The Truth About Thanksgiving – National Day of Mourning

Speech by Moonanum James, co-chair of United American Indians of New England, on Nov. 27, 2013 at the Day of Mourning in Plymouth, Mass.

“Once again on the fourth Thursday in November, United American Indians of New England have gathered on this hill to observe a National Day of Mourning. Today, we mark the 45th time we have come here, in all kinds of weather, to mourn our ancestors and speak the truth about our history. Those who started National Day of Mourning could not have envisioned that their descendants and the descendants of their supporters would still be here, year after year, carrying on this tradition.  Many of the elders who stood on this hill and organized that first day of mourning are no longer with us, but we feel their spirits guiding us today.

National Day of Mourning should always be part of the history of this country.  Nearly 45 years ago, my father, an Aquinnah Wampanoag man named Wamsutta Frank James, was invited to address a gathering of so-called dignitaries celebrating the 350th anniversary of the stumbling ashore of the Pilgrims. When asked by the organizers of the dinner to provide an advance copy of the speech he planned to deliver, Wamsutta agreed. Within days he was told his words were not acceptable.  The planners of the gathering, fearing the truth, told him he could speak only if he were willing to speak false words in praise of the white man.

The organizers were even willing to write a speech for him.  After all, they said, “The theme of the celebration is brotherhood and anything inflammatory would be out of place.” He refused to have words put into his mouth.  National Day of Mourning came into being as a result of his refusal to speak untrue words.  Instead of speaking at the banquet, he and many hundreds of Native people from throughout the Americas gathered in Plymouth, on this hill, and observed the first National Day of Mourning.

What was it that got those state officials so upset? Wamsutta used as a basis for his remarks one of their own history books, “Mourt’s Relation,” a Pilgrim account of their first year on Indian land.

What really happened at the first “Thanksgiving” — or what some of us call the first “Thanks Taking?”  According to popular myth, the Indians (us) and the Pilgrims (them) sat down and had a wonderful dinner.  Everyone lived happily ever after.  The end.

True history of ‘thanksgiving’

Many times we have been asked what is the true history of “Thanksgiving.”  This comes as no surprise.  The truth has been buried for 395 years.  In 2020, Plymouth is planning to celebrate 400 years of the same myth.  I don’t think that anyone from UAINE is going to be invited to address that banquet!  If we are, rest assured that no advance copy of our remarks will be sent.

Here is the truth.  The first Thanksgiving did not take place in 1621, when the Pilgrim survivors of the first winter sat down to dinner with their Indian friends.  The first official day of thanksgiving feasting in Massachusetts was proclaimed by Gov. Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637.  He did this to give thanks for the safe return of men from the colony who had gone to what is now Mystic, Connecticut, to participate in the massacre of over 700 men, women and children of the Pequot Nation.

About the only true thing is that these pitiful European strangers would not have survived their first several years in “New England” were it not for the aid of the Wampanoag people.  What Native people got in return for this help was genocide, the theft of our lands and never ending repression.

Another truth: The reason that the mythmakers prefer to talk about the Pilgrims and not the earlier English-speaking colony, Jamestown, is that in Jamestown the circumstances were way too ugly to hold up as an effective national myth.  For example, the white settlers in Jamestown turned to cannibalism to survive.  Not a very nice story to tell the kids in school.  The Pilgrims did not find an empty land any more than Columbus “discovered” anything.  Every inch of this land is Indian land.

The Pilgrims (who did not even call themselves “Pilgrims”) did not come here seeking religious freedom; they already had that in Holland.  They came here as a part of a commercial venture.  The Mayflower Compact was nothing more than a bunch of white men — women were pretty much excluded by them — sticking together to ensure that they would get a return on their investment.  They introduced sexism, racism and a class system to these shores.  And guess what?  They did not even land at the sacred shrine down the hill called Plymouth Rock, a monument to racism and oppression which we are proud to say we buried, not once but twice — in 1970 and again in 1995.

Upon arriving, the Pilgrims opened my ancestors’ graves and took as much as they could carry of our corn and bean supplies.  Massasoit, the great sachem of the Wampanoag, knew of this, yet he and his people welcomed and befriended the settlers, saving them from extinction, little knowing how many Wampanoag and other Indians would be killed by their guns or dead from their diseases.  Later, from the very harbor we can see from here, the pious Pilgrims sold my ancestors as slaves for 220 shillings each.

Two true plaques in Plymouth

Some would ask what we have gained by observing National Day of Mourning since 1970.  The very fact that you are here is perhaps our greatest gain.  People from the Four Directions, having seen through the Pilgrim myth, join us every year in the struggle to destroy that mythology.

There are also two plaques, erected by Plymouth, one on Cole’s Hill to honor Day of Mourning and another in Post Office Square to Metacom or King Philip.  This was part of an agreement we signed with Plymouth in 1998.  Those of us who were here in 1997 will never forget what happened to our peaceful march that year, when 25 of us were arrested.  After a powerful show of unity demanding all charges be dropped, Plymouth was forced to drop the charges and erect the plaques.  Now at least, there are two rocks in Plymouth that speak the truth.

The placement of these plaques does not end the need for us to continue to come to Plymouth and speak the truth.  We will do so as long as sports teams and schools continue to use racist team names and mascots.  We will continue to gather on this hill until the U.S. military and corporations stop polluting our mother, the Earth.  We will continue to stand here and protest until racism is made illegal.  We will not stop until the oppression of our Two-Spirited sisters and brothers is a thing of the past.  When the homeless have homes.  When immigrants from Mexico, Central and South America are no longer targeted.  When no person goes hungry or is left to die because they have little or no access to quality health care.  When union busting is a thing of the past.    Until then, the struggle will continue.

That first Day of Mourning in 1970 was a powerful demonstration of Native unity.  Today is a powerful demonstration of not only Native unity, but the unity of all people who want the truth to be told and want to see an end to the oppressive system brought to these shores by the Pilgrim invaders.

Sadly, the conditions which prevailed in Indian Country in 1970 still prevail today.  In 1970 we demanded an end to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  It is still a demand today.  Native nations do not need federal oversight to govern ourselves.

Those who started Day of Mourning spoke of terrible racism and poverty.  We all know that racism is alive and well.  Not only Native people but many people from the Four Directions are mired in the deepest poverty while the 1% reap huge profits.  Every winter, millions of people have to make a bitter choice between heating and eating.  Native youth suicide and school dropout rates, our rates of alcoholism, continue to be the highest in the nation.

As we did in 1970, we mourn the loss of millions of our ancestors and the devastation of our beautiful land and water and air.  We pray for our people who have died during this past year, and during the past 522 years since Columbus showed up.

For all who are ‘collateral damage’

I hope that you will join me in grieving, too, for our sisters and brothers in all countries, human beings, who are referred to by this government as “collateral damage.”  Keep in mind that for centuries people throughout the Americas have been the “collateral damage” of the European invasion.  I also hope you will join me in grieving, too, for the immense suffering of our sisters and brothers in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Palestine, in Iraq, all human beings who suffer and face acts of terror on a daily basis.  Remember too, the hundreds of millions of people who are hungry today no matter where they live.

We condemn all acts of violence and terrorism perpetrated by all governments and organizations against innocent civilians worldwide. Since the invasion of Columbus and the rest of the Europeans, Native people have been virtually nonstop victims of terrorism.  The slaughter of the Pequots at Mystic, Connecticut, in 1637.  The U.S. military massacres of peaceful Native people at Wounded Knee and Sand Creek and so many, many other places.  The very foundations of this powerful and wealthy country are the theft of our lands and the slaughter of Native peoples, and the kidnapping and enslavement of our African sisters and brothers.

Today, on liberated territory, we will correct some history and do so in a country that continues to glorify butchers such as Christopher Columbus, in a country that glorifies slave-owning presidents such as Washington and Jefferson and even carves their faces into the sacred Black Hills of the Lakota.

On our program will be only Native speakers.  This is one day when we speak for ourselves, without non-Native people, so-called “experts,” intervening to interpret and speak for us.  We ask that our non-Native allies respect Native leadership today.

Our very presence frees this land from the lies of the history books, the profiteers and the mythmakers.  We will remember and honor all of our ancestors in struggle who went before us.  We will speak truth to power.  We will remember in particular all of our sisters and brothers, including Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu Jamal and Oscar López Rivera, who are caged in the iron houses.

In 1970, very few people would have given any thought to the fact that the Indigenous people of this hemisphere do not look upon the arrival of the European invaders as a reason to give thanks.  Today, many thousands stand with us in spirit as we commemorate our 45th National Day of Mourning.

To our beautiful Native youth, I say: Learn about and remember what your ancestors went through to bring you here.  We are like the dirt, like the sand, like the tides.  We shall endure.

In the spirit of Crazy Horse, in the spirit of Metacom, in the spirit of Geronimo. We are not vanishing.  We are not conquered.  We are as strong as ever.”



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