This year marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of pilgrims in what is now Pachmouth, Massachusetts.
The so-called First Thanksgiving was celebrated and taught to schoolchildren as a history of later U.S. origin. But many Native Americans say Thanksgiving is a reminder that millions of Indigenous people have been massacred and their lands stolen by outsiders.
The Indians of New England in the United States declared Thanksgiving a national day of mourning 50 years ago. In 1970, the descendants of the pilgrims wanted to have a banquet to celebrate the anniversary of Mayflower’s landing in Plymouth and asked for a call from a Wampanoag man named Frank James of Wamsutta, says his grandson, Kisha James.
Banquet organizers invited James James Wamsutta to speak on a strict condition: he had to provide a copy of the speech in advance. Under the guise of spelling and grammar editing, their real motivation was to check the content, says Kisha James.
His grandfather’s speech did not praise the pilgrims as their descendants would have liked.
“He was told he could not give the speech he was going to give under any circumstances and was offered to write another speech to him,” he says. “They were very angry at the speech he wrote because he told the truth about Thanksgiving.”
Wamsutta Frank James refused to give the edited speech, says his grandson. Instead, he and a group of fans met on November 27, 1970, at the top of Coles Hill in Plüsmouth, to commemorate the first day of national mourning.
While millions of Americans carve turkeys to celebrate Thanksgiving, 21-year-old Kisha James attends National Day of Mourning every year.
Many natives are fasting from sunset to sunset the night before to remember the hardships and genocide of their ancestors, he says. The National Day of Mourning also brings about the unity of the natives, with people from all over the world coming to the event.
Thanks to the COVID-19 epidemic, this day of mourning will look different. Kisha James and a few others are still gathering at Coles Hill at noon on Thanksgiving Day to give speeches that will be broadcast live.
Much of this year’s program is pre-recorded and involves Indigenous people from South America, Canada and other countries. The speakers will highlight the various struggles of indigenous peoples around the world, such as the mi’kmaq tribal debates over lobster traps in Canada.
A member of the Navajo nation – which was hit hardest by COVID-19 among the tribal nations – will also speak, he says. The pandemic is probably mentioned in all the speeches because it has disproportionately affected the indigenous communities of the United States, he says.
This Thanksgiving, Kisha James asks non-natives to educate themselves and their families about the true history of the holiday. Take the time to learn the tribe on whose land you are, then examine the tribe’s struggles and donate for help, he says.
“Try to part with the feasts of Thanksgiving from the mythology of Thanksgiving,” he says. “So there are no more pilgrims and Native Americans, and let’s not teach your children at the first Thanksgiving because we’ll learn it in the public school where it was a friendly meal.”
And don’t just think about the natives at Thanksgiving, he says.
As many Americans begin to awaken to the reality of Thanksgiving history, some are receptive to learning the truth about the holiday and accept that what they learned in school is a lie, he says. But a significant proportion of people accuse the natives of trying to “spoil” the holiday and disrupt family holidays, he says.
Kisha James claims he is not opposed to families gathering to eat together, but to the false mythology around the sun.
“We’re essentially shaking hands with these people and saying the truth is here.” If you want to learn the truth and accept the truth, come with us, ”he says. “And unfortunately, some people don’t want to hold our hands because they’re committed to dying on the wrong side of history.”
Five decades later, reviewing his grandfather’s rejected speech, Kisha James is reminded that Indigenous Americans are fighting the same battles today.
“Part of it gives me hope because it’s a visionary speech. You envision a better America, a better world for Native Americans, ”he says. “However, my grandfather’s idea 50 years after the speech still hasn’t come true. So it just reminds us that we have a lot of work to do and we still have a long way to go before Indigenous Americans regain our place in this country.
Excerpt from Frank James’ speech at Wamsutta
“Today, we must strive for a more humane America, an Indian America, where people and nature are important again, where Indian values of honor, truth and brotherhood prevail. You white man are celebrating an anniversary. We at Wampanoags will help you celebrate the concept of a new beginning. It was the beginning of a new life for the pilgrims. Now, 350 years later, the new American, the American Indian’s new determination begins. There are some factors about wampanoags and other Indians in this vast nation. We now have three hundred and fifty years of experience among the white man. We can now speak his language. Now we can think the way the white man thinks, now we can compete with him for the highest jobs. They’re listening to us. They’re listening to us now. The important aspect is that in addition to these needs of everyday life, the spirit remains in us, the unique culture remains. I still have the will. And most importantly, the determination to stay Indians. We have a determined intention, and our presence tonight testifies that this is just the beginning of the American Indian, especially the Wampanoag, to regain their position in this country, which is rightfully ours.
Cristina Kim created and edited this interview to broadcast with Jill Ryan. Adapted by Allison Hagan for the Internet.