraced the challenge of portraying this holiday in an honest way. We’ve successfully developed effective and age-appropriate strategies to do this, which we’re excited to share with you. Here are a few ways in which you can take the days leading up to this festive holiday as an opportunity in your classroom to not only discuss the real story of Thanksgiving, but to also discuss Native American resistance and some of our beautiful rituals.

Teach from the perspective of Native Americans. 

Teaching about Thanksgiving from the perspective of the Native Americans is a culturally responsive way to approach the holiday. Many people wonder if, considering the origins, Native Americans even currently celebrate Thanksgiving. Many of us do, as we see it as an opportunity to celebrate our survival, our traditions, rituals, sacred ceremonies, and to honor ancestors who fought against the assimilation and decimation of their communities. Here are some great suggestions for helping students look at Thanksgiving through the lens of a Native American:

  • Read a narrative (either historically accurate fiction or nonfiction) to your class that describes the arrival of Europeans through the eyes of a Native American.
  • Follow up the story with discussion questions that encourage students to put themselves in the protagonist’s shoes. Great examples include: How would you feel if strangers forced you and your family to leave your home? If you could go back in time, how would you respond to this situation?
  • Discuss acts of rebellion and resistance that real-life Native Americans carried out.
  • Display a poster of a traditional, stereotyped Thanksgiving (with pilgrims and Native Americans) and encourage your class to critique it.

Teach about European settlers and their “discovery” of the Americas in a truthful way. 

While it is helpful to understand the creation of the first tools or the importance of hunting and gathering prior to the creation of convenient stores, it reduces Native Americans to a group of people that “lived long ago” without further discussion. It’s important to examine why the first inhabitants of this land have been reduced to a unit studied in school, and why we are less likely to see their influence of everyday life in modern day America. Use books like:

  • Encounter by Jane Yolen, to discuss the first interactions between Natives and Europeans.

Additional resources include:

Teach your students Native Americans are not a thing of the past. 

Every corner of this continent is Indian country. There are more than 565 federally-recognized tribes and hundreds of unrecognized tribes. Each tribe has their own culture, customs, traditional clothing, dwellings, and rituals. One of the most problematic issues with inaccurate, stereotypical Native American depictions is the absence of differentiation, and the appropriation of items from many different tribes. 

To combat this lack of diversity, invite someone from a nearby tribal council to come teach your class about modern Native American cultural practices. The variety of these practices is vast, and Native Americans, who are doctors, lawyers and even teachers, will bring rich stories of their people and be ready to discuss what it means to be a 21st century American Indian.

Teach about the most important Indigenous cultural lesson during Thanksgiving: gratitude. 

All of our ceremonies begin with showing gratitude to our Creator, Grandfather Sky and Mother Earth, for sustaining us as people, and our Ancestors for whom we would not be here today if not for their love and perseverance. Encourage students to think about who they are thankful for, and who they want to show gratitude toward for helping, inspiring, and supporting them. Focus on providing classroom experiences that encourage children to cultivate gratitude and say “thank you” to people. This spotlight on gratitude is a meaningful, appropriate way to honor Thanksgiving.

Every year, I take time to host a discussion on gratitude with my class and to show the students how to create “thankful bundles,” or prayer bundles. Traditionally, prayer bundles are small pieces of cloth filled with sage, sweetgrass, cedar, and tobacco, all dried plants that we use as medicines to cleanse our spaces and heal us. These bundles are often burned to release the positive intentions for those they are thankful for. Follow these steps in the classroom to make your own:

  • Begin by asking your class to sit in silence and think about their loved ones; family members, friends, and community members they’re thankful for.
  • Tell your students to think good thoughts, hopes, and intentions for these loved ones as they complete their projects. Crumble and mix sage and sweetgrass with cedar.
  • Place the dried plant mixture in small 4 x 6 squares of cut up red, yellow, black, or white fabric, to represent the four directions.
  • Fold each piece of fabric in an envelope fashion, and tie it off with a string or yarn.
  • Set an intention for displaying the thankful bundles. I take my students’ bundles to 
  • Sunrise Ceremony on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco, and let my students know that as the fire burns these bundles, the medicine inside is burning and releasing all the gratitude they put into them for all their loved ones.
  • Alternatively, your students can choose to give their bundles to those they set intentions for. Either way, this is one way to share a Native American tradition with them and honor Thanksgiving as well.

Teach about Native American history throughout the school year, not just in November. 

Native American history is US history, which is all of our history. Don’t feel the need to only teach it during the month of November. Use Halloween as an opportunity to discuss cultural appropriation of Native Americans and other cultures. Use April and Earth Day to teach about Native American environmental resistance, modern activism to preserve natural resources, and movements such as “Idle No More,” which pressures government and industry to protect the environment. Take time in January during National Folklore Month to share Native American origin stories and inspire your students to write their own. Introduce your class to campaigns to end the misappropriation of Native traditions and image in mainstream culture, and foster the sensitivity required to embrace and understand Native American culture, both modern and traditional, in a respectful way.