In 1970, Massachusetts put on a celebration commemorating the sesquarcentennial anniversary of the Mayflower’s landing at Plymouth Rock and honoring the friendship between the colonists and the Wampanoag. Wamsutta James was invited to give a speech at the celebration. The speech he outlined called attention to the myth-making around Thanksgiving and cited a Pilgrim’s account of their first year colonizing Wampanoag land that detailed enslaving and selling Wampanoag people, disturbing burial sites, and taking vital supplies. The anniversary planners decided that James’ speech did not align in tone with the celebration and offered James a revised version. Wamsutta James refused to attend the anniversary celebration and, instead, went to Cole’s Hill—near the statue of Massasoit, the Wampanoag leader at the time of the Pilgrim’s arrival, and overlooking the Mayflower replica—where he gave his speech to his supporters. This marked the first observance of the National Day of Mourning.
Photo Credit: Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe
Photo Credit: Melissa Doroquez
It is likely that each of us who grew up in the United States encountered the story of the “first Thanksgiving” in elementary school. Alongside the drawings of turkeys based on an outline of our tiny hands and class discussions of what we were thankful for, we were usually dressed in historically inaccurate and/or culturally appropriative/redface paper costumes and told the story of the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock in search of religious freedom and how the “Indians”—I don’t ever remember the tribe’s name even being mentioned in passing—helped the new settlers and, at the end of a bountiful harvest, they all came together for a great feast. We also heard a lot about corn. Seriously. So much about corn. There is virtually nothing about this narrative that is based in truth—really, I think the importance of corn is the truest bit of this myth. Even the story about Plymouth Rock itself—which is legit just a very large rock on the shore that has been broken through multiple times and chipped away at for little souvenirs—is of questionable provenance having never been recorded by any of the Pilgrims. It was only declared, one hundred and twenty-one years later, to be the first place the Pilgrims set foot by an elderly man just before construction began on a wharf that would have covered the rock.
The First Thanksgiving, Jean Leon Gerome Ferris
Take the painting above, for instance: I cannot count the number of times I’ve seen this image in text books. And it is wrong. I mean, there are the inaccuracies that seem pedantic to most people: the clothing of the pilgrims and whether or not they would have been seated at a table. But there are glaring problems with this image, including the depicted Wampanoag wearing the dress of Plains Indians; the Wampanoag being the minority; and the fact that they are seated on the ground, insinuating their not being “properly civilized” and their being inferior—they are relegated to, in the modern parlance of large families at holiday gatherings, the kids’ table. This painting as Carrie Tirado Bramen puts it, “The painting illustrates Stephen Turner’s concept of ‘settlement as forgetting’ in that Ferris’s historical depiction of the first Thanksgiving of 1621 is paradoxically a disavowal of history.” The largely agreed upon narrative of the “first Thanksgiving” is an illustration of “settlement as forgetting” and that forgetting has led to the continued suffering of indigenous Americans at the hands of the United States’ brand of settler colonialism.
Photo – “John Wesley preaches to native American Indians,” Wellcome Library
The myth building around Thanksgiving, whether intentional or not, effectively served three purposes: it aided in the project of “settlement as forgetting,” it helped to create a cohesive narrative of the nation’s infancy in the face of large waves of immigration, and it created an annual observance that could be shoehorned into a wide variety of political agendas. While the latter is important, it is the former that has done so much of the damage that Wamsutta James addressed in 1970. The project of forgetting forged a path toward an implicit national policy of democide—if American Indians are framed as “savage” it makes it easier to justify their outright murder, first, by settlers and, then, US soldiers and, now, police forces; and if American Indians are thought of as “uncivilized,” “inferior,” or “childlike” it justifies the separation of families and putting Native children in Indian Residential Schools. The national forgetting opened space for the idea of the “vanishing” American Indians and the “noble” Native which are used to justify turning real people into mascots and for corporations to lecture us about littering the very same year as the first National Day of Mourning—hell, it allowed the son of Sicilian and Italian immigrants to impersonate an indigenous American so famously that he went to the White House and presented President Carter with a headdress. It allows people to look away from the creation and horrible conditions of reservations, from broken treaty after broken treaty, from murder by neglect. The conditions in which American Indians who reside on reservations live was one of the many things that the occupiers of Alcatraz expressed in their 1969 proclamation:
We feel that this so-called Alcatraz Island is more than suitable as an Indian Reservation, as determined by the white man’s own standards. By this we mean that this place resembles most Indian reservations, in that:
- It is isolated from modern facilities, and without adequate means of transportation.
- It has no fresh running water.
- The sanitation facilities are inadequate.
- There are no oil or mineral rights.
- There is no industry and so unemployment is very great.
- There are no health care facilities.
- The soil is rocky and non-productive and the land does not support game.
- There are no educational facilities.
- The population has always been held as prisoners and kept dependent upon others.
Photo Credit: Ilka Hartmann
Since 1975, Unthanksgiving Day has been held on Alcatraz Island to commemorate the protest and it coincides with the National Day of Mourning. It has gotten more media attention recently because of Colin Kaepernick’s having attended the sunrise gathering in 2017.
Bringing us back to today, the observance 51st National Day of Mourning at Cole’s Hill will be different from years previous. Historically, the observance begins the night before with many of the participants beginning a fast at sundown that will last until the afternoon on the Day of Mourning. In addition to a march—which, in 1997, was met with police violence—there are usually other acts of protest which have included burying Plymouth Rock under sand, putting “ku klux klan sheets on the statue of William Bradford,” and boarding the replica of the Mayflower. The observance also includes addresses from Indigenous speakers who address the struggles of Indigenous folks in the United States and throughout the Americas. That afternoon there is usually a potluck social, giving those who were fasting to break their fast and allowing participants to commune with one another over dinner. This year, though—because of the pandemic—there will be no potluck and the day’s scheduled events, beginning at noon, will be livestreamed (you can check out the event page on Facebook for updates and the link to the livestream). The “Unthanksgiving,” or Indigenous People’s Sunrise Gathering, will also be livestreamed this year.
Photo Credit: United American Indians of New England
Even if you can’t join the livestreams or (very, very carefully) travel to Cole’s Hill, there are other way you can participate in decolonizing by remembering. You can use the day as a day of learning and reflection: read accounts of American Indians through history, spend some time with Indigenous poetry or short stories (I revisited this episode of LeVar Burton Reads while scouring for images for this piece). Use the day as a time to disrupt the Thanksgiving myth taught to the kids in your life at school. If you can financially afford to do so, American Indians have been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and could use donations to help with acquiring PPE, treatment, food, clean water, and just surviving under the increased economic strain caused by the pandemic: First Nations Development Institute’s COVID Emergency Response Fund, Official Navajo Nation COVID-19 Relief Fund, and Protect Native Elders COVID response fund among many other worthy organizations deserve your consideration. And I always recommend visiting the Native Land Map, discovering who the land you live on originally belonged to, and researching those tribes.
Photograph by Ayşe Gürsöz; We the Resilient poster art by Ernesto Yerena Montejano
I don’t want to take away the joy that many of you will be experiencing this Thanksgiving in the company of your immediate all-living-or-quarantine-pod-ing-together family, at a CDC-recommended small gathering (after negative COVID tests and voluntary quarantine), or on a video call with loved ones. I am trying to do my part to decolonize the narratives I’ve internalized about our nation and our society and I am inviting you to join me in doing so: it costs nothing for us non-indigenous Americans to acknowledge that there are people mourning and for profound reasons. In the words of Dr. Dan Brook, “[w]e do not have to feel guilty, but we do need to feel something. At the very least, we need to reflect on how and what we feel.”
Stay safe. Stay warm. Wash your hands! Wear a mask! And let’s keep learning and growing together.
Lead photo credit: Mahtowin Munro, found at UAINE.org