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Thanks Giving is a National Day of Mourning

Writer: Veronica Yung

Editor: Renata Daou

Graphic Designer: Maulina Gheananta

Every Thanksgiving, many Native Americans, especially those in New England, commemorate the date as a National Day of Mourning. This year marks the 51st year since its first recognition in 1970.

In 1970 there were celebrations for the anniversary of the Mayflower landing in Plymouth, Massachusetts, which had carried Pilgrims from Europe into what is now New England. As part of those celebrations, descendants of these pilgrims had asked Wamsutta Frank Janes, the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribal leader, to make a speech.

The descendants of the pilgrims looked over his speech grammar mistakes, but it was rejected, as a result of its content. According to Tall Oak, another member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe, Wamsutta Frank James was told that he would not be allowed to read his speech because “people would walk out” as it did not fit with the view that many Americans take on Thanksgiving, as Wamsutta acknowledged that “the Pilgrims had hardly explored the shores of Cape Cod for four days before they had robbed the graves of [his] ancestors and stolen their corn and beans.” Wamsutta refused to rewrite his speech at the request of the celebration’s organisers, and news of this refusal spread. As a result, the National Day of Mourning was introduced.

Some of the customs of the National Day of Mourning include:

  • Fasting from sundown of the day before into the afternoon of the Day of Mourning, which is broken by a social gathering

  • The mourning of their ancestors and the genocide that came with European colonization

  • A march/protest through Plymouth

The National Day of Mourning is recognised by a plaque on Cole’s Hill, which was the first cemetery used by Pilgrims in Plymouth. The plaque says, “Thanksgiving Day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of their people, the theft of their lands, and the relentless assault of their cultures. Participants in National Day of Mourning honor Native ancestors and the struggles of Native peoples to survive today.”

Another major reason for the recognition of the National Day of Mourning, or in general, not celebrating Thanksgiving, is the sugar-coated history often taught during childhood.

What is often taught by schools is that Thanksgiving started when a Wampanoag named Squanto, who is actually named Tisquantum who knew English, helped the Pilgrims in cultivating their crops. This led to a successful harvest, which was celebrated by a feast. This was the earliest contact that Europeans had with Native Americans.

There are many historical inaccuracies in the Thanksgiving story.

The interaction between Tisquantum and the Pilgrims was not the first interaction Native Americans had with Europeans, as Wampanoags had years of contact with Europeans by that point. However, the earliest interactions were not peaceful, as Europeans had gone through New England in order to enslave Native Americans. Tisquantum himself was enslaved and was put through the European slave trade, which was the reason why he was able to speak English.

There were also inaccuracies in the reason why Tisquantum had contacted the Pilgrims. It was not out of friendliness, but out of the need to protect his tribes as they were greatly outnumbered by other tribes. This was due to the death of many of those in their tribe, or as a result of conflict.

Cedric Cromwell, the chairman of the Wampanoag tribe has stated that “We sent 90 men over to the first settlers to see why they were shooting guns and practicing arms to say, 'Hey, what are you preparing for?' And they were preparing for some kind of war to take our people down," he said. "So, we sat down with them to have a discussion, and (that) led (to) a feast”

What the Thanksgiving story also ignores is the problems that European colonizers brought to Native Americans, one of which are the diseases that were brought from Europe. As Native Americans did not have immunity to the diseases of European, Asian and African pathogens, a large portion of Native Americans died.

Historians have argued that the settlement of European colonizers in the United States would not have been possible without the large numbers of Native American deaths and that they were something that was capitalised on. This was suggested by Jolene Richard (Tuscarora) and Paul Chaat Smiht (Comanche), who argued “That initial explosion of death is one of the greatest tragedies in human history because it was unintended, and unavoidable, and even inevitable. But what happened in its wake was not,” in their book ‘Our Peoples: Giving Voice to Our Histories.”

Furthermore, days of thanksgiving (not Thanksgiving as we know it, but a traditional religious practice), have been historically practiced as a result of tragedies. An example would be in 1637, the Massachusetts Colony Governor, John Winthrop, declared a day of thanksgiving after people had volunteered to murder 700 Pequot people.

The recognition of Thanksgiving as harmful to Native Americans is important, especially with how the Thanksgiving story has been told to many generations. The story has ignored the hardships and atrocities endured by the Native Americans, with its effects still being seen today. In the United States, Native Ameircans have a large disparity in wealth and employment, as well as the highest rate of suicide and the second highest rate of opioid overdoses. Furthermore, Wampanoags are still fighting for the sovereignty and the rights of their land, especially as the Trump Administration has reversed the recognition of their tribal land trust. It is important to understand that Thanksgiving is not what many of us, whether we are American or not, have been taught and to recognise how it could be harmful to Native Americans.




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