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Thursday is an annual ‘Day of Mourning’ for many Native Americans

In 1970, as residents of Plymouth, Massachusetts prepared their Thanksgiving dinners to mark the first feast of thanksgiving after the Mayflower landing, a leader of the tribe that had feasted with the Pilgrims drafted a speech to deliver at the event.

“The Pilgrims had hardly explored the shores of Cape Cod for four days before they had robbed the graves of my ancestors and stolen their corn and beans,” reads a line from the remarks that Aquinnah Wampanoag tribal leader Wamsutta Frank James had planned to give, according to CNN.

The event organizers wouldn’t allow Wamsutta to make the speech. “When he presented it to them, they said, ‘Well, we can’t allow you to read that ’cause 90 percent of the people would walk out,” Tall Oak, a member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe, recalled to CNN.

 Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor   by William Halsall  1882 at Pilgrim Hall Museum  Plymouth  Massachus...

“Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor,” by William Halsall, 1882 at Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Massachusetts, USA
William Halsall – created in 1882.

Although Wamsutta was asked to rewrite the speech, he refused. “So, he withdrew,” Tall Oak said. Word spread of the outcome, and out of this, a counter-commemoration was brought to life – The National Day of Mourning that takes place every fourth Thursday in November. This Thursday will mark its 50th year.

A big part of what has come to be an annual custom is for Native and non-native Americans to gather on Cole’s Hill, overlooking Plymouth Rock, to consider this holiday we call Thanksgiving from the perspective of the Native American people in our country.

There is even a commemorative plaque at the site that reads: “Thanksgiving Day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of their people, the theft of their lands, and the relentless assault on their cultures. Participants in National Day of Mourning honor Native ancestors and the struggles of Native peoples to survive today.”

National Day of Mourning Plaque

National Day of Mourning Plaque
Melissa Doroquez CC BY-SA 2.0

Thanksgiving 2019
This year’s annual Day of Mourning will have a sense of urgency to it, according to Voice of America News. This year, Plymouth is already working to put the final touches on next year’s 400th-anniversary commemorations of the Pilgrims’ landing in 1620.

The descendants of the Wampanoag tribe who helped the Pilgrims to survive in this land do not want the world to forget the disease, racism, genocide, and oppression the European settlers brought. Illustrations of what the first Thanksgiving might have looked like often depict Massasoit Ousamequin, the leader of the Wampanoag tribe, accepting an invitation from the Pilgrims of Plymouth to join them in a feast.

Actually around 90 members of the Wampanoag tribe went over to the settlement to find out why they were shooting guns and practicing arms. They were preparing to attack the tribe, and Massasoit Ousamequin and other tribal elders set down with the Pilgrims and made peace, and that is why the feast was held.

“We go there every year, along with many nonindigenous allies, as well, to talk about the truth about Thanksgiving,” said Mahtowin Munro, co-leader of the United American Indians of New England. “We talk about the history because we must.”

Another historically inaccurate depiction.of the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth.

Another historically inaccurate depiction.of the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth.
Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1914)

“We still have to retell the story because it’s still not known well enough,” she said. “But I do think that more and more, nonnative people are listening and learning and are interested in the truth about what has happened.”

This year, the focus of the group will be on the plight of missing and murdered indigenous women, as well as the government’s crackdown on migrants from Latin America, and the detentions of migrant children. Posters promoting this year’s commemoration proclaim: “We didn’t cross the border — the border crossed us!”

Paula Peters, a Wampanoag writer, and activist who isn’t a member of the group that organizes the public mourning believes progress is being made getting Americans to look past the myth that is a Pilgrim’s Thanksgiving. “We have come a long way,” she said. “We continue to honor our ancestors by taking our history out of the margins and into the forefront.”

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We are deeply saddened to announce the passing of our dear friend Karen Graham, who served as Editor-at-Large at Digital Journal. She was 78 years old. Karen's view of what is happening in our world was colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in humankind's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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