Friday, November 11, 2011

Thanksgiving Day of Mourning

From Common Dreams, "Native Groups Mourn on Thanksgiving Day," by Leila Day on 21 November 2001: NEW YORK, Nov 20 (IPS) - On the annual Thanksgiving holiday, commemorated this Thursday, millions of U.S. families gather to eat turkey and sweet potatoes. Another crowd, distinctly less festive, assembles in the state of Massachusetts to mourn.

This gathering overlooks Plymouth Rock, where European settlers landed in 1620, and is called yearly to condemn continuing violence and discrimination against Native American people.

The U.S. Thanksgiving holiday dates back to the time when early European settlers, known here as Pilgrims, settled on land belonging to the Wampanoag tribe, whose name means "people of the dawn". The tribe believed land was for all humans to share and taught the newcomers to plant corn and other crops after the Pilgrims' efforts to grow food had repeatedly failed.

When the crops were a success, the Pilgrims invited their Native American neighbors for a celebratory dinner.

Shortly afterwards, a series of land disputes erupted as more settlers arrived from Europe. Native tribes were forced to relocate and gruesome battles ensued.

"We want the public to see that not everybody agrees with the celebration of Thanksgiving," says Mahtowin Munro of United American Indians of New England (UAINE).

Munro and other organizers emphasize that the event is not only "a day of mourning" in the United States but also "a day to remember history and the injustices'' suffered by Native groups in other countries.

Guest speakers from Guatemala and Mexico will be attending the event Thursday, as will representatives from Native American tribes across the country.

This year, the organizers plan to give special attention to the case of Leonard Peltier, a Native American activist jailed since 1976. Peltier, a Lakota indigenous rights activist, is serving a life sentence for the murder of two Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents.

The human rights group Amnesty International has declared Peltier a political prisoner on the basis of contradictory evidence in his trial and the withholding of some 5,000 police documents related to his case.

The National Day of Mourning was launched in 1970 after prominent activist and Wampanoag leader Frank B. Wamsutta James was invited by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to a state dinner celebrating the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrims' arrival at Plymouth.

Wamsutta James, known in the community for his wide-brimmed black hat and outspoken nature, prepared a powerful statement for the event.

"Time and time again, in the white man's society, we Indians have been termed 'low man on the totem pole'," Wamsutta James wrote. He referred to the Thanksgiving harvest festival as "the beginning of the end."

Wamsutta James was asked to rewrite his speech before presenting it, which he refused to do. Instead of attending the dinner, James formed a gathering of Wampanoag and other tribes to declare the day of thanksgiving one of mourning instead.

The leader, whose name means "a kind and loving heart", was a retired music director and vibrant man who drove an old Corvette with a bumper sticker that read "Custer had it coming" - a reference to George Armstrong Custer, who was killed by Plains Indians in 1876 while commanding the 7th Cavalry Regiment at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, in what is now the U.S. state of Montana.

Wamsutta James died in February and is to be honored at the Day of Mourning gathering, which starts at noon Thursday.

The organizers expect hundreds of participants to meet on top of a small hill near a plaque that reads "Many Native Americans do not celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims and other European settlers. To them, Thanksgiving Day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of their people, the theft of their lands, and the relentless assault on their culture."

The plaque and a statue next to it are the outcome of a court settlement awarded to the UAINE. The group ran into trouble in 1997 when protesters were arrested on charges ranging from parading without a permit to assault of a police officer.

All charges were eventually dismissed and the group is now able to hold its yearly protest without seeking permission. In addition, town officials settled with UAINE for 100,000 dollars to be invested in their Medecom Education Fund, and 15,000 dollars for the erection of the plaque and statue.

Come Thanksgiving Day, Plymouth also will host an annual re-enactment known as the Pilgrim's Progress: Players don long black robes and white ribbons reminiscent of the original pilgrims' attire and march along a route from the Mayflower - the ship that brought the settlers - through the town to the sound of beating drums.

At the same time, on a nearby hill overlooking the town, another drum will be pounding a heavy rhythm as Native Americans mourn the lost lives of their people. (source: Common Dreams)

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