Every fourth Thursday of November, tens of millions of Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, chiefly by devouring a huge meal of turkey, potatoes, squash, corn and pumpkin pie, and watching parades or American Football. The national holiday marks the harvest feast going back to the so-called ‘First Thanksgiving’ in 1621, when the Pilgrims – the colonists who came over on the Mayflower – shared a meal with the Wampanoag people.
Without the help of the Native Americans living in the region, the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony would not have likely survived their first years in the New World. For many Americans, therefore, Thanksgiving symbolises a bond and peace between the two peoples as they sat together at the same table, and perhaps hope of a lasting reconciliation after centuries of division.
For many other Americans, however, this is not a cause for celebration. It is a reminder of the brutal acts perpetrated on the Native Americans by European settlers and then the US government: massacres, land stealing and relentless attacks on their cultures and livelihoods. Since 1970, the fourth Thursday of November has also been known as the National Day of Mourning.
In that year, Wamsutta, an elder of the Aquinnah Wampanoag, was invited to a Thanksgiving state dinner in Plymouth, Massachusetts – the site of the Pilgrims’ colony – and asked to give a speech to mark the 350th anniversary of the Mayflower’s arrival. He was politely requested to show a copy of what he intended to say first, though. Wamsutta, also known as Frank James, had written an impassioned and forceful indictment of the white conquest of native lands, starting immediately with the Pilgrims.
“This is a time of celebration for you – celebrating an anniversary of a beginning for the white man in America. A time for looking back, of reflection. It is with a heavy heart that I look back upon what happened to my people,” he said early in his 1,400-word speech. “We, the Wampanoag, welcomed you, the white man, with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end; that before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoag would no longer be a free people.”
Listen: Claudio Saunt tells the story of the forced expulsion of tens of thousands of Native Americans from their lands by the US government in the mid-19th century, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:
He went on to say: “Although time has drained our culture, and our language is almost extinct, we the Wampanoags still walk the land of Massachusetts. We may be fragmented, we may be confused. Many years have passed since we have been a people together. Our lands were invaded. We fought as hard to keep our lands as you the whites did to take our land away from us.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, a representative of the Department of Commerce and Development told him that he would not be able to give that speech, saying “the theme of the anniversary celebration is brotherhood and anything inflammatory would have been out of place”. Wamsutta was given a different speech to read, but refused.
Instead, he led a group of protestors to Cole’s Hill in Plymouth and, standing next to a statue of the great Wampanoag leader Massasoit, declared the first National Day of Mourning. Today, the United American Indians of New England (UAINE) organise a march and rally to honour their ancestors and educate the public about why Thanksgiving should not just be about giving thanks.
- Read more: Why is America haunted by its past?
This Q&A was first published by HistoryExtra in November 2021