Today Is the National Day of Mourning, Not Thanksgiving

(27 November 2014)

Today is not Thanksgiving. For Indigenous people from this land, it is the National Day of Mourning.

As I have written before, European settler colonialists were guilty of carrying out the worst genocide in all of human history: the genocide of the Native Americans. According to American historian David Stannard, in his book American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World, settlers murdered over 100 million people, 19 out of 20 of those who had lived on the continent before the arrival of the Europeans.

On the 29th National Day of Mourning, 26 November 1998, Moonanum James, Co-Leader of United American Indians of New England (UNAINE) gave an incredibly powerful speech, one that still rings true to this day, 16 National Days of Mourning later (emphases mine):

Native people … [have] a long history of our mistreatment at the hands of the European invaders. We have not forgotten, we well remember, the long, bloody trail of European conquest that led from early settlements like Plymouth to places like Great Swamp, Sand Creek, and Wounded Knee.National Day of Mourning began in this manner: Nearly 30 years ago a Wampanoag man, Wamsutta Frank James, was invited to address a gathering of so-called dignitaries celebrating the 350th anniversary of the arrival of the Pilgrims. When he attempted to tell the truth, he was told his words were not acceptable. The planners of the gathering, fearing the truth, told him he could speak only if he were willing to speak false words in praise of the white man. He refused. National Day of Mourning came into being as a result of his refusal to speak untrue words.

Many times over the past year we have been asked what is the true history of thanksgiving. This comes as no surprise. The truth has been buried for over 375 years. The first Thanksgiving did not occur in 1621 when the pilgrim survivors of the first winter sat down to dinner with their Indian friends. The first official day of thanksgiving and feasting in Massachusetts was proclaimed by Gov. Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637. He did this to give thanks for the safe return of men from the colony who had gone to what is now Mystic, Connecticut to participate in the massacre of over 700 Pequot men, women and children.

What happened in October of 1621 may have been a harvest home, but the Indians who attended were not even invited by the Pilgrims, who considered our people to be devils. No turkey, cranberry sauce, or pumpkin pie was served. Just days before this alleged thanksgiving communion, a company of pilgrims led by Myles Standish actively sought the head of a local chief. The pilgrims deliberately caused a rivalry between two friendly Indians, pitting one against the other in the classic European method of divide and conquer. An 11 foot high wall was erected around the entire Plymouth settlement for the purpose of keeping the Indians out.

Native people do not give thanks just one day a year. Every day, we thank the Creator for this beautiful earth and for our survival. But we will not give thanks for the European invasion of our country. We will not celebrate the theft of our lands and the genocide of our people. We will not sing and dance to please the tourists who come here seeking a Disneyland version of history. Attention all tourists: If you are expecting us to put on a show, you would be better advised to go down to Plymouth Rock and watch the tide wash over it.

That first Day of Mourning back in 1970 was a powerful demonstration of Native unity. Today is a powerful demonstration of not only Native unity, but of the unity of all people from the Four Directions who want the truth to be told and want to see an end to the oppressive system brought to these shores by the Pilgrim invaders.

There are those who feel threatened by the movement that we are building when we come together at National Day of Mourning. There are those who would have us be good Indians and act like a conquered people and beg for the scraps from the Thanksgiving table.

But these attacks are merely spit in the winds of change.

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.

Today, we will correct some history and do so in a country that continues to glorify butchers such as Christopher Columbus, glorifies slave-owning presidents such as Washington and Jefferson and even carves their faces into the sacred Black Hills of the Lakota.

But we have a lot more to talk about than the pilgrims or what happened in the 1600s. We will also be speaking today, as we have every year since 1970, about conditions in Indian country today, about the racism which we face on a daily basis. We are here, as we have been for 28 years, to unite people and to speak the truth. On our program will be only Native speakers. This is one day when we speak for ourselves, without non-Native people, so-called “experts,” intervening to interpret and speak for us. We are more than capable of speaking for ourselves.

Today, for a few hours, we are gathered here in liberated territory. Our very presence frees this land from the lies of the history books, the profiteers, and the mythmakers. We will remember and honor all of our ancestors in struggle who went before us. We will speak truth to power. We will remember in particular all of our sisters and brothers, including Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu Jamal, who are caged in the iron houses.

We are not vanishing. We are not conquered. We are as strong as ever.

Today, Frank Waln, a Sicangu Lakota and, as he describes himself, “artist who uses his music to address colonialism, state violence and other issues that affect Indigenous people,” published an absolute must-read article in the Guardian: “My family’s Thanksgiving on the reservation is a rebuke to America’s colonialism.”

It is, Waln writes:

When I was a little kid, I was unaware that I am the bastard child of colonisation, born into a reality in which I’ll spend my entire life combating the way the world views me based on propaganda like national sports mascots and tales of the first thanksgiving.

As an adult, Thanksgiving is just more colonialist propaganda masquerading as history – and a day that represents hundreds of years of genocide, persecution and oppression of our people.

So I love the version of the Thanksgiving story in the movie Addams Family Values, because I get to see the Indians win.

In the summer camp play depicting the first thanksgiving, all the blond, white kids in their Western hegemonic glory are cast as the Pilgrims. The outcasts of the summer camp – the black, brown and disabled kids – are cast as the Indians, with Wednesday Addams as Pocahontas (despite the fact that the Wampanoags were the first to come into contact with the Pilgrims, and Pocahantas was Powhatan). During the performance, Wednesday disregards the script, gives a speech about the impending colonization the Pilgrims will bring, proclaiming, “The Gods of my tribe have spoken. They have said ‘Do not trust the Pilgrims’” – and then leads a revolt and burns the Pilgrim village to the ground.

From the 1993 film Addams Family Values:

Waln concludes:

My family getting together to eat and celebrate our lives on a day that represents the genocide of our ancestors and culture is, in its own way, a “fuck you” to colonialisation. America’s colonial project failed. We’re still here, and we’re keeping our ceremonies and traditions alive. We’re still speaking our languages. We’re living our culture. I’m alive and I know what it means to be Lakota. For that, I give thanks every day.

Today, I am thankful for resistance.