Rethinking Thanksgiving

Students untangle facts and myths about Thanksgiving through reading, discussion, and roleplaying through tweets.   

To the teacher:

This activity has students explore the facts and myths surrounding the history of Thanksgiving. This history may be of special interest to students given the highly visible protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. For more on this, see our lesson and Indian Country News.


Students will 

  • discuss what they know about myths
  • discuss the role of myths in how we think about ourselves as a people
  • learn historical facts about the "First Thanksgiving"
  • role-play tweeting about the event from different points of view
  • talk about what a Thanksgiving celebration for today might look like

Social and emotional skills:

  • Active listening
  • Appreciating multiple points of view
  • Articulating a vision

Materials Needed

  • Board or chart paper, markers, tape
  • Today’s agenda on chart paper or on the board
  • Slips of paper with different roles printed on them as follows: male settler, female settler, male Wampanoag, female Wampanoag, Tisquantum, Massasoit, Edward Winslow (create your own or use this PDF)
  • Space in your class to set up chairs with groups of five
  • Fact sheet about the "First Thanksgiving" (See below or view PDF)
  • Blank paper and pencils for all students

Check agenda and goals for the day


(10 min.)

If possible, ask students to circle up so that you can easily go around a circle for responses.

Write the word "myth" in the center of the board or a piece of chart paper. Ask students to each give an example of a myth they know about or a word that they think of when they hear the word "myth." If they say the same word as somebody else, put a check mark next to that word.

When everyone has spoken who wants to, ask students what they notice. Which words got the most check marks? What myths have been mentioned?


Main Activity

(30 min.)

Post another piece of paper and write the following quote on it:

"Myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them."

Tell students that this quote is from a French writer named Albert Camus. What do students think this comment means? 

Get several ideas from students. The key takeaway is that people create myths that fit with how they explain the world. Sometimes the myths are a combination of historical facts and the way people want to think something happened.

In our own country, for instance, we have several myths

  • One is that Christopher Columbus discovered America. Christopher Columbus did come to islands in what are now called the Bahamas. But others had come to North America long before.
  • Another myth is that there was a lot of empty land for the taking out west. Settlers headed for what they called the frontier to farm or raise cattle or sheep on the land. But the land already had people on it. It wasn’t empty.

The Thanksgiving story is also a mix of history and myth. Write the word "Thanksgiving" on the board or chart paper and ask students what they think of when they see the word. Have the students call out one-word answers popcorn style and write down the answers.

Ask students what they notice about the words. Many of the words will probably have to do with family, food, or football. Some of the words may be "pilgrims" or "Indians." Ask students what they did in elementary school around Thanksgiving time.

Hand out the fact sheet at the bottom of this lesson about the "First Thanksgiving." Ask students to break into groups of five to read it. Each member of the group can read a paragraph, then students can talk for a few minutes.

Bring students back together and ask whether there was anything that surprised the students or that they were hearing for the first time. What questions do the students have?

Send around a basket with slips of paper in it that equal the number of students in the class. Each slip of paper has a different person/character on it: "male settler," "female settler," "male Wampanoag," "female Wampanoag," "Massasoit," "Tisquantum," "Edward Winslow."

Hand out blank sheets of paper and pencils and ask students to write a tweet about the "First Thanksgiving." (That is, students should create a message for social media that is no more than 140 characters long.) They should write the tweet as if it were coming from the character named on their slip of paper. They can write the tweet and then sign it as "female settler," or whatever identity they picked from the basket. Give them a minute or two to put themselves in the mind of that person and think about what they would want the world to know in 1621.

Give students tape to post their "tweets" on the wall. Have students do a "Gallery Walk" to read the tweets. Alternatively, collect them and read selections.

After the gallery walk or reading, ask students for their thoughts and observations about the tweets. Did any particular tweet strike them? Why?

Closing circle

(10 min.)

In recent years, more and more people have become aware of the complex history of Thanksgiving and have tried to honor that history. November is now Native American Heritage Month. Many places collect food and clothing for people who are hungry or do not have winter clothes.

In a go-round, ask students to describe what they think would be a good way to celebrate the holiday.

End with a go-round asking students to say one thing they are thankful for.




A Few Facts about Thanksgiving

View as PDF

The Indians who lived near where the ship the Mayflower landed were called Wampanoag (pronounced WAMP-ah-nog). Even before the settlers arrived, the Wampanoag had met explorers. These Europeans brought diseases, and it is believed that because the Wampanoag had not built up resistance to these diseases, many died quickly from an epidemic. Some have theorized that the epidemic was like the plague that once wiped out almost half the population of Europe.

The Wampanoag had farmed the land, but they had been so decimated by the epidemic that when the Mayflower settlers arrived, they found whole villages and fields with skeletons in them. So many people had died that there was nobody left to bury them. The settlers raided the graves that they found and stole food from supplies that the Wampanoag had stored for the winter. The Wampanoag were furious, but were no match for the settlers’ guns.

The few Wampanoag who were left were worried about the enemies they already had, who were eager to defeat them. The Wampanoag needed allies, especially against another Native people known as the Narragansett. They saw that the settlers had guns that could be very useful.

The settlers were a mixed group. About 37 of them were Separatists (who became known as Pilgrims), seeking religious freedom from the Church of England. Others were sympathetic to the Separatist cause and beliefs, but not members of the group. Others had skills that the Separatists knew they would need, such as barrel-making or soldiering.

There were 102 people on the ship, of which 18 were adult women. Three of the women were pregnant. The settlers had arrived at the worst time of year, in winter. By the end of the first winter, about half the settlers had died. Four adult women and eleven teenage girls remained.

The Wampanoag were willing to help the starving settlers because they could see that the settlers could be useful. The most famous person to help was named Tisquantum, often called Squanto. He had lived in Patuxet, but was captured in 1605 when he was 12 or 13 and taken as a slave to England. He managed to get back to the colony but was captured again as a slave and taken to Spain. He escaped again and again returned to his village. This time, he discovered that almost everyone was dead. He was the only male survivor. Tisquantum showed the settlers how to plant the traditional crops of corn, beans, and squash that saved the remaining settlers from starvation.

The Wampanoag had a tradition of harvest festivals. So did the settlers. In fact, every farming culture has some version of a harvest festival. These festivals were not the same as days of thanksgiving, which both the Indigenous people and the Europeans marked as religious ceremonies.

There are different versions of what happened on the "first" Thanksgiving. Some say that the Wampanoag, who also had a good harvest, prepared a feast (cooked by the women) and brought it to the settlers. Several weeks after the event, settler Edward Winslow wrote:

[O]ur harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a more special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the company almost a week, at which time amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain, and others.

And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty. We have found the Indians very faithful in their covenant of peace with us; very loving and ready to pleasure us: we often go to them, and they come to us; . . . . yea, it hath pleased God so to possess the Indians with a fear of us. . .

This letter (full text at makes us think that the Wampanoag weren’t even invited but came because they heard the gunfire. Once they were there, the settlers invited them to join the celebration. They went out and killed five deer as their contribution to the celebration.

The settlers and the Wampanoag signed a peace treaty, and all went well for a while, but the settlers wanted more and more land. So by 1675, the Wampanoag decided to fight. The war was one of the bloodiest (per capita) in U.S. history and ended with almost all the Wampanoag being killed.

During the American Revolution, there were some days of thanksgiving, but up until the Civil War, only George Washington’s birthday and the Fourth of July were national holidays. For 17 years, Sarah Josepha Hale, an influential editor from New England, wrote to five different presidents calling for a national day of thanks. Abraham Lincoln finally set aside the last Thursday of November in 1863, during the Civil War. Franklin Roosevelt changed it to the fourth Thursday in November.