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

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Thanksgiving has become a time to get together as a family and eat turkey, but the holiday can be more complex for Native Americans. The stories of their ancestors, which were part of the 1621 meal known as the first Thanksgiving, are not told with the same prominence as the tales of the Pilgrims. These settlers included about 100 settlers who had arrived from England the previous year.

Renée Gokey, a member of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, is the Coordinator of Teacher Services at the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian Institution. She recently spoke with KidsPost about honoring Thanksgiving history while including Native American traditions.

Question: What was going on between Native Americans and settlers (in present-day Massachusetts) in the 17th century?

Answer: There were 69 self-governing villages within the Wampanoag Nation, and each chief (or sachem) of their village perceived the tribute of the people of his particular village, as part of the hunt. Harvest and food were often redistributed to people in the village who needed it. People took care of each other. The [Pilgrims] who came here in the 1620s were, we know the story, looking for more religious freedom. And they really relied on the natives to teach them some of the ways to grow crops.

Q: Can you talk about Native American gratitude practices?

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

Q: What do Native Americans and people who study Native American history think of the current Thanksgiving tradition?

A: There isn’t just one answer to this. My friend Dennis Zotigh wrote a very good blog on “What do Native Americans think of Thanksgiving?” And the answers are really varied. Some people celebrate like others, they can bring food from their culture and traditions. …Some Native Americans consider it a day of mourning because it represents a story that is not told in its entirety, which does not specifically include the Wampanoag voices and people who are their descendants today.

Q: Are there things young people can do to better understand the Native American connection to Thanksgiving during this holiday?

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

“Keepunumuk: Weeachumun’s Thanksgiving Story”, by Danielle Greendeer, Anthony Perry and Alexis Bunten (ages 3-7). A beautiful picture book that focuses on Native Americans and the natural treasures of what would become America before the first Thanksgiving.

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

“Do all Indians live in tepees? National Museum of the American Indian Questions and Answers (Second Edition),” by the National Museum of the American Indian (ages 13-17). This book debunks myths about Native Americans and provides useful information about Native American history and culture.

A reminder from the KidsPost team: Our stories are for ages 7-13. We welcome discussions from readers of all ages, but please follow our community guidelines and make comments appropriate for this age group.

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