National Day of Mourning Breaks with the Thanksgiving Myth: A Radio Report

FROM THE EDITORS: National Day of Mourning has taken place in Plymouth, Massachusetts, since 1970, organized by the United American Indians of New England in more recent years. The event breaks with the myth of Thanksgiving Day between pilgrims and Indians taught in schools to show a much uglier truth: as a reminder of the violent English conquest of the northern hemisphere. The original National Day of Mourning began with Wamsutta Frank James who decided to speak out on the pain and trauma that the Thanksgiving myth spurred inside him. Fifty-two years later, his granddaughter Kisha James takes the torch and wrote an opinion article on the significance of that.

Below we share with you a radio report from Chuck Rosina of this year’s event.

TRANSCRIPT

MAHTOWIN MUNRO: When at least a third of Native children were stolen from their families and put in white homes, losing their tribal connections and cultures…A third of all Native children. How can that be reconciled?

[Chanting]: Free Leonard Peltier! Free Leonard Peltier!

CHUCK ROSINA: It was a very large and spirited crowd that gathered on Cole’s Hill across from Plymouth Rock for the annual National Day of Mourning.  In fact, over a thousand, the largest in its 52 year history.

This was the first gathering since the passing of co-founder Moonanum James, who returned to the ancestors last December.  That left the other co-founder, Mahtowin Munro, who we just heard at the top, to MC and deliver a keynote address.  She welcomed everyone to the gathering and introduced Kiesha James, Moonanum’s daughter, to address the crowd first.

MUNRO: Good afternoon and welcome to the 52nd National Day of Mourning. So we’re going to start out with Kisha James. Kisha James is a member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe and is also Oglala Lakota. Kisha is a recent graduate of Wellesley College, is a union member, and is a staunch fighter for all indigenous people. 

KISHA JAMES: So why do so many indigenous people object to Thanksgiving Day? Well, according to popular myth, the pilgrims seeking religious freedom landed on Plymouth Rock. The Indians welcomed them with open arms and then conveniently faded into the background. And everyone lived happily ever after, the end. Here’s the truth.

First, the pilgrims are glorified, mythologized because the circumstances of the first English colony in North America, Jamestown, were too ugly to hold up as an effective myth. No schools want to teach about settler cannibalism. Pilgrims and Indians are much more marketable story. Second, the pilgrims came here as part of a commercial venture. They didn’t need religious freedom, they already had that back in the Netherlands. 

The Mayflower Compact was merely a group of white men who wanted to ensure they would get a return on their investment. When the pilgrims arrived on outer Cape Cod, by the way, not on that, pebble down the hill, one of the first things the pilgrims did was to rob Wampanoag graves at Cornhill and steal as much of their winter provisions of corn and beans as they were able to carry. The writings of the colonists themselves describe these actions taking place. 

The next part of the mythology is true. Some Wampanoag ancestors did welcome the pilgrims and save them from starvation. And what did we get in return for this kindness? Genocide, the theft of our lands, slavery, starvation, and never-ending oppression. It is also important to remember that the first official Thanksgiving did not take place in 1621, when the pilgrims had a harvest time meal provided largely by the Wampanoag. Instead, the first Thanksgiving was declared in 1637 by Governor Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to celebrate the massacre of over 700 Pequot men, women, and children on the banks of the Mystic River in Connecticut. Subsequent slaughters of indigenous people would be celebrated by a day of Thanksgiving, and yet the history books called us the savages. 

We will continue to gather on this hill and tell corporations and the US military to stop polluting the Earth, until we dismantle the brutal apparatus of mass incarceration. We will not stop until the oppression of our two-spirit siblings is a thing of the past, when no person goes hungry or is left to die because they have little or no access to quality healthcare. When insulin is free. When union-busting is a thing of the past, until then, the struggle will continue. 

In 1970 we demanded an end to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It is still a demand today. Native nations should not need federal oversight to govern ourselves or take control of our own lands. 

MELISSA FERRETTI: [Intro in Native language.] What I said to you in my beloved language, my name is or I am called Melissa Ferretti. I am from the Herring Pond tribe of Plymouth and born Dale. [Salutation] Welcome! I’m just really, really honored to be here and part of this time-honored tradition that is the National Day of Mourning. Just standing before you today on this beautiful November day. We really lucked out with our weather today. I want to acknowledge and send my gratitude to the United American Indians of New England, Mahtowin, granddaughter of Frank James, and others. And honor and a dedication to Moonanum James, Bert Waters, and others who have returned to the ancestors. And of course, all of you amazing humans who are here today from near and afar. My words cannot truly express how much being here today means to myself, my ancestors, my people. 

I give thanks to the sacred place here at Patuxet, what is known today as Plymouth, at the heart of what we call the Wampanoag Nation, and what are the traditional homelands of the Herring Pond Wampanoag Tribe. We have called this land home for thousands of years. Our ancestors are buried here. Our ancestors are buried here, and our descendants can still be found here. Today, we wholeheartedly recognize that we are not alone here in Massachusetts, that there are many other tribal communities and direct descendants throughout the Commonwealth.

The history of Plymouth and the Massachusetts colony is complex and painful. What happened here on these lands impacted all Native nations across New England and eventually spread far and wide across this country and into the Canadian maritimes. The spread of colonization we know resulted in armed conflict, murder, enslavement, rape, and dispossession of our lands, and it was a direct assault on all Native cultures and life ways. 

There will always be critics and those that seek to silence us, divide us, and separate us, but I and we are here today to show the world that we are not a conquered people. We are proud, resilient, and powerful people, well aware of our history here. We are still here today. And I stand here in peace and in solidarity. That is all.

ROSINA: Mahtowin Munro then stepped up and addressed a whole host of Native issues, from climate change to the discovery of Indian children’s graves at so-called schools.

MUNRO: I hear a lot of people talking about reconciliation the last couple of years. Reconciliation to me means when you try to repair an existing relationship. Like when you go to marriage counseling to try to work things out. I don’t feel like we have ever had enough of a good relationship with settlers to think that something that has been so ugly can be reconciled or repaired. 

For example, can the damage done by residential schools ever actually be repaired? Not just on Orange Shirt Day but every day, how can we stop thinking and mourning for the indigenous children in Canada and the US that were forced into internment camps called Indian residential schools or Indian boarding schools. And many people say they should not even be called schools because of what happened there. Schools shouldn’t have mass graves. Hundreds of these schools were run for decades by governments and missionaries that made it their mission to “kill the Indian to save the child,” all too often abusing or killing the child in the process. Thousands of the children died at these institutions. When at least a third of Native children were stolen from their families and put into white homes, losing their tribal connections and cultures. A third of all Native children, stolen from their families. How can that be reconciled? We do not need empty words of reconciliation or apologies, and we don’t need guilt either. It’s too late for that. What we need is land back and reparations. 

In this time of climate catastrophe, governments must listen to water protectors instead of criminalizing and prosecuting them. Even though the oil is now flowing through Line 3, the fight is not over and please do what you can to support the struggle and all those who were arrested. You may not have heard about Line 5, which is opposed by all the tribes in Michigan. Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline transports 22 million gallons of crude oil and natural gas liquids from Superior, Wisconsin, through Michigan’s upper peninsula, under the Straits of Mackinac and down to refineries in Sarnia, Ontario. Originally built in 1953, Line 5 has deteriorated over the course of the last several decades and poses catastrophic risks to the tribal lands and to the Great Lakes themselves. 

We raise our voices today in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en struggle and so-called British Columbia to stop the Coastal Gaslink project from going through their lands. Last week there was an unprecedented cascade of climate events in the process in the province with extreme flooding, mudslides, and communities cut off from food deliveries. Despite this the RCMP, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, made it a priority to move in and arrest unarmed Wet’suwet’en Elders, leaders and other land defenders, including [name] as well as journalists, who were at blockades on unceded lands, that are not even covered by a treaty in Canada. Wet’suwet’en strong. We stand with them. 

So I want to say today that individual actions are not going to save us when corporations and the US military account for 70% of the world’s pollution. Promoting a narrative of individual responsibility is not going to save us. Recycling and carbon offsets are not going to save us. Hoping that capitalism will get kinder will definitely not save us. The Green New Deal is not going to save us. Only by listening to indigenous people and dismantling the systems that allowed climate collapse to happen in the first place, will we be able to save the planet. 

One of many ways that people are working to center indigenous voices is through education and legislation. We have been successful in getting Indigenous Peoples Day resolutions passed in many cities and towns, including Boston this past fall. Here in Massachusetts, we want you to know that we have a Massachusetts indigenous legislative agenda that is supporting five bills: a bill to ban the use of Native mascots in public schools; a bill to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day statewide instead of Columbus Day; a bill to provide for Native-centered curriculum in all of the public schools in the state, K-12; a bill to improve educational outcomes for Native students; and last but not least, a bill to protect sacred Native heritage. And there’s a lot you can do to get those bills out of committee, so please go to https://maindigenousagenda.org/ for more information about these bills and how you can help us out. Everyone needs to support and listen to indigenous peoples all over the world who are on the frontlines of dealing with climate change. And I don’t want anyone who hears us to give up despite how hard this last year may have been. Our ancestors are behind us every step of the way. 

We can fight for climate justice. We can do our best to mask up and reduce the spread of this epidemic and settler colonialism. We can reclaim our lands. We are not vanishing. We are not conquered. We are stronger than ever! 

ROSINA; Co-founder of National Day of Mourning, Mahtowin Munro.  Political prisoner Leonard Peltier sends an annual greeting to the National Day of Mourning. For decades, his words have been read by Bert Waters. Bert was another elder who passed on to the Spirit World this year. The task of reading Peltier’s words was passed on to his grandson Herbie Burt Waters. But first, Chali’naru Dones gave an update about his plight.

CHALI’NARU DONES: In the past and in the present many have supported Peltier’s clemency, please. Pope Francis brought the case to the attention of the Obama White House. James Reynolds, the US attorney, who supervises the government’s prosecution of Peltier, today is lobbying for his release and admits the government still doesn’t know who killed the FBI agents. Deb Haaland, current Secretary of Interior, drafted a clemency appeal when she was a congress member in 2020 with another colleague. An updated appeal was sent to President Biden last month, this time signed by 12 members of Congress. In the case of Peltier the consequences of this accusation from the FBI have caused harm to an innocent man for decades. His wrongful conviction is an accurate depiction of how little respect and dignity the United States government has for Native people. Peltier has been wrongfully imprisoned for over 45 years. Now Peltier is in need of immediate medical attention and has been waiting for his request to get approved for months. We must continue to fight for him and push President Joe Biden to grant clemency to free Leonard Peltier.

[CHANT] Free Leonard Peltier. Free Leonard Peltier. 

Thank you for being here, again Thank you for listening. Thank you for fighting this fight. 

FERRETTI: He is handsome, intelligent, and a Boston University student. We’re grateful that Herbie Waters is here with us today to read the message directly from Leonard Peltier. 

WATERS: Greetings relatives. Each year, as November nears, I try to think back on all that has happened in my world in the past 12 months, and I know that in my world, I can only see a very small part of what is happening on the outside. For me, this year somehow seems to carry more weight than usual. I have passed ever so slowly into the world of the elderly. I am now closer to 80 than to 70. The truth is, I never believed that I would live this. 

I was just past 31 years old when I came to prison. It was almost half a century ago. My body is now the body of an old man, and it is harder to try to keep myself from being overtaken by sickness or depression or loneliness. They are constant companions here. I keep them at arm’s length, and I know I cannot ever let them overtake me. If I allow that to happen, it will be the end. There is no mercy here. No compassion. 

I was born in 1944, the massacre of Wounded Knee was in 1890. That was just 54 years earlier, and both Geronimo and Chief Joseph died only 35 years earlier in 1909. Think about that, 35 years ago now, It was 1986, not very long ago after all. I want to leave you with some positive thoughts. Retired United States Attorney James Reynolds did an interview with the Huffington Post last week and actually apologized to me for what all the wrong they did to me. I hope that it spreads all over the world, and I am grateful to him. 

I can say that I am heartened and encouraged by the courageous water protectors from Standing Rock. The beautiful manoomin, wild rice lands of northern Minnesota. I am proud of Winona LaDuke and her people’s work to protect those beautiful lands and lakes, and her work to offer alternatives to fossil fuels. Using hemp could fix so many things. It is not something we can fix in a year or ten years, but it is something that all reasonable people should understand. We cannot poison the water that sustains us, all of us, not just Native and First Nations people, but all people have that in common. People should understand we are trying to protect our homes and our natural lands. Water is life. 

And I am deeply grateful for the courage and vision of Deb Haaland, the new Secretary of the Interior Department. I know she went to Alcatraz this week. That is an acknowledgment that what we did was right and honorable. I was not at Alcatraz but those of us, women and men, who stood up in those days were right, and in other parts of the country. We formed our own branches of United Indian of All Tribes. So their efforts led to others joining in. 

I heard that Deb Haaland said that the day has come when Indians no longer have to protest to be heard by the US government. That is music to my old ears. Our people were and many still are suffering. Anyone of any race will do the same things to stop the sufferings of their people. I wish all of you good health and happiness in all you do. You’re in my prayers, and I am grateful to all of you who have supported me or will support me going forward. I still hold out hope that I can make it home to Turtle mountain when I can still walk out under my own power. I remain grateful for the gift of life. 

ROSINA: After all he’s been through, he is still grateful for life.  Truly amazing

WATERS: In the spirit of Crazy Horse, Leonard Peltier. 

[CHANT] Free Leonard Peltier. Free Leonard Peltier free.

MUNRO: I hope that Leonard can hear us in Florida, where he is caged. Are with him. We want everybody who can hear us today to go to the website, https://www.whoisleonardpeltier.info/. This case is so important. I can’t believe we have been here in Plymouth at National Day of mourning this many years, every year after year, after year demanding freedom for him. Hoping that finally, he might be granted clemency by somebody. Something needs to turn around and change. 

An impassioned plea from Mahtowin Munro, who really showed even more emotion this year than she has in years past.

As was stated, this was the largest gathering at National Day of Mourning, which logically meant there were many first- timers present.  As we marched through the streets of Plymouth, I ran into several of them.

[INTERVIEWS] 

INTERVIEW 1 

SAM: My name is Sam Salts, and I’m from Rhode Island. 

ROSINA: Is this your first time at one of these events? 

SAM: It is my first time in one of these events.

ROSINA: So what are your impressions aren’t you? Short today? 

SAM: I think it’s really beautiful. My son is a quarter indigenous. I’m wrapping my brain around a day to be thankful and also mourn some about how this country was founded at the same time. It’s complicated. 

INTERVIEW 2

ROSINA: Tell me your name and where you’re from. 

ALAN: My name is [indigenous name] Alan. I am from the Micmac tribe in Nova Scotia and also in Maine

ROSINA: Wow, so you’ve come from far aways.

ALAN: Yeah. I actually grew in Maine most of my life. My father is Micmac on his side.

ROSINA: What were your impressions of what you heard today? 

ALAN: It was really powerful. They brought up a lot of good issues and a lot of issues that need to be at the forefront of all indigenous movements. 

ROSINA: And you’re here doing your part. 

ALAN: I feel like my part is kind of small, but with all a indigenous people and allies and numbers, we can make a really big impact.

ROSINA: I also spoke with some veteran attendees. 

INTERVIEW 3

CHARLOTTE: My name is Charlotte, and I live here in Plymouth. 

ROSINA: Oh, you live in Plymouth?

CHARLOTTE: Yes, I do. When I can walk here, and I come here every year for several years now because I believe in the beautiful culture of the Native Americans. And I believe in their concerns and their efforts to protect nature and our environment. It’s so important right now. We can see the devastation all around us because of our neglect. 

ROSINA: It’s a much larger crowd today. What do you think of the turnout? 

CHARLOTTE: I think it seems bigger than usual. It is a nice diverse group too. There are a lot of different nationalities and different peoples. It’s pretty cool to me how everyone’s coming together to try to unite and for one common cause.

ROSINA: Okay. Well, thank you for your thoughts, and thank you for talking to me. Enjoy the day. 

CHARLOTTE: Thank you and Happy Thanksgiving to everyone, but remember that the Natives were here first.

INTERVIEW 4

ROSINA: Susan, you’ve been coming here for many years. What do you think of today’s turnout? 

SUSAN: Well, it was pretty impressive. It was way over a thousand people, and I know they came from all over the place. One thing that I was especially interested in was Leonard Peltier’s statement. He talked a little bit about his early life, which I hadn’t really known that much about. That was interesting. He said that he’s grateful for the gift of Life, although he did also mention that his health is failing, but it was a very positive message. 

INTERVIEW 5

ROSINA: I got to talk to Herbie Waters, who read Leonard Peltier’s words. This was his third time attending the National Day of Mourning but his first time as a speaker. 

WATERS: I was here with my cousin Pedro in 2017, and then the year following I would stay with my aunt and grandfather in New Bedford, Massachusetts at my father’s family home and then they would drive us up to here in Plymouth. And my grandfather would say the Leonard Peltier letter, and I would stand next to him. There’s actually a picture of me doing so for both 2017 and 2018. But now what happened is that my grandfather passed away, and I didn’t really take it upon myself. It was more like my mother and I were talking like, well, let’s just see if you can reach out to UAINE and see if I could do the speech. Honestly, it’s still a lot to take in, but I really, really appreciate the opportunity I was given. 

ROSINA: Well, you took it in very well and presented very well. 

WATERS: Thank you, I think I should have looked up more definitely, but, you know, 2022 it won’t be my first rodeo anymore. 

ROSINA: Well, and the size of the crowd is much bigger than back then. 

WATERS: Mmm hmm, like, back in 2017, 2018, it really wasn’t that big. And I think maybe because after the pandemic, everyone now wants to, not just show solidarity and take part in this, but everyone wants to come out, not be constricted to just online viewing even though there was a live stream. But it’s more like everyone wants to show their presence here and finally congregate again, so I think maybe that’s the reason for the bigger crowd. There’s also still a lot of political issues going on that might actually spread some more light on Native issues as well. 

ROSINA: The National Day of Mourning is an all Native event held every year in Plymouth on Thanksgiving morning.  For more information, including a link to a video of this event, go to www.UAINE.org  Reporting from Plymouth MA, I am Chuck Rosina.

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Chuck Rosina

Chuck Rosina

Productor profesional independiente e ingeniero de audio.

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