For some years now, fall holidays like Columbus Day and Thanksgiving have raised questions as to the origins and purposes of these holidays as well as their very names themselves. Fourteen states and 130 local governments have replaced or celebrate Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day. Thanksgiving has been referred to as the Day of Mourning by some Native Americans for many years.

This Lesson Plan is found at PBS NewsHour

In this lesson, students will learn about the Wampanoag people, the ancestors of the Native American tribes who welcomed the Pilgrims at Plymouth nearly 400 years ago. Then students will examine current issues facing the Wampanoag tribes, including the continued fight for their ancestral lands and the preservation of their native language. For a faster version of this lesson or as a supplement, check out this slide deck prepared by Pear Deck.


Social studies, U.S. History, English, Government

Estimated time

One 45-minute period (with extension activities, two 45-minute periods)

Grade level

Grades 9-12


Students will learn about today’s Wampanoag people, the Native American tribe who interacted with the Pilgrims at Plymouth nearly 400 years ago. Students will also examine current issues in which Wampanoag tribes continue to fight for their ancestral homelands, preserve their Native language for future generations and discuss the meaning of the Thanksgiving holiday.

Map showing locations of several Native American tribes, including the Wampanoag, who first met with the Pilgrims at Plymouth. Photo via Wikipedia (GNU Free Documentation License for educational purposes)


  1. Read the Indian Country Today article by Michelle Tirado, “THE WAMPANOAG SIDE OF THE FIRST THANKSGIVING STORY.” If short on time, read the third paragraph and the last three paragraphs of the article. Discuss the following questions:
    • How did the first arrival of European settlers at Plymouth in 1616 impact the Wampanoag tribe?
    • Why do you think the story of Thanksgiving described in the article changed so radically over the years?
    • What is your reaction after reading that some Wampanoag and other Native American tribes refer to Thanksgiving as the Day of Mourning?
  1. Having land “held in trust” means that the indigenous people have full control over the land to tax, develop and manage, and not the American government. A federal judge in Boston ruled to take away the tribes’ trust status in March 2020, which was overturned by Judge Paul Friedman in June 2020. The Department of Interior appealed that ruling in late July 2020, with no outcome yet at the last update of this lesson. 
  • Read this response from Chairman Cedric Cromwell of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe from March 27, 2020. 
  • Read this article about Judge Friedman ruling in favor of the Mashpee Wampanoag on June 5th, 2020. If short on time, just read the first 5 paragraphs.

Focus question: How does the lawsuit over Mashpee Wampanoag land reflect the U.S. government’s history and relationship with Indigenous peoples?

  1. The CDC found that cases of COVID-19 were 3.5 times higher among American Indian and Alaska Native populations than they were among non-Hispanic whites. A history of inequality has led to health and economic disparities in these communities, causing major disparities during this pandemic. Discuss the following questions:
    • Why would a history of racial inequality and trauma affect indigenous peoples’ health today?
    • Why does this matter? What do COVID-19 rates show about our country and what we must change?
  1. Critically reflective response: Do you think it’s possible to celebrate Thanksgiving, a day which many cherish as a time of showing thanks to friends and family, while learning about the effects of colonization on the Wampanoag and other Native American peoples? How about Columbus Day? Have students write one paragraph in response, or have a discussion with their neighbors/class.

Extension activities

  1. Find out why Wampanoag tribal elder Tall Oak and fellow activists started the DAY OF MOURNING in 1970, the same day as Thanksgiving, to tell the story of the subjugation of the Wampanoag and other Native Americans. Discuss how some members of the Wampanoag Tribe work at Plimouth Plantations as a way to share their story and let visitors know that they still embrace their culture 400 years later.
  2. Read the article “COURT DENIES TRIBE RIGHTS TO PURSUE GAMBLING ON MARTHA’S VINEYARD,” about the Aquinnah Wamponoag’s efforts to build a casino on their land. In recent years, several casinos have been built on Native American land, bringing in much needed revenue for the community. Why did the judge rule against the tribe in this case? Do you think this decision was fair? Explain your answer.
  3. Plans for the 400th anniversary in 2020 of the Mayflower’s arrival at Plymouth are in the works. Organizers are working with some members of the Wampanoag tribe and have included two history exhibits, which provide the Native American perspective on colonization and Thanksgiving. But others Wampanoag members, including Ramona Peters, chief historical preservation officer for the Mashpee Wampanoag, do not feel like celebrating. Find out more HERE.

by Victoria Pasquantonio, PBS NewsHour Classroom


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