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Lesson plan: After helping Pilgrims, today's Wampanoag tribe fight for their ancestral lands

November 21, 2022



A reveller dances during a “pow-wow” celebrating the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Festival in Randalls Island, in New York, U.S., October 8, 2017. The festival is held as a counter-celebration to Columbus Day and to promote Native American culture and history. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

Full Lesson


Lesson updated Oct. 23, 2022. For a Google doc version of this lesson, click here.


With the Thanksgiving holiday in mind, students will learn about today’s Wampanoag people, the same Native American tribe who welcomed the Pilgrims at Plymouth nearly 400 years ago, and the story of Thanksgiving from the Wampanoags’ perspective. Then students will decide to examine one of three current issues facing members of Wampanoag tribes, including the continued fight for their ancestral lands, preservation of native language and the right to build gambling casinos. For a shortened 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 6-12


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)

Main activities: Choose one of the two main activities below

`1. Wampanoag side of the story:

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?

2. Debate over land continues today in 3 different examples:

Choose one or more examples to learn about:

A. Tribal government, the U.S. Dept. of the Interior and 321 acres in Massachusetts:

Tribal sovereignty (the right of American Indians and Alaska Natives to govern themselves under the U.S. Constitution) over land originally belonging to the Wampanoag people is once again being called into question. Read both articles below.

Background: In March 2020, a federal judge in Boston ruled to take away the Wampanoag tribes’ trust status over 321 acres of land in Mashpee and Taunton, Mass. This decision was overturned by Judge Paul Friedman a few months later. The Department of Interior appealed that ruling in late July 2020, with no outcome yet upon the last update of this lesson. Be sure to check to see if there was an update on the judge’s decision using a web search.

Having land “held in trust” means individuals or a group of people, in this case, the Wampanoag tribes, have full control over the land to tax, develop and manage — not the U.S. government.

Read this response from Chairman Cedric Cromwell (Qaqeemasq, Running Bear) of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe from March 27, 2020. 

Read this article about Judge Friedman ruling in favor of the Mashpee Wampanoag on June 5, 2020. If short on time, just read the first 5 paragraphs.

  • Who do you think is entitled to the land?
  • What evidence do you think is the strongest to support your point-of-view?
  • Are you surprised that we are still having debates over Indian land hundreds of years later? How do these debates affect relationships between Native Americans and the government?

B. Family land dispute

Read the article Three witnesses speak during Vineyard land case trial; no verdict yet from judge (Oct. 17, 2022). Be sure to check to see if there was an update on the judge’s decision using a web search.

  • Who are the Devine family and Louisa Pocknett? What is the Vineyard Conservation Society? Who is the Kennedy family?
  • What are the different arguments being made by the plaintiff and defendant?
  • What do you think the judge’s ruling should be?

C. Gambling debate

Read the article Court Denies Tribe Rights to Purseue 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?
  • What are some arguments for and against gambling casinos on Native American land?
  • Do you think the judge’s decision was fair? Why or why not? 

Critically reflective response:

Choose one of the following questions to answer to make sure you understood the issues facing Wampanoag people today and the continued role of the U.S. government and business in their lives. Have students write one paragraph in response and discuss it with a classmate, family member or neighbor this holiday season.

  • How do these conflicts reflect the ways in which the U.S. government and business interact with Native American individuals and groups today?
  • 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?

Extension activities

  • Check out Classroom’s Daily News Lesson Native American history through one Wampanoag family’s journey for truth. The lesson spotlights an organization on Martha’s Vineyard that has worked for several years to revive the Wampanoag history by educating children and adults about the Native culture and traditions while also aiming to protect the planet.
  • 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?

Additional resources

  • Listen to this one-hour long WBUR public radio special, Wampanoag historians and activists discuss Indigenous Peoples Day, from Oct. 10, 2022.
  • 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 Plimoth Plantations as a way to share their story and let visitors know how they embrace their culture 400 years later.
  • Learn more about how the Wampanoag tribe took part in the 400th anniversary in 2020 of the Mayflower’s arrival at Plymouth in these 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, did not feel like celebrating.

by Victoria Pasquantonio, PBS NewsHour Classroom


CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.6 Identify aspects of a text that reveal an author’s point of view or purpose (e.g., loaded language, inclusion or avoidance of particular facts).

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary describing political, social, or economic aspects of history/social science.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.8 Evaluate an author’s premises, claims, and evidence by corroborating or challenging them with other information.