With its historic landmarks and small town charm, Plymouth, Massachusetts, forms the perfect backdrop to the celebrated tradition of the Pilgrims, including an annual reenactment of the first Thanksgiving. The event draws tourists from far and wide, but pays little to no attention to the ravaging effects of European colonization on the Native American population – nor, specifically, to the earlier Pilgrims who settled Jamestown with the assistance of the local Wampanoag people.
These omissions of fact, in the face of conclusive record-keeping, make Thanksgiving in Plymouth an opportunity for Native Americans to protest historical inaccuracy. To local Native Americans, the fourth Thursday of November is not known as Thanksgiving.
It is the National Day of Mourning.
The date was set in motion in 1970 when Wampanoag leader Frank James, a.k.a. Wamsutta, was asked to speak at the Plymouth Thanksgiving celebration. Rather than repeat the pretense of friendly relations held between Pilgrims and the Wampanoag, Wamsutta chose to speak about one Pilgrim’s account of the group's first year on Native American land. With its less than pleasant language revealing Pilgrims' exploitation and abuse of the indigenous people, the speech was deemed by organizers to be too inflammatory. A new speech was prepared for Wamsutta to read.
The result: he chose not to attend the celebration and instead, in protest, organized an opposition that became the National Day of Mourning, or NDOM.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts still hasn't been able to silence Wamsutta. The original speech, which Wamsutta gave at Cole’s Hill Cemetery, became the catalyst for a protest that has taken place in Plymouth every Thanksgiving since then. Now organized by the United American Indians of New England (UAINE), the National Day of Mourning serves as a reminder of the “democide and continued suffering of the Native American peoples.”
What started as a form of dissent against New England's unrealistic portrayal of history, NDOM has now become a platform for many social concerns shared by Native Americans, and continues to grow in attendance.
“Many people who attend National Day of Mourning have experienced the amazing unity of purpose and action that we achieve,” UAINE's co-leader Moonanum James told Occupy.com. “At its best, NDOM is a preview of the possibilities that can exist in a better world where we have united through struggle.”
UAINE is hardly alone in its demonstration against injustice past and present. The Unist’ot’en tribe has occupied land in British Columbia against the proposed Pacific Trails Pipeline, disputing the Canadian government's ownership of the land. And the Idle No More indigenous protest movement in Canada has grown to inspire solidarity movements across the U.S. and Europe.
But National Day of Mourning may be the event that most concentrates on setting the historical record straight, as it takes place in the exact location where indigenous history was first buried in favor of a more agreeable tradition.
“One thing we see very strongly right now is that the Pilgrims and other European invaders brought with them a damaging and foreign view of the land,” said Moonanum. “They had this biblical view of imposing human will on hostile nature."
"Those attitudes continue to be manifested in the most horrific ways, with fracking, pipelines and nuclear power – with no thought given to the violence of these assaults on the earth, nor the long-term consequences.”
Americans celebrating Thanksgiving this Thursday aren't likely to see coverage of NDOM on the national news. More probable would be a story about the taxation of casinos on Reservation lands. In the view of those protesting, and increasing numbers of others who share their views, Thanksgiving was created to present an image of Native Americans that is placating. By remaining righteously indignant to the holiday, the Wampanoag are rejecting that marginalized, inaccurate view of their history.
“We strive to educate people about the past and about current conditions for Indigenous people,” another UAINE co-leader, Mahtowin, told Occupy.com. “We would like to see the truth about U.S. history taught to all youth.”
If UAINE can reach that goal, Thanksgiving may become about much more than just a turkey dinner. The Pilgrim diary from Jamestown that Wamsutta originally drew from included instances of settler cannibalism, grave robbing and the selling the Wampanoag into slavery.
“Due to racism, millions of Indigenous people experience economic violence on a daily basis,” said Mahtowin. “The federal sequestration and budget cuts have had an immense impact on Native people in the U.S., since the cuts have hurt desperately needed programs ranging from food stamps (SNAP) to Head Start.”
UAINE has faced resistance to its activities, especially the vocal NDOM action. In 1997, the group clashed with state troopers, which resulted in several arrests on charges of assembling without a permit. The following year, the state of Massachusetts reached an agreement with UAINE that allowed them to protest without a permit as long as they gave advance notice.
“I certainly understand that Thanksgiving is not celebrated by everyone, and some people feel that it is a day of mourning. I can certainly appreciate that point of view,” said the executive director of the Plymouth Pilgrim Hall museum, Patrick Browne. Asked about the Pilgrim's account that Wamsutta used in his speech which sparked the NDOM movement 43 years ago, Brown replied he was "not familiar with that account."
Which is precisely why UAINE remains steadfast in its efforts to educate the American public, by providing a more truthful and accurate version of events from four centuries before. On Thursday, as most Americans settle into their Thanksgiving holiday, UAINE and supporters will march proudly through the historic district of Plymouth. Their duty, they say, is to their ancestors, and to the legacy their people carry today.