Native Americans Mark Thanksgiving with ‘National Day of Mourning’ Protests

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Today, in Plymouth, Massachusetts, Native Americans will gather to mark a “National Day of Mourning,” as they have for more than 40 years. The protests began in 1970 by Wamsutta Frank James and are carried on by his son, Moonaum James.

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In an interview with the Boston Globe, James said demonstrators are not against Thanksgiving, but rather want to “correct the history” of the holiday that suggests that the Pilgrims and Native Americans coexisted peacefully. “We’re not there to condemn, and not there to do anything other than point out some truths,” he said.

 

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It’s expected that more than 100 people will gather today at noon and then continue with rallies at Plymouth Rock and at the site of the Metacomet (King Philip) historical marker to remember the Native Americans who died after the Europeans arrived in the 1600s and to highlight the struggles some Native Americans face today.

 

To Everyone Who Isn’t American Indian

With football and the fall season—which is always tough for Native folks because of the U.S.’s insistence on honoring Columbus, the awful Pocahontas Halloween costumes, and the ever-present Thanksgiving mythology of the goodness of the pilgrims and the simple-mindedness of Indigenous people—fast approaching us, I must make a request publicly. I’ve struggled over this decision, knowing many of you might judge me and say “this type of thing just isn’t done” or “that’s not how things are done around here.” I also understand my statement will have both social and political consequences for me.

The request: Think of the worst word any person could call you, whether regarding your racial, ethnic, or national heritage, your gender or sexuality, or your religion, or any other identity that you hold dear. Now, imagine hearing that word used daily all around you. Imagine seeing distorted, ugly images of that word everywhere you go. Imagine that you can’t turn on the TV, go shopping, watch movies, or even read a book without hearing or seeing what this terrible word implies because it’s that pervasive in the public discourse. Now imagine people telling you to “get over it” and that you’re being “too sensitive” when you protest its usage.

Can you empathize?

I’m a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. I don’t say that to produce eye-rolling (just as I wouldn’t roll my eyes at your heritage). I want you to understand this is more than a social justice issue. It’s very, very personal. The 90 to 95% of the population of Indigenous folk who died after the arrival of the Europeans and the mere 1 percent of the current U.S. population that remains (which includes me) deserves better than to have racialized, pejorative terms spoken about or around them/me—even if others believe it’s still socially acceptable.

 

Specifically, I’m referring to these terms: redskins, skins, chief(s), braves, red Indian, injun. More broadly, I’m speaking about terms used in ways that do disservice to different Native Nations: tipi, wigwam, squaw (which means whore or c**t to many tribes), tomahawk, etc. You get the drift. If you research a topic with these words, by all means, use them, but please contextualize the terms.

Many of you may not know how offensive these particular words and others are to Indigenous people. Then again, some just don’t care. Whichever the case, this is an official notice that I consider the term “redskin(s)” a racist term. I’m not calling you a racist just because you use that term. But I am saying if you continue using it after knowing what it means, then you are choosing to consciously participate in the maintenance of white privilege and systemic racism.

I’m not being overly sensitive (which is often the claim of the dominant and those who have internalized the narrative of the dominant), and it doesn’t matter if you know one or more “Native” people who don’t find it to be a bad term (that’s called internalized oppression or racism).

Better yet, join us in our fight against racist mascots, name brands, products, entertainers using sacred headdresses as costumes, and other harmful stereotypical practices. Help us change the public discourse about Native peoples. Support us in our efforts to speak truth to power and bring about social change. We’ll support you, too!

Here’s some text from Cheryl Head’s blog that conveys this issue concisely.

“There is some debate about where the name “Redskins” came from. To my mind, its origins don’t matter … Native American activists have engaged in a 13-year legal battle to get rid of the offensive name. These activists claim the name is disparaging and violates a federal trademark law. Three trademark judges agreed (1999); but were overturned by a federal district court judge (2003); and an appeal (Harjo, et. al vs. Pro Football, Inc.) was denied by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2009. These activists posit the R-word is on par with the use of the N-word. I’m African American and offended by the latter so if my Indian brothers and sisters say the R-word has deeply disparaging connotations for their people, I believe them and support their efforts to discontinue the use of this name.”

Remember, the Supreme Court also ruled that there was such a thing as “separate but equal.” And less than 100 years ago, women could not vote.

In closing, socially acceptable doesn’t mean ethical, decent, or right. Slavery, lynching, and the right to refuse service to people of color used to be socially acceptable. Social acceptance cannot be the benchmark for social justice. History bears out its incompetence. We’re a long way from social parity, but we can do our part by respecting each other.

 

~ Dwanna L. Robertson is a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, a PhD candidate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, a writer for Indian Country Today Media Network, and a public sociologist. This post originally appeared  here.

 

“We Still Live Here” : Documentary about the Wampanoag

The standard Thanksgiving narrative in the U.S. is that when the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock, it was the Wampanoag of Southern Massachusetts who met them and helped the settlers survive. Yet beyond that dominant Thanksgiving narrative, few know much about the Wampanoag (h/t to Minal via FB and Colorlines). There is a new film“We Still Live Here: Âs Nutayuneân” target=”_blank”, that documents the incredible effort of the Wampanoag cultural revival through language. Beginning in the 1990s, the Mashpee, Aquinnah, Assonet, and Herring Pond Wompanoag communities initiated the Wopanaak Language Reclamation Project after uncovering a trove of documents from the sixteenth century. The documents were written in their native language, which hasn’t been spoken in over a century and a half. Here’s a short clip (4:15) from the film:

Watch A Language Is Not Just Words on PBS. See more from INDEPENDENT LENS.

The story begins in 1994 when Jessie Little Doe, an intrepid, 30-something Wampanoag social worker, began having recurring dreams: familiar-looking people from another time addressing her in an incomprehensible language. Jessie was perplexed and a little annoyed — why couldn’t they speak English? Later, she realized they were speaking Wampanoag, a language no one had used for more than a century.

These events sent her and members of the Aquinnah and Mashpee Wampanoag communities on an odyssey that would uncover hundreds of documents written in their ancestral language, lead Jessie to a earn herself a masters degree in linguistics at MIT, and result in something that had never been done before – bringing a language alive again in an American Indian community after many generations with no native speakers. With commitment, study groups, classes, and communitywide effort, many are approaching fluency. Jessie’s young daughter Mae is the first native speaker in more than a hundred years.

Reflections on “Thanksgiving” from Indian Country

Recently, I was in an academic setting with several people and the “holidays” came up, a particularly sensitive race scholar noted that I do not celebrate “Thanksgiving.” The observation itself was noteworthy for its rarity. There is absolutely no reason for a Native American to celebrate Thanksgiving. It is an event which celebrates the survival of a people who would go on to perpetrate possibly the most far reaching genocide in human history. This post began as a historical retelling, and if you are looking for corrections to the historic record Jessie has excellent ones here and here and Joe does a wonderful job here. An interesting note on Thanksgiving is that the turkey is known as the giveaway bird because he is willing to sacrifice everything to help the people live. Whereas, many outsiders see the turkey as a silly bird, he embodies a fundamental concept about sacrifice and survival in Indian country.

Thanksgiving creates interesting reactions in Indian Country and in my household. On the one hand, it is very Native. All special times and ceremonies are celebrated with the inclusion of a feast and a giveaway. So, any ceremonial occasion could be Thanksgiving. Every Thanksgiving, we take time to remember that if we were a less trusting or less honorable culture, we would not have Thanksgiving. We would also not have stone carvings of genocidal men carved in the Sacred Black Hills and drilling set to commence at the foot of Bear Butte. We fill a pipe and make prayers, with small hope, that Leonard Peltier will see the Black Hills again before he dies. We sing songs in languages that are barely surviving and teach our children to sing it as well so that it may survive one more generation. We are grateful to have our children since for so many generations they were stolen away to missionary boarding schools where they were punished for speaking their language and sexually assaulted with regularity while being indoctrinated with “Christian” principles those Pilgrims brought over.

We make prayers for the elderly and the children on reservations with no heat and inadequate housing. We hope that we will not be attending the celebrations of their life as they succumb to death by exposure as so many do each winter. In my household, we bring out choke cherries saved from the summer picking up North and a bit of buffalo to keep us connected to home. We set out the gifts received from others in the many ceremonies through the year and make prayers for them and smile in appreciation of them. We do all of these things before we put on the turkey and dressing and get ourselves ready to join in the dominant pastimes of food excess and football. Because we too have become a part of that colonizing culture in so many ways. Some years we duck those traditions and spend the entire day remembering our ancestors and relatives in ceremonies more in keeping with our culture and take a moment to be thankful because we are still here against all odds.

~ This post is from the archive, originally posted November, 2010.

‘Drink Like an Indian': Racism to Celebrate Thanksgiving

A sports bar in St. Paul, Minnesota is featuring a blatantly racist ad to attract business over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend (h/t to reader Gina Kundan for alerting us to this ad).

While I’m a little puzzled by what it means to “party like a Pilgrim” (were they big partiers?!?), the invitation to “drink like an Indian” – with the illustration of a passed out Native American man leaning against a white cowboy in the background – trades on some of the oldest stereotypes of Native Americans as “drunks.”   The convivial image of a white cowboy and the “drunk” Indian as companionable drinking buddies, obscures a history of genocide.  (Would it be possible to imagine a similar image featuring an SS officer and a Jewish person in such an embrace?)    The image of the supposedly indigenous woman in the photo (I have my doubts) dressed in a sexy outfit and provocative pose also plays on the gendered racism of Native American women as squaw, princess, sexual slave.

Is it possible to get a drink in this bar without the bad politics?  Bartender: I’ll have a shot with a beer back, hold the racism.

Addendum (Joe):
Not only is this racist, but rather ignorant about the history of the Massachusetts Puritans (including those called ‘Pilgrims’). They actually were very strict in their morality and condemned many such “amusements” like this as very corrupt and sinful. They would be horrified to be identified with hard drinking and partying like this suggests. And, of course, the Massachusetts Puritans also engaged in genocide against indigenous societies like the Pequots in the Massacusetts area. At one point, in 1637, they surrounded an Indian village and burned it down with hundreds of Indians in it. Then shot others, sold remainder to slavery. A nice bunch for indigenous people to party with, right? Many Americans, especially whites like these, seem to be just plain dumb about North American history.

On Thanksgiving: Why Myths Matter


Pumkin (Photo source: Gracie)

The Myth:
The Pilgrims landed in 1620 and founded the Colony of New Plymouth. They had a difficult first winter, but survived with the help of the Indians. In the fall of 1621, the grateful Pilgrims held their first Thanksgiving Day and invited the Indians to a big Thanksgiving-Day feast replete with turkey and pumpkins.

The History:
In 1614, a band of English explorers landed in the vicinity of Massachusetts Bay. When they returned home to England, they took with them Native slaves they had captured, and left smallpox behind. By the time the Puritan pilgrims sailed the Mayflower into southern Massachusetts Bay, entire nations of New England Natives were already extinct or greatly disseminated due to disease.
There was indeed a big feast in 1621, but it was not “Thanksgiving.” It was a three-day feast described in a letter by the colonist Edward Winslow. Moreover, it was a shooting party; there was neither a “Thanksgiving Day” proclamation, nor any mention of a 1621 thanksgiving celebration in any historical record.

The history of the colony was chronicled by Governor William Bradford in his book, History of Plymouth Plantation (written circa 1650, republished in 1968 by Russell and Russell publishers). Bradford relates how the Pilgrims set up a “geoist” system (a merger of what we now understand as libertarianism and communism). The land was owned in common and could not be sold or inherited, but each family was allotted a portion, and they could keep whatever they grew on that portion. As Governor Bradford describes it, “At last after much debate of things, the governor gave way that they should set corn everyman for his own particular… That had very good success for it made all hands very industrious, so much [more] corn was planted than otherwise would have been.”
Yet, poor harvests prevailed, especially over the summer as the rains stopped. In response the Pilgrims held a “Day of Humiliation” in which they fervently prayed. The rains finally came in the fall and the harvest was saved. Many of the Pilgrims saw this as a sign that God blessed their new economic system and Governor Bradford proclaimed 29 November 1623 a “Day of Thanksgiving.”

This was the first proclamation of thanksgiving found in Bradford’s chronicles or any other historical record. Much later, this first “Day of Thanksgiving” was confused with the shooting party of 1621. Until approximately 1629, there were only about 300 Puritans living in widely scattered settlements around New England. As the numbers of Puritans grew, the question of ownership of the land became a major issue. It was clear to the new Puritans that there was no definite claim on the land because it had never been subdued, cultivated, and farmed in the European manner. The land was seen as “public domain.” This attitude met with great resistance from the original Puritans and so they were summarily excommunicated.

The excommunicated Puritans and others that wished to find new lands, decided to push further West away from the sea. Joined by British colonizers, they seized land, took Natives as slaves to work the land, and killed the rest. When they reached the Connecticut Valley around 1633, they met a different type of force. The Pequot Nation, a large and powerful nation that had not entered into any peace treaty as other New England Native nations had done. When two slave raiders were killed by resisting Natives, the Puritans demanded that the killers be turned over. The Pequot refused. What followed was the Pequot War, the bloodiest of the Native wars in the northeast. Pequot villages were attacked and Pequot were sold into slavery in the West Indies, the Azures, Spain, Algiers and England; everywhere the Puritan merchants traded. This rather forgotten aspect of the trans-Atlantic slave trade was so lucrative that boatloads of 500 at a time left the harbors of New England.

In 1641, the Dutch governor of Manhattan offered the first scalp bounty; a common practice in many European countries. This was broadened by the Puritans to include a bounty for Natives fit-to-be-sold for slavery. The Dutch and Puritans joined forces to exterminate Natives from New England. Following an especially successful raid against the Pequot in what is now Stamford, Connecticut, the churches of Manhattan announced a “Day of Thanksgiving” to celebrate victory over the “heathen savages.” This was the second Day of Thanksgiving that was officially celebrated. It was marked by the hacking off of Native heads and kicking them through the streets of nearby Manhattan.
The killing took on frenzied tone, with days of thanksgiving held after each successful massacre. Even the relatively friendly Wampanoag did not escape. Their chief was beheaded, and his head placed on a pole in Plymouth, Massachusetts—where it remained for 24 years. Each town held thanksgiving days to celebrate their own victories over the Natives until it became clear that an order for these occasions was needed. It was George Washington who brought a system and a schedule to thanksgiving when he declared one day to be celebrated across the nation as what we now know as “Thanksgiving Day.” And it was Abraham Lincoln who decreed Thanksgiving Day to be a legal national holiday during the Civil War (on the same day he ordered US troops to march against the Lakota nation in Minnesota).

Why Myths Matter:
That we believe in such myths is not, in and of itself, shocking. And that the US has achieved “greatness” through criminal brutality on a grand scale is not news. These arguments have been well-rehearsed and mud-slinging for its own sake does little. This myth matters because it can serve the purposes of unethical and anti-democratic interests.
A key vehicle for taming history toward such narrow interests, remain our various patriotic holidays, with Thanksgiving at the heart of our social myth-building. From an early age, we are taught a wonderful story about the hearty Pilgrims, whose search for freedom took them from England to Massachusetts. There, aided by the friendly Indians, they survived in a new and harsh environment, leading to a harvest feast. It is a disturbingly pleasant fiction.

Since history is not stable, but open to protestation and debate, I propose we replace our social practices of remembering “Thanksgiving Day” with fasting and/or service to the homeless and hungry, done together with our families and our friends. Some indigenous people have offered such a model; since 1970 many have marked the fourth Thursday of November as a Day of Mourning in a ceremony on Coles Hill overlooking Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, one of the early sites of the European invasion of the Americas.

Matthew W. Hughey, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Mississippi State University. His current research investigates racial identity formation, racialized organizations, and mass-media representations of race. He can be reached at MHughey@soc.msstate.edu

Thanksgiving and Racism: Link Roundup

It’s that time of year again, the U.S. celebration of gratitude and turkey and colonialism.   Whether that holiday means tryptophan and football, or trying to avoid conversations about religion and politics with the relatives, I thought that readers here might be interested in a roundup of what people are saying around the web about Thanksgiving and racism:

Robert Jensen, author of Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (City Light Books, 2005) has several pieces critical of this most American of holidays, each worth a look:

  • “Give Thanks No More: It’s Time for a National Day of Mourning” – a 2005 piece in which Jensen calls for an end to this holiday.
  • “Raining on the Thanksgiving Day Parade” - a follow-up to the previous piece, in which Jensen takes another tack [thanks Curmudgeon]:  “rather than mount another attack on the national mythology around Thanksgiving — a mythology that amounts to a kind of holocaust denial, and which has been critiqued for many years by many people — I want to explore why so many who understand and accept this critique still celebrate Thanksgiving, and why rejecting such celebrations sparks such controversy.” Jensen refuses to participate in the holiday gatherings at all.
  • “How I Learned to Stop Hating Thanksgiving and Be Afraid” - Jensen further reflects on his refusal to be complicit in this holiday and he writes: “In recent years I have refused to participate in Thanksgiving Day meals, even with friends and family who share this critical analysis and reject the national mythology around manifest destiny. In bowing out of those gatherings, I would often tell folks that I hated Thanksgiving. I realize now that “hate” is the wrong word to describe my emotional reaction to the holiday. I am afraid of Thanksgiving. More accurately, I am afraid of what Thanksgiving tells us about both the dominant culture and much of the alleged counterculture.”

Do you think Thanksgiving should, as Jensen suggests, become a “national day of mourning”?  Leave a comment or take our new poll (top left, under the banner).