Thanksgiving day is also a national day of mourning

Dr. Diane E. Wenger, Associate Professor of History

As we eagerly anticipate the holiday break, many of us also look forward to a traditional American Thanksgiving meal of turkey, cranberries and pumpkin pie. As we sit down to dinner, we may be reminded of stories of the “first Thanksgiving” feast held by Pilgrims and their Wampanoag neighbors (as described by Pilgrim Father William Bradford) in 1621.

However, for many Native Americans, this is not a time to celebrate. Rather, “Thanksgiving Day” is a reminder of the genocide of millions of their people, the theft of their lands,and the relentless assault on their culture. It is the National Day of Mourning.

Presidents George Washington (in 1789) and James Madison (during the War of 1812) each declared Thanksgiving days during times of crisis.

But Thanksgiving did not become a national holiday until 1863, when Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November a “day of thanksgiving and praise” during the Civil War. Each president since Lincoln has issued a similar annual proclamation.

At first, the holiday was not associated with the Pilgrim-Indian feast. That connection came in the 1890s. By then, the US government had won the “Indian wars” and had forced Native Americans onto reservations; Indian children were being removed to boarding schools where the policy was “kill the Indian, save the man.”

Natives experienced all of this as profound loss, but, for mainstream Americans, the West was finally “won” for white settlement and exploitation. With the Indian obstacle removed, Americans could afford to see Natives in a more favorable light.

They seemed to be a vanishing race, and it was more pleasant to recall a harvest feast than broken treaties, massacres of Indian women and children, or their forced removal to unfamiliar territories.

Since then, presidential proclamations have linked Thanksgiving with the happy story of Pilgrims and Indians sharing dinner. Last year, in announcing the annual holiday, President Barack Obama invoked the image of “an autumn harvest centuries ago, when the Wampanoag tribe joined the Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony to share in the fruits of a bountiful season” and went on to acknowledge the debt that the colonists owed to Native Americans.
Some Natives see it a bit differently. For them it all goes back to 1970, when the Massachusetts Department of Commerce decided to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival by having Native American Frank James (whose Wampanoag name is Wamsutta) speak during the annual Thanksgiving dinner at Plymouth.  But officials rescinded the invitation after they previewed Wamsutta’s speech:

“This is a time of celebration for you—celebrating an anniversary of the beginning for the white man in America …It is with a heavy heart that I look back on what happened to my people. Even before the Pilgrims landed, it was common practice for explorers to capture Indians, take them to Europe and sell them as slaves …The Pilgrims had hardly explored the shores of Cape Cod for four days before they robbed the graves of my ancestors and stole their corn and beans …Massasoit, the great Sachem of the Wampanoag, knew these facts, yet he and his People welcomed and befriended the settlers …This action by Massasoit was perhaps our biggest mistake. We …welcomed you …with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end ….Although our way of life is almost gone and our language is almost extinct, we the Wampanoags still walk the lands of Massachusetts…What has happened cannot be changed, but today we work toward a better America, a more Indian America, where people and nature once again are important.”

Barred from speaking at the official ceremony, Wamsutta gave his speech to a handful of listeners at Cole’s Hill, a site just above Plymouth Rock, overlooking a replica of The Mayflower, near a statue of Massasoit. The event became known as National Day of Mourning.

This year marks the 43rd National Day of Mourning. At noon, November 22, United American Indians of New England (UAINE) will gather at Cole’s Hill to listen to speakers and then march through Plymouth’s historic district. Many attendees will fast from sundown Wednesday until Thursday afternoon when the event concludes with a pot-luck meal.

According to UAINE, the event is meant to “honor Native ancestors and the struggles of Native peoples to survive today. It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection as well as a protest of the racism and oppression which Native Americans continue to experience.”