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Thanksgiving didn’t start in 1621. It was a Native American tradition.

The holiday provides an opportunity for kids to learn about Native traditions related to the food on the table.

Pilgrims and Native Americans are depicted gathering to share a meal in the artwork “The First Thanksgiving 1621,” by J.L.G. Ferris. (J.L.G. Ferris/Library of Congress)

Thanksgiving has become a time to gather with family and eat turkey, but the holiday can be more complex for Native Americans. The stories of their ancestors, who were part of the 1621 meal known as the first Thanksgiving, aren’t told with the same importance as the tales of the Pilgrims. Those colonists included about 100 settlers who had arrived from England the year before.

Renée Gokey, a member of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, is the teacher services coordinator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian. She recently talked with KidsPost about how to respect the history of Thanksgiving while including Native American traditions.

Question: What was going on between Native Americans and colonists (in what is now Massachusetts) during the 1600s?

Answer: There were 69 autonomous villages within the Wampanoag nation, and each leader (or sachem) of their village would collect tribute from the people of his particular village, such as a portion of the hunt. The harvest and food was often redistributed to people who needed it in the village. People took care of one another. The [Pilgrims] who came here in the 1620s were, we know the story, looking for more religious freedom. And they really relied on the Native people who taught them some of the ways to grow crops.

Q: Can you talk about the Native American practices of gratitude?

A: So Native people have always had, and we still do have, either bigger ceremonies [or] seasonal ceremonies of gratitude. In my tribe, we honor the corn. We have a bean dance. We have a pumpkin dance. … Traditions of giving thanks extend throughout the year and are abundant and diverse in Native communities today.

Q: How do Native American people and people who study Native American history feel about the current tradition of Thanksgiving?

A: There’s not one answer about it. My friend Dennis Zotigh wrote a really nice blog about “How do Native American people feel about Thanksgiving?” And the answers are really varied. Some people celebrate much like other people, they might bring food from their culture and tradition. ... There are some Native Americans who do consider it a day of mourning, though, because it does represent a story that is not told in full, that has not included specifically Wampanoag voices and the people who are the descendants today.

Q: Are there things that young people can do to better understand Native Americans’ connection with Thanksgiving during this holiday?

A: Pick one food on the table and really start to talk about it, and this could happen once a week with your family. What is a food that is on the table that you want to learn more about? What [are] its origins? Where does it come from? Do people still eat it? And how have new cultures adapted it?

Learn more

Keepunumuk: Weeachumun’s Thanksgiving Story," by Danielle Greendeer, Anthony Perry and Alexis Bunten (ages 3 to 7). A gorgeous picture book that focuses on the Native Americans and the natural treasures of what would become America leading up to the first Thanksgiving.

“1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving (National Geographic),” by Catherine O’Neill Grace (ages 8 to 12). An illustrated photo essay that shows a more balanced and historically accurate version of the harvest celebration in 1621.

Do All Indians Live in Tipis? Questions and Answers From the National Museum of the American Indian (Second Edition),” by the National Museum of the American Indian (ages 13 to 17). This book debunks myths about Native Americans and gives useful information about Native American history and culture.

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