Rethinking Thanksgiving: National Day of Mourning

Their sign reads: We Are Not Vanishing.  We Are Not Conquered.  We Are As Strong As Ever.  Photo credit: UAINE

Their sign reads: We Are Not Vanishing. We Are Not Conquered. We Are As Strong As Ever. Photo credit: UAINE

Today is Monday, November 11, 2013.

The other day I noticed an event mentioned on Facebook called National Day of Mourning, and I decided to check it out.  The event is always held on the fourth Thursday of November, Thanksgiving Day in the United States.  It is sponsored by an organization known as United American Indians of New England (UAINE).   Back in 1970, this group declared Thanksgiving Day a National Day of Mourning.  Here’s the story of how that came about.

According to the UAINE website, an Aquinnah Wampanoag man named Wamsutta was asked to speak at a banquet in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts that was held to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims.  The organizers of the dinner said they wanted to prepare a press release, so they asked for a a copy of the speech Wamsutta planned to deliver.  You can read the speech yourself by clicking on the link.  Basically, Wamsutta what planned to do was tell the truth: that when the European settlers landed on the shores of the New World, it was the beginning of the end for his people, the Wampanoag, and because of this, Thanksgiving was not a time of celebration for him, but a time of mourning.  Within a few days of receiving a copy of the speech, the organizers of the event told Wamsutta that he would not be allowed to give his prepared speech, because it was too “inflammatory” for a celebratory event.   They told him that they would provide a speech for him, but rather than have words put into his mouth, Wamsutta refused to speak at all.  Instead, he and hundreds of Native Americans and supporters gathered in Plymouth and observed the first National Day of Mourning.  Every year since that time, Native Americans have gathered in  Plymouth to protest the whitewashing of the Pilgrim history.  As Richard Greener said in his Huffpost blog called “The True Story,”  published back in 2010, “This day is still remembered today, 373 years later. No, it’s been long forgotten by white people, by European Christians. But it is still fresh in the mind of many Indians. A group calling themselves the United American Indians of New England meet each year at Plymouth Rock on Cole’s Hill for what they say is a Day of Mourning. They gather at the feet of a stature of Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag to remember the long gone Pequot. They do not call it Thanksgiving. There is no football game afterward.”

For his speech, Wamsutta had studied a book which included a Pilgrim’s own account of the settlers’ first year in the New World.  The account stated that the Europeans raided Natives’ graves and that they stole food supplies from the Indians.  Also detailed were the fact that Natives were captured as slaves and sold for 220 shillings apiece.   These things are recorded in first-person accounts written by actual settlers.

Ever wonder why we gloss over the Jamestown Colony and focus more on the Plymouth Colony?  Some of you are probably aware that Jamestown was a failure as a colony, mainly because it was not really a settlement as much as a camp.  The purpose was never to settle down; rather, it was to find gold or find a route to India.  The colonists were all male, and there were no farmers among them.  They were all opportunists, not settlers, and they ended up having to turn to cannibalism to survive.  Not a very pretty picture.

The first official “Day of Thanksgiving” was proclaimed by Governor Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the first major settlement after the Plymouth Colony, but it was not a harvest festival.  In 1637, the colony wanted to celebrate the safe return of men from the colony who had gone to what is now Mystic, Connecticut, to massacre over 700 Pequot men, women and children!  This is certainly not the story that gets told to our schoolchildren.

Image Credit: wibailoutpeople.org

Image Credit: wibailoutpeople.org

It’s true that the colonists would not have survived their first few winters in the land they called New England if it were not for the help and generosity of the Wampanoag people.  In fact, that’s just about the only true part of the story that we tell our kids.

The 44th annual National Day of Mourning will be held on Thursday, November 28 at noon in Plymouth, Massachusetts, on Cole’s Hill, the hill just above Plymouth Rock.  According to the flyer, no drugs or alcohol will be allowed at the event.  There will be a rally with prayers and speakers, and a march, followed by an outdoor pot-luck social.  A bus will load in New York City at 6 a.m. the day of the event and return at 4:30 that afternoon.  Several hundred people typically gather at this annual event.

Here is a statement given at the 1998 event, by Moonanum James, Co-Leader of UNAINE:

Some ask us: Will you ever stop protesting? Some day we will stop protesting: We will stop protesting when the merchants of Plymouth are no longer making millions of dollars off the blood of our slaughtered ancestors. We will stop protesting when we can act as sovereign nations on our own land without the interference of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and what Sitting Bull called the “favorite ration chiefs”. When corporations stop polluting our mother, the earth. When racism has been eradicated. When the oppression of Two-Spirited people is a thing of the past. We will stop protesting when homeless people have homes and no child goes to bed hungry. When police brutality no longer exists in communities of color. We will stop protesting when Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal and the Puerto Rican independentistas and all the political prisoners are free. Until then, the struggle will continue.

Something to think about when you sit down for your fancy turkey dinner on Thanksgiving.  :-/

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Rethinking Thanksgiving: National Day of Mourning

  1. Annemarie Tyler

    Hi there, that second picture was taken during a sacred ceremony where everyone was asked not to take pictures or recordings of any kind. I assume you didn’t hear that part, it was noisy. I am respectfully requesting that you remove the picture and delete it altogether, please.

    • Thank you. I knew that pictures are not normally taken of prayer ceremonies, but assumed that this one had been approved. The photograph has been removed. (I was not present at this gathering, so did not know that there was an announcement made.)

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