Politics

Happy National Day of Mourning

Thanksgiving? 'I call it Thanks-taking. They took our land, tried to wipe us out.'

There are some in America for whom Turkey Day  — officially, even — is the National Day of Mourning. And not because they’re vegetarians.

The tradition of Thanksgiving in America dates back to the travails of 300 sojourners who endured a brutal two-month voyage in 1620 across the Atlantic Ocean in search of freedom from the overbearing Church of England.

The narrative is universal, or nearly so: The Pilgrims were greeted by a pair of friendly Wampanoag Indians named Samoset and Squanto, who helped them adjust to life in the New World and celebrated the first Thanksgiving feast with them the following year after the fall harvest.

But many in the modern-day Wampanoag tribe have a different perspective on America’s national day of gratitude and its foundations.

Related: Dems Not So Thankful

Every year since 1970, instead of overeating, clipping Black Friday coupons and falling asleep on the couch while watching football, they take to the streets of Plymouth, Massachusetts, to stage what they call a National Day of Mourning.

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The event is intended as a reminder of the struggles that indigenous people in the U.S have faced since the arrival of Europeans and an attempt to portray what they regard as the darker side of the traditional Thanksgiving story, which they say has been largely mythologized.

“We have to remember, it’s been almost 350 years of this whole thing being blown out of proportion,”said Moonamum James, cofounder of the United American Indians of New England, which organizes the demonstration. “In cultures in every part of the world, when you bring in a bountiful harvest, you sit down and thank who or whatever you believe in. It was never proclaimed Thanksgiving then.”

He says the prevailing story of Thanksgiving overlooks the unpleasant realities of early encounters between Native Americans and the white man.

“What I would object to is the way it is talked about and written about in the history books. We have to tell people what really happened,” James said. “It wasn’t about us all having a nice dinner and living happily ever after. I call it ‘Thanks-taking.’ They took our land, tried to wipe us out.”

Scholars estimate that 80-90 percent of the decline in population is attributable to the inadvertent introduction of diseases.

Some extremists regard this plight of Native Americans as a deliberate genocide, but scholars estimate that 80-90 percent of the decline in population is attributable to the inadvertent introduction of diseases, such as smallpox, to which the natives had no immunity.

What is also clear is that there was savagery on both sides. What’s more, according to a 2003 article in Commentary by Guenter Lewy, an American author and genocide expert, “No official of the U.S. government ever seriously proposed” exterminating the Native Americans. “Genocide was never American policy, nor was it the result of policy,” he writes.

In what is now the United States and elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere, the indigenous populations declined precipitously after the arrival of European settlers and explorers. The American Indian population in North America declined from an estimated 12 million in 1500 to just 237,000 in 1900.

The numbers have bounced back. As of the 2010 census, there are now 2.9 million in the U.S. who identify as solely Native American.

Lewy describes the Native American experience as an unavoidable tragedy resulting from the influx of a landed people into a vast continent relatively sparsely inhabited largely by nomads.

“Between 1600 and 1850, a dramatic surge in population led to massive waves of emigration from Europe, and many of the millions who arrived in the New World gradually pushed westward into America’s seemingly unlimited space,” he writes. “No doubt, the 19th-century idea of America’s ‘manifest destiny’ was in part a rationalization for acquisitiveness, but the resulting dispossession of the Indians was as unstoppable as other great population movements of the past. The U.S. government could not have prevented the westward movement even if it had wanted to.

“In the end, the sad fate of America’s Indians represents not a crime but a tragedy, involving an irreconcilable collision of cultures and values.”

“In the end, the sad fate of America’s Indians represents not a crime but a tragedy, involving an irreconcilable collision of cultures and values,” he continues. “Despite the efforts of well-meaning people in both camps, there existed no good solution to this clash. The Indians were not prepared to give up the nomadic life of the hunter for the sedentary life of the farmer. The new Americans, convinced of their cultural and racial superiority, were unwilling to grant the original inhabitants of the continent the vast preserve of land required by the Indians’ way of life. The consequence was a conflict in which there were few heroes, but which was far from a simple tale of hapless victims and merciless aggressors.”

Indigenous people from as far as the Arctic Circle and the southern tip of South America attend the Day of Mourning each year, which typically attracts around 1,000 people. A key theme this year, James explained, will be to continue discouraging the celebration of Columbus Day and to ultimately replace it with Indigenous Peoples Day.

The protest will also continue calling for the record to be corrected on the “true motivations” of the settlers who we now regard as the Pilgrims, which James describes as financial.

Despite his objections to the narrative behind Thanksgiving, James is not ready to condemn the celebration of the holiday altogether.

“I tell people they don’t have to celebrate the Day of Mourning, just be thankful that they’re able to do what they are doing,” he said. “Just remember there are those who are incapable, those who don’t have the means to celebrate. To me, that’s the way the holiday should be celebrated.”

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