Dennis W. Zotigh (Kiowa/San Juan Pueblo/Santee Dakota Indian) is a member of the Kiowa Gourd Clan and San Juan Pueblo Winter Clan and a descendeant of Sitting Bear and No Retreat, both principal war chiefs of the Kiowas. Dennis works as a writer and cultural specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

In thinking about my earliest memories of elementary school, I remember being asked to bring a brown paper sack to class so that it could be decorated and worn as part of the Indian costume used to celebrate Thanksgiving. I was also instructed to make a less-than-authentic headband with Indian designs and feathers to complete this outfit. Looking back, I now know this was wrong.

The Thanksgiving Indian costume that all the other children and I made in my elementary classroom trivialized and degraded the descendants of the proud Wampanoags, whose ancestors attended the first Thanksgiving popularized in American culture. The costumes we wore bore no resemblance to Wampanoag clothing of that time period. Among the Wampanoag, and other American Indians, the wearing of feathers has significance. The feathers we wore were simply mockery, an educator’s interpretation of what an American Indian is supposed to look like.

The Thanksgiving myth has done so much damage and harm to the cultural self-esteem of generations of Indian people, including myself, by perpetuating negative and harmful images to both young Indian and non-Indian minds. There are so many things wrong with the happy celebration that takes place in elementary schools and its association to American Indian culture; compromised integrity, stereotyping, and cultural misappropriation are three examples.

When children are young, they are often exposed to antiquated images of American Indians through cartoons, books, and movies. But Thanksgiving re-enactments may be their most active personal encounter with Indian America, however poorly imagined, and many American children associate Thanksgiving actions and images with Indian culture for the rest of their lives. These cultural misunderstandings and stereotypical images perpetuate historical inaccuracy.

Tolerance of mockery by teachers is a great concern to Native parents. Much harm has been done to generations of Indian people by perpetuating negative and harmful images in young minds. Presenting Thanksgiving to children as primarily a happy time trivializes our shared history and teaches a half-truth. And while I agree that elementary-school children who celebrate the first Thanksgiving in their classrooms are too young to hear the truth, educators need to share Thanksgiving facts in all American schools sometime before high school graduation.

Let’s begin with Squanto (aka Tisquantum), a Patuxet, one of more than 50 tribes who formed the Wampanoag Confederacy. Around 1614, when he was perhaps 30, Squanto was kidnapped along with others of his people and taken across the Atlantic Ocean to Malaga, Spain, where they were sold into slavery. Monks in Spain bought Squanto, shared their faith with him, and made it possible for him to find his way to England in 1615. In England he worked for shipbuilder John Slany and became proficient in English. In 1619 Squanto returned to his homeland by joining an exploring expedition along the New England coast. When he arrived at the village where he has been raised, all his family and the rest of his tribe had been exterminated by a devastating plague.

The Wampanoag Nation Singers and Dancers, 2011. Salt Pond, Cape Cod National Seashore. Courtesy of the Wampanoag Nation Singers and Dancers

What about the Pilgrims? Separatists who fled from England to Holland seeking to escape religious persecution by English authorities, and who later booked passage to North America, are now called “Pilgrims,” though Americans did not widely use the term until the 1870s. In November, 1620, the Mayflower dropped anchor in present-day Provincetown Harbor. After exploring the coast for a few weeks, the Pilgrims landed and began building a permanent settlement on the ruins of Squanto’s Patuxet village, now renamed New Plymouth. Within the first year, half of the 102 Pilgrims who set out from Europe on the Mayflower had perished. In desperation the Pilgrims initially survived by eating corn from abandoned fields, raiding villages for stored food and seed, and robbing graves at Corn Hill.

Squanto was introduced to the Pilgrims in the spring of 1621, became friends with them, and taught them how to hunt and fish in order to survive in New England. He taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn by using fish as fertilizer and how to plant gourds around the corn so that the vines could climb the cornstalks. Due to his knowledge of English, the Pilgrims made Squanto an interpreter and emissary between the English and Wampanoag Confederacy.

What really happened at the first Thanksgiving in 1621? The Pilgrims did not introduce the concept of thanksgiving; the New England tribes already had autumn harvest feasts of thanksgiving. To the original people of this continent, each day is a day of thanksgiving to the Creator. In the fall of 1621, William Bradford, the governor of the Plymouth Colony, decided to have a Plymouth harvest feast of thanksgiving and invited Massasoit, the Grand Sachem of the Wampanoag Federation, to join the Pilgrims. Massasoit came with approximately 90 warriors and brought food to add to the feast, including venison, lobster, fish, wild fowl, clams, oysters, eel, corn, squash and maple syrup. Massasoit and the ninety warriors stayed in Plymouth for three days. These original Thanksgiving foods are far different from the meals prepared in modern Thanksgiving celebrations.

Jennie A. Brownscombe (1850–1936), The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth (1914). Oil paint on canvas. Courtesy of Pilgrim Hall Museum.

Squanto died in 1622, but Massasoit outlived the era of relative peace in colonial New England. On May 26, 1637, near the present-day Mystic River in Connecticut, while their warriors were away, an estimated 400 to 700 Pequot women, children, and old men were massacred and burned by combined forces of the Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, and Saybrook (Connecticut) colonies and Narragansett and Mohegan allies. Colonial authorities found justification to kill most of the Pequot men and enslave the captured women and their children. Pequot slaves were sent to Bermuda and the West Indies. In 1975 the official number of Pequot people living in Connecticut was 21. Similar declines in Native population took place throughout New England as an estimated three hundred thousand Indians died by violence, and even more were displaced, in New England over the next few decades.

Looking at this history raises a question: Why should Native peoples celebrate Thanksgiving? Many Natives particularly in the New England area remember this attempted genocide as a factual part of their history and are reminded each year during the modern Thanksgiving. I turned to the Internet to find out what Native people think of Thanksgiving. Here are some of the responses:

I was infuriated when my daughter’s school had a mock feast complete with paper mache headdresses and pilgrim hats!

When they did that 2 my kids in elementary I TORE those items up and signed my kids out of school for that day.

For thanksgiving I was the Indian. Umm Go figure . . . .

Someone took a picture of me in front of the class and to this day…it bothers me. Don’t get the whole making a fest in school.

Tonight I have to lead a children’s Bible class, and they want me to theme it around Thanksgiving. I will, but it’s not going to be about the happy pilgrims and all that stuff. Thankfulness to God is one thing, but elevating pilgrims to hero status is out of the question.

When my daughter Victoria was in grade school she had a teacher give them the assignment to write a report on Thanksgiving Dinner, and Victoria wrote hers as to why our family doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving. Victoria got an F on the paper, and I threatened to go to the school board if the principal didn’t get it changed. Victoria got an A and the class got a lesson on Native American heritage.

Ignorance and not near enough education in the school systems! It is very sad that a majority of what is taught is very superficial and the dark aspects of our history are neatly tucked away. Very sad!

Considered a day of mourning in our house.


For skins [American Indians], Thanksgiving should be The Last Supper.

The United American Indians of New England meet each year at Plymouth Rock on Cole’s Hill for a Day of Mourning. They gather at the feet of a statue of Grand Sachem Massasoit of the Wampanoag to remember and reflect in the hope that America will never forget.

Do I celebrate Thanksgiving? No, I don’t celebrate. But I do take advantage of the holiday and get together with family and friends to share a large meal without once thinking of the Thanksgiving in 1621. I think it is the same in many Native households. It is ironic that Thanksgiving takes place during American Indian and Alaskan Native Heritage Month. An even greater irony is that more Americans today identify the day after Thanksgiving as Black Friday than as National American Indian Heritage Day.(SOURCE)


Responses to "Do American Indians Celebrate Thanksgiving?"

  1. Maria Bee says:

    I grew ever tired of hearing "that was long ago get over it" to "there's nothing you can do about it." Well, I taught my children and now their children the truth about Thanksgiving Day. Yes, we have a dinner that holds those in memory who died senseless deaths and suffered cruelties at the hands of others. We remember to never forget how cruel human beings can be.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I have no idea about where my families blood line comes from, all i know is that i am white on the outside. I have five children who are half me and half mexican. I teach my children the truth about the day the whites celebrate! I teach them about the killings, the robberies, the beatings and the rapes of woman and children and the sales to slavery. I tell them the truth! I get a lot of " people " angry with me every time i tell the " real " story of thanksgiving day, but i dont care! Justice and the truth need to be told and served. My children will always know the truth!

  3. Anonymous says:

    I agree with Angelina is a story of murder and pain that has been brushed off with the lies of the aggressors! I would of made a difference if i had been born then! but for now i will have to try and retell the story and the truth to my children so that they may continue the real story to their children and so on and so on! Cheers to " one day in the future "

  4. Barbara says:

    I do not.
    I too remember the elementary school "celebrations" and had so manyy questions that were ignored by my teachers regarding the genocide (now I am old enough to know the word to call our history), and what seemed to be mockery of our beliefs and our sacred things. I will not "get over it". Would survivors of the Holocast be ridiculed for their beliefs and heritage. Should they just "get over it " too? I think not, nor should they. History when accurate is a tool for learning never to repeat injustices.

  5. Anonymous says:

    A somber day of Remembrance for many Native Americans. How can we make this holiday more honest and meaningful for all. Perhaps the natural harvest celebration and a joyous celebration of life and family without the kindergarten History narrative. Perhaps too a reflection on fleeting moments of missed opportunities to better understand and appreciate our neighbors and those different than ourselves, and learn the best of each's traditions.

  6. Unknown says:

    Thank you for the education. My great grandfather was Blackfoot though I never knew him I take pride in my heritage. The Native Americans were showing kindness and Gods grace by saving the whites in their time of need but as usually happens kindness is seldom repaid in kind. May God richly bless you and your family.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I am a teacher candidate working on my credential and have definitely taken this article's message to heart and will do my best to spread its message. I completely agree that our responsibility as teachers should be about repairing the insensitivity and stereotyping found in the mainstream culture. Fortunately, the changing demographics due to a growing cultural diversity in this nation is making this necessary paradigm shift easier. I am thankful for that!

  8. Anonymous says:

    It breaks my heart pondering this. It has become Black Thursday-Friday, Small Business Saturday & Cyber Monday.

  9. Anitaleigh says:

    As a white daughter if the American Revolution who is married to a 50% Cherokee native American, at 60 years of age, I am only just learning about these harsh realities. In grade school I remember the same Pilgrim and Indian costumes you describe never realizing the mockery or disrespect. The story I remember did not make heroes of the Pilgrims; on the contrary the Indians were the heroes that saved the Pilgrims from a terrible
    fate. We learned they shared a harvest feast in peace and thanksgiving. This did happen and us a moment worth celebrating; but the injustices that surround that event and continued as the non-native population grew and advanced toward the west is a truth that must be told; a truth that is one more stain on the history of mankind. My heart aches to know what has for me and my children been a day of thanksgiving for all blessings great and small is a day of mourning for the native Americans of this great land. I will sharel the truth. I will study to learn more.

  10. Unknown says:

    I'm amazed about the fact that America does not teach their children the truth about Americas history. Because your history is what has made you in to what you are to day.

    In Norway we are taught about the horrific thanksgiving history, I'm proud to say.

    We have our own shameful history as well with our native people "samene", they to where mistreated, disrespected and tried to erase their way of living. But no matter how shameful, we are taught the truth in school (short version, but still the truth).

    We are meant to learn from history, but how can we learn if we don't know the truth??

    Stay strong my friends and keep fighting for your rights to be true to your ancestors and your heritage. Keep fighting for your own religion and way of life. Your way is the right way to live, in harmony with nature and mother earth <3

    I myself is not of your blood, but I have the blood of our norwegian natives in I feel somewhat related to you in spirit and heart.

    Bright blessings from a proud norwegian viking ;)

  11. Anonymous says:

    One of the things which never made sense to me since grade school is why would Native Americans have to teach people who came from frozen fishing villiages in the North Sea, navigating great ships, how to survive a winter and how to fish?
    Always made me wonder if the story is overplayed

  12. I spend the day meditating and thanking my ancestors on both side of my family tree for their wisdom and guidance.

  13. Anonymous says:

    I do not celebrate, thanksgiving is a christian holiday non Native...
    A good Indigenous knows, for a Native thanksgiving day is like, memorial day for a white man... Att: m-rabas.

  14. Anonymous says:

    -thank you for the well written + informative article...
    -brings a true understanding...

    very best,

  15. Anonymous says:

    My family celebrates Good Will and the blessings we have received on this day. My great Grandmother was Cherokee. My great grandfather fled Poland to escape the Cossacks. The life we have built for ourselves over time in spite of our challenges, and the people we have surrounded ourselves with are the reasons we celebrate this day.


  16. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for your insightful and educational information. The Afrikan Centered Thought collective called that - Thankstaking. We were thinking that supporting reverence on Tribal lands would be honorific of those who made the sacrifice.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Come on, I grew up Latvia, eastern Europe and, if I had a paper headband with seagull feathers in my childhood, I was an indian. And I never knew Thanksgiving. Is this really that bad? I mean, it's great if this could happen at a fine level for a native American, but doing oftenly is better than not doing.

  18. Little Feather says:

    I have heard that we American Indian do not care to celebrate Thanksgiving. There was nothing to be thankful for.

  19. with your permission, I'd like to translate this post and publish in my blog

  20. Anonymous says:

    As a white person with a Native American friend that I love, when he said he doesn't celebrate Thankssgiving, I didn't really understand. As I researched and learned the true story I was horrified. How are we to learn from history if we are taughtlies in school? No apology will make up for the way the Native Americans have been treated, and nothing will change history, but I am ashamed of my white ancestors. I'm truly sorry. On Thanksgiving Day this year, as I gathered with my family for dinner and time spent together, I gathered my grandchildren and told them the true story of the first thanksgiving. They listened intently to the story which is vastly different from the one they learn in school. Maybe if everybody would do that, it would at least open our eyes to our shameful history.

  21. Anonymous says:

    American Thanksgiving celebrations are a total disgrace! Per usual, history is written by the victors..from their limited perspective... As a Social Studies educator, it burns me up to witness the absolute and total lies that have been constantly perpetuated thoughout time!

  22. Anonymous says:

    And let's not forget.... small pox that killed at least half of the Native Americans because their bodies had no immunity to that disease!

  23. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for sharing.... in ref to History, I too am very sick and tired that the majority of what is being taught in schools is very superficial and that the dark aspects of our history is neatly tucked away... like they never did anything wrong and only point out wrong doings by others... that's why I personally stopped following history when I was in grade 7 :( just no respect whatsoever!!

  24. Boomer says:

    Thank you, I will share in an effort to educate & be more mindful on the day. Tho I live in Australia what I have observed is that Thanksgiving as a holiday is incredibly stressful so maybe people are unconsciously getting the essence of what happened & behaving accordingly. Just a thought.

  25. Anonymous says:

    Smallpox and other diseases were intentionally spread to the native americans by giving them blankets from deceased white immigrants. Always stunned when I realize so many Americans know nothing about the "real" history and how many of their ancestors came to own their land. The way Thanksgiving is celebrated is another insult, like carving out presidents faces in the holy black hills of the Lakotas (never ceded to the white man, but stolen)....

  26. Jane Calloway says:

    Went to Plymouth Mass. one year with couple friends... no matter how bright and warm the day was, I felt nothing but and un-nerving gloom... hated it, now I know more about the history of that land I understand why. I may not be native in blood, but am in heart and soul ... as the years progress I'm less comfortable with being a white American male and the holidays they celebrate. So much Bullsh*t they feed us in education... such shame the "American culture" has brought on this land

  27. Anonymous says:

    I believe the that the Natives Shared everything and still do at Pow- Wows! They are a Caring and Sharing People!

  28. There are no American Indians! When Columbus landed on American soil...he thought he was in "India". That was his destination. He screwed up. The Native Americans are actually from Asia through the land bridge and are closely related to the Chinese.

  29. casey says:

    Thank you for sharing.

  30. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us. As an educator I can now reshare this with others.

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