Why these Native Americans are spending Thanksgiving marching and mourning, not celebrating


Cole’s Hill is a quiet park in Massachusetts which sits across the street from Plymouth Rock, the historic symbol of the Pilgrims and their founding of New England.

But today, it will be filled with hundreds of Native Americans—and rather than celebrate Thanksgiving, with its supposed backdrop of unity between white and Native people, they will gather there for a Day of Mourning.

The first Day of Mourning was organized by the United American Indians of New England. It was held on Thanksgiving Day in 1970, after Wamsutta Frank James, a Wampanoag leader, was asked to give a speech at a dinner commemorating the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing. After the organizers of the dinner read his draft–which painted a less rosy picture of the pilgrims–they cancelled his appearance, Boston.com reports.

So he started the Day of Mourning. This year’s will be the 47th.

According to the United American Indians of New England, the Day of Mourning is “a solemn, spiritual and highly political day.” In past observations, participants placed KKK sheets on a statue of William Bradford, boarded the Mayflower. In 1970 and 1995, they “buried” Plymouth Rock, which UAINE members have called a monument to racism and oppression. In 1997, 25 people were arrested during the peaceful march.

17-year-old Kisha James has been attending the Day of Mourning every year since she was born. In a reflection published by Refinery29, James said she used to feel ashamed that she didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving like other people she knew.

“When people asked me, I would lie and say that I was doing something else, like going to see my family,” James said. “Because explaining it was so much harder than just going along with what everyone else was doing.”

James is one of hundreds of Native Americans and allies who will congregate at Cole’s Hill. They’ll reunite with people they haven’t seen since last year’s event, pray, and listen to speeches by prominent community members. Afterwards, they will walk around town and down to Plymouth Rock. Usually, James said, they run into tourists commemorating Thanksgiving, a day that James said brings the Native American community pain.

“Thanksgiving day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people, the theft of Native lands, and the relentless assault on Native culture,” the organizers of this year’s event wrote in a statement. “Participants in National Day of Mourning honor Native ancestors and the struggles of Native peoples to survive today.”

This year’s event is dedicated to the people trying to protect Standing Rock from the Dakota Access Pipeline. The group will also call for nationwide recognition of Indigenous People’s Day and for President Obama to free imprisoned Native American activist Leonard Peltier.

“Stand with us in our struggle to create a true awareness of Native peoples and demonstrate the unity of Indigenous peoples internationally,” the organizers wrote on the event’s flyer. “Help shatter the untrue glass image of the Pilgrims and the unjust system based on racism, sexism, homophobia and war.”

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