New England Indigenous groups observe Thanksgiving day of mourning in lieu of celebration

Chief Kenny Black Elk joins the Indigenous Peoples' Day march on Oct. 10, 2020. Photo by Caitlin Faulds/BU News Service

By Saumya Rastogi
BU News Service

Thanksgiving, celebrated every year to commemorate the feast between the Wampanoag tribe and English settlers, is called the National Day of Mourning by many native tribes. 

Kisha James, president of Wellesley College’s Native American Student Association and member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe, said while she has no issue with the celebration of Thanksgiving as a concept, a group of friends and family having a nice meal together, she is offended by the myth behind the holiday. 

“The myth is that pilgrims seeking religious freedom come to the new world and are welcomed with open arms by the Wampanoag. They shared a monthly harvest meal,” James said. “The Wampanoag faded into the background, and everything was happy. The end.”

James, a lead youth organizer at United American Indians of New England, said that everything taught about Thanksgiving in schools is a lie. 

“The pilgrims were not called pilgrims. They were called separatists,” James said. “They were not seeking religious freedom. They had that back in Holland.”

Maria John, the director of the Native American and Indigenous Studies program at UMass Boston, said that many Americans grow up being taught in school a feel-good narrative of Thanksgiving. 

“A popular interpretation is that Native Americans were invited for a friendly feast with the settler population,” John said. 

John said that this simple story that valorizes settlers’ role and their foundation of the nation disregards the narrative that the nation is built on indigenous land.

“It is a much more complicated and messy reality than being reflected in this dominant and simplified version of Thanksgiving,” John said.

To complicate things further, John said historians disagree over what transpired in 1621. One version talks about how the Native American people were not invited to the celebration. 

“According to one interpretation, they came to the English village only after gunshots were heard as part of the harvest celebrations,” John said. “They came to investigate the gunshots. It was at this point that they were invited to stay.”

John also said it was not until the middle of the Civil War that President Lincoln issued a proclamation of the National holiday. 

“What this tells us is that the celebration was officiated at a moment when the nation was struggling to unify, so the idealized myth of people coming together was created,” she said. “But this idealized story ignores a long history of violence and dispossession of Indigenous lands.” 

An offering lies in front of the Old State House during the Indigenous Peoples’ Day march on Oct. 10, 2020. Photo by Caitlin Faulds/BU News Service

As a result, many indigenious people do not look at Thanksgiving as a celebration. Every Thanksgiving, the United American Indians of New England organize the National Day of Mourning on Cole’s Hill in Plymouth.

James said there will be a virtual component to the event this year. 

“This time, the event will be live-streamed,” James said. “It is different from your traditional Thanksgiving meal. It is not only your family, and 1000-2000 people share a meal.”

James said that she hopes that people can educate themselves on the history of Thanksgiving and make an extra effort to help indigenous people as Thanksgiving gets closer.

“One way people can help indigenous people during the upcoming week is to call out anybody making anti-indigenous statements, especially on social media,” James said.

James said she has observed a number of dark jokes circulating on social media, which can have an adverse effect on Indigenous people.

 “There is one along the lines that this is going to be the deadliest Thanksgiving since the first Thanksgiving,” James said. “It is a very difficult week for Indigenous people with this kind of rhetoric around us.” 

John said what is needed is systemic and structural changes in the curriculums of schools. 

“Teachers need more training to deal with complex histories and be given more space within their curriculums to do so,” John said.

James mentioned that Thanksgiving’s celebration is directly linked to the mental health issues in Native American children. 

“Public schools have Thanksgiving pageants and songs with the headdresses and costumes of my ancestors,” James said. “But that makes Native American children question their place in American society.”

Correction: an earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed a quote from Kisha James.

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