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Native American National Day of Mourning

Before this year’s national celebration of Thanksgiving, the town of Plymouth, Massachusetts, just 43 miles southwest from Cambridge, where I reside, will celebrate its 400th Thanksgiving anniversary. The nationally televised extravaganza will venerate the arrival of European Pilgrims to America in 1620.

Packaged in the promotion will be the story of these early Pilgrims’ heroic voyage on the Mayflower, and the beginning of American democracy that President John Quincy Adams depicted as “the earliest example of civil government established by the act of the people to be governed.” Also, the one-year celebration after their arrival in 1620 symbolized a Thanksgiving depicting a cooperative and cordial relationship between the Pilgrims and Native Americans.

This Thanksgiving’s 400th anniversary arrives amid a continued COVID pandemic that has ravaged marginalized communities of color, as a county reckons with its past by re-examining its roots of persistent inequities. For example, this year, Massachusetts celebrated Indigenous Peoples Day in lieu of Columbus Day.

In 2020, the NFL team formerly called the “Washington Redskins” is now the Washington Football Team. And in this supposedly more “woke” moment, television images of whites doing “war whoops” and “tomahawk chops” coming across our screens are now frowned upon.

Historically, for Native Americans, Thanksgiving is not a cause of celebration but rather a National Day of Mourning. Why would Native Americans celebrate the people who tried to destroy us?

Since 1970, Native Americans have gathered at noon on Coles Hill in Plymouth to commemorate a National Day of Mourning on this U.S. holiday.

For the Wampanoag Nation of New England, whose name means “people of the dawn,” this national holiday is a reminder of the real significance of the first Thanksgiving in 1621 as a symbol of persecution of Native Americans and their long history of bloodshed with European settlers.

Oddly, the first group of settlers was refugees, to whom America now closes her doors. The Pilgrims were seeking a better life.

The Pilgrims, who sought refuge here in America from religious persecution in their homeland, were correct in their dogged pursuit of religious liberty. Regrettably, the Pilgrims’ fervor for religious liberty was devoid of an ethic of accountability. Their actions did not set up the conditions requisite for moral liability and legal justice. Instead, the actions of the Pilgrims brought about the genocide of a people, a historical amnesia of the event, and an annual national celebration of Thanksgiving for their arrival.

In other words, their actual practice of religious liberty came at the expense of the humanity and the civil rights of Native Americans.

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In 1990, President George H.W. Bush designated November as “National American Indian Heritage Month” to celebrate the history, art, and traditions of Native American people. And in this nation’s reckoning moment, celebrating the arrival of Pilgrims hints to its continued revisionist history. This must cease!

As we get into the holiday spirit, let us remember the whole story of the arrival of the Pilgrims.

“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,” reads the text of the plaque on Coles Hill that overlooks Plymouth Rock, the mythic symbol of where the Pilgrims first landed.

The United American Indians of New England (UAINE), a Native-led organization of Native people, supports Indigenous struggles in New England and throughout the Americas. Also, UAINE supports the struggles of communities of color, LGBTQ communities, and, yes, all refugees, because it understands the interconnections of struggles.

“Most pilgrims would have died during the harsh winter had it not been for the open arms of the Native Americans,” Taylor Bell wrote in “The Hypocrisy Of Refusing Refugees at Thanksgiving.”

And for the record, the misrepresentations about what was served at the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth in 1621 needs to be corrected, too. For example, there is no evidence that turkey was offered, and pie could not have been, because there was no flour or butter available for the crust in those days. Also, The Mayflower arrived in Plymouth Harbor in 1620, after first stopping near today’s Provincetown, now known as an LGBTQ vacation spot.

In the spirit of our connected struggles for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, this Thanksgiving, we should not solely focus on the story of Plymouth Rock. Instead, as Americans, we should focus on creating this nation as a solid rock that rests on a multicultural and democratic foundation.

irene monroe

And in so doing, it helps us remember and respect the struggles that not only this nation’s Pilgrim foremothers and forefathers endured.

This also enables us to recognize and respect the present-day struggle refugees and other marginalized groups face, especially the ongoing struggle our Native American brothers and sisters face every day, particularly on Thanksgiving Day.

Rev. Irene Monroe

Black Commentator