Thanksgiving – A National Day of Mourning

When I was a child in school, each November was spent learning about “the first Thanksgiving.” The  Pilgrims” (Puritans) were glorified as the first settlers of a wild land, as godly people who treated the native population fairly and only fought back when first attacked. The “Indians” were portrayed as “noble savages” who were helpful but uncivilized, and who needed the moral guidance and social refinement of white men to become better individuals.

Of course, the Puritans were far from the first settlers: the indigenous population had been dwelling and prospering in the Americas for many centuries. Even other Europeans had been coming to the New World for a few hundred years. And while the Puritans certainly believed in God and tried to live as they believed He wanted them to, their actions in stealing food and land from the native peoples, and murdering them when they objected, is not a moral ideal.

Less than 5% of the U.S. population has native blood, so perhaps it’s not surprising that the national narrative tends to ignore the perspective of Native Americans; but since the very survival of the European settlers was made possible by them, we owe it to Native Americans to consider their side of history’s story.

In 1970, one of the few remaining members of the Wampanoag, Wamsutta Frank James, was invited to participate at an official Massachusetts state dinner celebrating the 350th anniversary of the Mayflower landing. He accepted, and prepared a speech. When officials previewed the speech, they felt it was not appropriate, saying, “…the theme of the anniversary celebration is brotherhood and anything inflammatory would have been out of place.” Instead, they gave him some prepared remarks to make. He declined, and made his original version public. It read in part:

It is with mixed emotion that I stand here to share my thoughts. This is a time of celebration for you – celebrating an anniversary of a beginning for the white man in America. A time of looking back, of reflection. It is with a heavy heart that I look back upon what happened to my People. Even before the Pilgrims landed it was common practice for explorers to capture Indians, take them to Europe and sell them as slaves for 220 shillings apiece. The Pilgrims had hardly explored the shores of Cape Cod for four days before they had robbed the graves of my ancestors and stolen their corn and beans. Mourt’s Relation describes a searching party of sixteen men. Mourt goes on to say that this party took as much of the Indians’ winter provisions as they were able to carry. Massasoit, the great Sachem of the Wampanoag, knew these facts, yet he and his People welcomed and befriended the settlers of the Plymouth Plantation. Perhaps he did this because his Tribe had been depleted by an 23epidemic. Or his knowledge of the harsh oncoming winter was the reason for his peaceful acceptance of these acts. This action by Massasoit was perhaps our biggest mistake. We, the Wampanoag, welcomed you, the white man, with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end; that before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoag would no longer be a free people.

The tentative peace and cooperation of the 1621 harvest celebration can be appreciated by everyone; what is often forgotten is that it was followed by centuries of war, land theft, slavery, and genocide—almost always initiated by the white settlers. This cannot be a cause for celebration among those whose peoples were the victims of these atrocities, nor should it be for anyone. In view of the tragic outcome for their people, some Native Americans have declared the fourth Thursday of November to be a National Day of Mourning, a day to stand up and ask to be heard as they speak of the atrocities done to their people, and how it has repercussions to this day in the discrimination Native Americans still face.

Yet, even among native peoples, there are differing viewpoints. The anti-holiday sentiment expressed above is one of these. Another is that although the traditional view of Thanksgiving does ignore and misrepresent some important history, it also shows that it is possible for different cultures to come together in goodwill. Some feel a sense of pride for the generosity of spirit exhibited by their ancestors, and wish to focus on the example set at the “First Thanksgiving” of the cooperation between the two parties.

My family recognizes the dilemma, and we try to use it as a teaching opportunity. We have much to be thankful for, and denying that doesn’t help anyone. Celebrating the harmony and generosity of the First Thanksgiving does not mean we must forget the rest of history; extolling our own blessings does not mean we must deny those of others. We can affirm the guilt of the white settlers’ centuries of brutalities toward the Native Americans and work to right them, while also rejoicing in our many blessings. We can learn from the past and be thankful that we are, however slowly, moving toward a future of brotherhood among all peoples.

Thanksgiving is time to celebrate and delight in family and friends, prosperity and gifts. It is a time to remember all we’ve been given, and share it with others. May we all remember both the Thanks and the Giving of the day.


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