09 November 2005

National Day of Mourning

National Day of Mourning

On Thanksgiving Day, many Native Americans and their supporters gather at the top of Coles Hill, overlooking Plymouth Rock, for the "National Day of Mourning."

The first National Day of Mourning was held in 1970. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts invited Wampanoag leader Frank James to deliver a speech. When the text of Mr. James’ speech, a powerful statement of anger at the history of oppression of the Native people of America, became known before the event, the Commonwealth "disinvited" him. That silencing of a strong and honest Native voice led to the convening of the National Day of Mourning.

The historical event we know today as the "First Thanksgiving" was a
harvest festival held in 1621 by the Pilgrims and their Native American
neighbors and allies. It has acquired significance beyond the bare
historical facts. Thanksgiving has become a much broader symbol of the
entirety of the American experience. Many find this a cause for
rejoicing. The dissenting view of Native Americans, who have suffered
the theft of their lands and the destruction of their traditional way of
life at the hands of the American nation, is equally valid.

To some, the "First Thanksgiving" presents a distorted picture of the
history of relations between the European colonists and their
descendants and the Native People. The total emphasis is placed on the
respect that existed between the Wampanoags led by the sachem Massasoit
and the first generation of Pilgrims in Plymouth, while the long history
of subsequent violence and discrimination suffered by Native People
across America is nowhere represented.

To others, the event shines forth as an example of the respect that was
possible once, if only for the brief span of a single generation in a
single place, between two different cultures and as a vision of what may
again be possible someday among people of goodwill.

History is not a set of "truths" to be memorized, history is an ongoing
process of interpretation and learning. The true richness and depth of
history come from multiplicity and complexity, from debate and
disagreement and dialogue. There is room for more than one history;
there is room for many voices.


Russell Peters is Wampanoag, born and raised in Mashpee, less than
twenty miles from Plymouth Rock. Mashpee was considered an Indian
community and was, in fact, an Indian District within the Commonwealth
of Massachusetts, until it was illegally dissolved in 1870.

Mr. Peters has been involved in Native American issues at a state, local
and national level. He is the President of the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian
Tribal Council, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights from
1976 to 1984, a member of the Harvard Peabody Museum Native American
Repatriation Committee, a member of the White House Conference on
Federal Recognition in 1995 and 1996, a board member of the
Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, a board member of the
Pilgrim Society, and the author of Wampanoags of Mashpee (Nimrod Press),
Clambake (Lerner Publications), and Regalia (Sundance Press).

Mr. Peters’ notes that the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian Tribal Council is
constantly working to improve the spiritual and material lives of their
people. They are not opposed to demonstrations but are opposed to
needless confrontations that serve no purpose for the Native American
people they purport to serve.

"When Frank James, known to the Wampanoag people as Wampsutta, was
invited to speak at the 1970 annual Thanksgiving feast at Plymouth, he
was not prepared to have his speech revised by the Pilgrims. He left the
dinner and the ceremonies and went to the hill near the statue of the
Massasoit, who as the leader of the Wampanoags when the Pilgrims landed
in their territory. There overlooking Plymouth Harbor, he looked at the
replica of the Mayflower. It was there that he gave his speech that was
to be given to the Pilgrims and their guests. There eight or ten Indians
and their supporters listened in indignation as Frank talked of the
takeover of the Wampanoag tradition, culture, religion, and land.

"This was a missed opportunity to begin a dialogue between the
Wampanoags and the Pilgrims. Instead the `Day of Mourning’ began, and
continues to this day. I commend Frank for taking the stand that he
took, and we and our supporters recognize the token role the Wampanoags
had played in this pageantry. It was not appropriate for the native
people to feast in thanksgiving; instead we decided to fast and show by
contrast our way of remembering our history.

"As the years went by, the numbers at the Massasoit statue increased and
the presentations, skits and demonstrations did indeed show a contrast
between feasting and fasting. Reporters arrived from local news media as
well as the New York papers, the Atlanta Constitution, the Chicago
Tribune, and the Los Angeles Times, and told the stories of the
Wampanoag to the American people.

"Some of the Wampanoag people who live in the vicinity of Plymouth began
to look at positive ways in which we could impact our lives, both past
and present. It occurred to us that the Europeans had a history of the
colonists, well documented, albeit quite Eurocentric. The history of the
Wampanoag people in southeastern Massachusetts and Martha’s Vineyard was
barely mentioned. Ironically, the Indian communities of Mashpee,
Aquinnah (Gay Head) and Herring Pond still exist just a short distance
away from the Plymouth Rock.

"The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head is a Federally Recognized Indian Tribe.
Their Tribal roll lists 1000 Wampanoags. Under the leadership of their
chief, the tribe conducts daily business, economic development, as well
as community and social activities for its tribal members. The Mashpee
Wampanoag Indian Tribal Council, of which I am President, has a tribal
roll of 1200 Wampanoags. It conducts business and other related
activities on a daily basis. Our annual Pow Wow took place in Mashpee on
July 3, 4 and 5, 1998. We own and maintain the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian
Museum with plans to expand the facilities. We are very active in
revitalization of our language which was taken from us by the colonists.
And we are doing research and writing of the Wampanoag history,
particularly concerning the relationship with the English and other
European colonists during the early seventeenth century up to the

"These are some of the positive ways in which we can balance the scale
of history and establish pride in the Wampanoag identity and heritage.
Ours is as much a part of the American story as that of the Pilgrim, in
fact more so since it was our land.

"While the `Day of Mourning’ has served to focus attention on past
injustice to the Native American cause, it has, in recent years, been
orchestrated by a group calling themselves the United American Indians
of New England
. This group has tenuous ties to any of the local tribes,
and is composed primarily of non-Indians. To date, they have refused
several invitations to meet with the Wampanoag Indian tribal councils in
Mashpee or in Gay Head. Once again, we, as Wampanoags, find our voices
and concerns cast aside in the activities surrounding the Thanksgiving
holiday in Plymouth, this time, ironically, by a group purporting to
represent our interests.

"The time is long overdue for the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags to renew a
meaningful dialogue about our past and look towards a more honest
future. Our history is a vital and dynamic part of pre-American and
American history. We must be the ones who research, write, and interpret
that history."


Post a Comment

<< Home