Thanksgiving: Native American National Day of Mourning

By Darrel Richey, MDUUC Ministerial Intern

November 26, 2003

Many Native Americans, following the call from Wamsutta Frank James, celebrate November 27th as a National Day of Mourning with prayers and fasting. In 1970 Wamsutta was asked to speak at the Massachusetts state commonwealth dinner celebrating the 350th anniversary of the pilgrim landing at Plymouth Rock. When Wamsutta arrived for the dinner, he was asked for a copy of his speech.(1)

The stories of the pilgrims and the Indians happily sitting around a table in 1621 did not happen. Oh there was a dinner all right. And it was in celebration for having made it through the first year and in honor of the first harvest. The pilgrims only survived on the abandoned fields left by Native American tribes of the Plymouth area. In 1614 a British expedition landed at Plymouth, took 24 Indian slaves, raped many of the women,pillaged several villages and left smallpox, syphilis and gonorrhea behind.(2)

The plague that followed all but wiped out the indigenous peoples in that area. It was their fields, now gone wild, and the help of one survivor fromthe earlier scourge, a Puwtuxet named Squanto that aided the survival of the pilgrim group. Squanto facilitated a treaty between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe. The Wampanoag tribe helped the Pilgrims learn how to plant and farm in the New Land.

In honor of the harvest, a three dayfeast was called. The Pilgrims invited One Native American to the feast, Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag tribe. Squanto was not even invited. Chief Massasoit decided to invite some 90 members of his tribe, and most accounts relate that they were cooly welcomed. The chief was expected to come alone.

The term Thanks-giving Day was not used at that time. The first time the term Thanksgiving Day appears is in 1637 after the massacre of some 700 Pequot Indians--men, women, and children, near the mouth of the Mystic River.

English Captain John Mason, swept upon the group burning many alive, shooting bludgeoning and cutting others. The governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony issued an order declaring a Thanksgiving Day to celebrate victory over the Heathens and the safe return of the men fromthe Massachusetts Bay Colony. Thanksgiving Day was celebrated in that vein for the next 100 years; often celebrating successive massacres.

This is but one example of the brutality perpetrated on the Native Americans by the Colonists and New Landers.

It continues today. It was only about thirty years ago that the Native Americans occupied Alcatraz from1969-1971. Alcatraz has its own stories of abuses on Native American peoples which make it a focal point for Native American protest.(4) This very night, after two days of fasting and prayers Native Americans will again occupy Alcatraz in a candle light vigil, or maybe not. Their voices may be silenced by the patriot act as subversive terrorists. The pain and abuse continues.

This is Thanksgiving Day-AND it is a National Day of Mourning. Growing up.

Thanksgiving for me was a time for family, and friends--a time of love. I am thankful to be a part of a religious community that honors the tension of life and seeks the truth, even at the cost of giving up a beloved myth. Thanksgiving can survive. I hope it will survive as a symbol of kindredship, a celebration for families of all types, and an occasion to share one’s love for fellow humans---and maybe it will----- when everyone’s story is welcomed at the table.