Some Native Americans still see Thanksgiving as a day of mourning

Now that you’ve had time to sleep off your turkey coma, I thought I’d call your attention to one bit of Thanksgiving news that slipped under the radar for a lot of folks. There are some members of the Native American community who still protest the tradition of Thanksgiving by recognizing it as a national day of mourning. As Newsweek relates in this story, the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe in the northeast is particularly involved in “anti-Thanksgiving” as it’s come to be known.

The 50th annual National Day of Mourning will take place on Thanksgiving Day. This is a day of protest by Native Americans on the East Coast who visit Cole’s Hill—which overlooks Plymouth Rock in Plymouth, Massachusetts—to remember that famous first Thanksgiving from a different perspective.

The National Day of Mourning was established to remember the Native American suffering that occurred when the Mayflower landed. A plaque at Cole’s Hill explains that view. “Thanksgiving Day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of their people, the theft of their lands, and the relentless assault on their cultures,” it reads in a photo shared by CNN. “Participants in National Day of Mourning honor Native ancestors and the struggles of Native peoples to survive today.”

In the linked article, you can find portions of a speech that Wamsutta Frank James, the leader of the Aquinnah Wampanoag, wanted to give on Thanksgiving in 1970. He was not allowed to speak because it was felt that the speech would be too divisive. Reading portions of it, I can certainly see why, but it’s a tough subject to tackle without upsetting someone.

For a long time now, I’ve had issues with some of these protest movements that seek to do away with Columbus Day or Thanksgiving. But at the same time, it’s impossible to deny the reality of what’s being discussed. When the first wave of arrivals came to North America to settle here, it’s estimated that there were anywhere from seven to eighteen million people already living on this continent. The staggering number of them that died from war, disease and displacement over the coming generations can’t honestly be called anything other than genocide.

Of course, North America was hardly alone in this experience. When technologically advanced human societies have come in contact with less developed groups, the results were rarely good for the indigenous folk. But that doesn’t excuse or erase what happened.

But at the same time, is Thanksgiving really the right target for this protest? After all, the few records we have of the original Thanksgiving dinner (primarily from Edward Winslow) indicate that things went pretty well for all concerned. After that, Thanksgiving wasn’t even celebrated as a holiday until George Washington recognized it in in 1789. It wasn’t regularly recognized until Lincoln declared the current date for it in 1863.

And as far as Columbus goes, he never even set foot in North America. But that’s an argument for another day.

The point is, as much as we may treasure our traditional holidays like Thanksgiving, we also can’t lose sight of the fact that the Native American people have a more than legitimate grievance with how they fared in the years since that first Thanksgiving dinner. Perhaps there’s a better day to recognize that and ensure that just like other human-made disasters, it never happens again.

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