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How to tell kids the real story behind Thanksgiving

The real story of what happened between the settlers and Native Americans is way more complicated than pumpkin pie. Kids can handle the truth.
TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

The story most people heard about Thanksgiving from a young age is pretty simple: A group of Pilgrims, fleeing religious persecution, sail to North American and settle on Plymouth Rock. After a hard winter, they celebrate a successful harvest with their new neighbors, Native Americans. Everybody's grateful; the end.

But that's not the full story. The Wampanoag tribe, the Indigenous people who lived at Plymouth Rock, experienced this moment very differently. Are your kids ready to hear the real history? The answer is probably yes.

“Parents can start by telling their kids the truth and offering their children the more complex narrative. Kids are smart and capable of understanding,” Matika Wilbur of the Swinomish and Tulalip tribes tells She co-hosts the podcast All My Relations, which aired an episode called "Thanksgiving or Thankstaking?" that aims to understand the Wampanoag perspective.

“Thanksgiving is rooted in a historical fallacy,” Wilbur says, and the story is tied to the idea of white supremacy. "The main Pilgrim narrative coincides with colonization that was inherently oppressive and brutal.”

Parents might balk at introducing the "real history" to their children because they think their children can’t handle it. But that’s not giving them enough credit, Wilbur says.

The backstory of Thanksgiving

Wilbur — who traveled to over 400 Tribal Nations for her documentary "Project 562" — and her co-host Adrienne Keene, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation who is an assistant professor of American Studies and Ethic Studies at Brown University, spoke with Paula Peters and Linda Coombs, Wampanoag historical scholars, for the episode.

Peters says sharing the Wampanoag perspective is essential but can be tough for parents.

“It’s difficult because we have to talk about some raw topics in order to get a fuller, clearer understanding,” Peters, a citizen of Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and a researcher and journalist, tells “Quite honestly, cherry picking that moment when the Wampanoag and Puritans happen to break bread as the ‘Kumbaya’ moment really does not do it any justice. The Wampanoag have been marginalized and forgotten and the back story is so incredibly critical for what ultimately happens.”

Prior to the Pilgrims landing, the Wampanoag had experienced a plague that devastated their community. A "plague" is something Peters thinks children can certainly understand these days.

“This is all (relevant) right now," she says. “Think of what we (had) to say to our children, why they (couldn't) go to school and parents (couldn't) go to work — to protect our elders."

She says how parents share information with their children is “very personal” but believes they should introduce Indigenous history early and encourage their children to think critically about what they read. The Wampanoag people did not rush out to welcome the newly arrived Puritans, for example. They took months to observe them.

“Being able to talk about the true trepidation that the Wampanoag had with forging a relationship (is important),” she says. “It wasn’t like new neighbors moved in. It was very different.”

Children definitely get what it's like meeting someone new who seems unlike them.

“That is a creative and personal way to make it clear ... You get a new neighbor next door. They don’t speak your language. They don’t go to the same church. They do everything differently,” Peters says. “How are you going to engage with these people? These were all questions the Wampanoag leader had to ask himself.”

The Wampanoag tribe also knew that other people who were like the Pilgrims had raided their food supplies in the past, so they felt wary.

“What if you had a new neighbor that moved in and the first thing they did was take your cereal and Cracker Jack and not even leave a note?” she says. “These were new neighbors who came on the same kinds of ships that would have stolen from their fathers, their cousins, their uncles.”

Who was 'Squanto' and how did he know English?

Another part of the story that parents can encourage their children to think deeply about is that role of Tisquantum, aka "Squanto," who served as a liaison because he spoke English.

“We all had this story of the Mayflower and Plymouth colony and wasn’t it wonderful that they came and they met with Squanto and he spoke perfect English?” Peters said. “Children are going to question, ‘Well, how did he learn to speak English?’”

That’s a natural place to add more information. Squanto had been kidnapped by European settlers and held captive as a slave years earlier.

“The answer to that involves all of those other things, being kidnapped, the plague,” she said. “Those parts of the stories are very tragic.”

There are few books by Indigenous writers for children looking at the history of Thanksgiving, Peters says. And, Wilbur says only a handful of states — including Montana, Washington, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New Mexico and New York — mandate Indigenous history in the curriculum. Parents can reference these curricula online or turn to something like the Smithsonian’s Native Knowledge 360º Education Initiative for resources.

“It should be in the schools,” Peters said.

How to learn more about Native American history

Peters participated in Plymouth 400, the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower landing. The website and events includes Wampanoag history. Parents can explore this and the British sister project, Mayflower 400, to learn more.

“There was a great interest worldwide in learning the true story,” she says. “We were a little bit nervous: ‘Would they really hear us?’ In the past there has been a history of not interpreting what we say properly.”

But people did want to listen.

“I was really surprised by how welcome it was,” Peters says.

Peters suggests that families who want to learn more start by learning the Indigenous history of where they are. You can look on this map to see what Native American tribe lived where you live now.

“The very first thing they can do is acknowledge where they live,” she says. “Just understanding where you are and whose ancestral land it is and just asking the hard questions about history.”

Wilbur agrees.

“The path to reconciliation begins with developing relationships with the Native people whose land we occupy. Everywhere in North America has an Indigenous history and story, and there are still Indigenous people living here," she says. "There is an opportunity to build relationships with Indigenous people and support their cause."

And families who want to do more can even create new traditions.

“They could become an ally to Indigenous communities by supporting their causes, either with donated time or money," Wilbur says. "Thanksgiving allows all of us to evaluate how we are being of service to community, so rather than centering what I’m grateful for once a year, we could ask ourselves, 'How we are expressing that gratitude in a way that gives back?'”

This story was originally published in November 2020.