An Alternative View of Thanksgiving

24 November 2015

Alongside turkey lies other Thanksgiving traditions that many Americans hold dear which are distinctly products of the “New World,” such as cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and our brand of football, each of which have impressively old historical roots in their own rights. It is a day in which we are all meant to reflect on the bountiful supplies of food and the material wealth of our nation. Thanksgiving is arguably the most prominent day of the American calendar year - its appeal is seemingly universal and meant to transcend the wide array of ethnic and religious backgrounds of American citizens. The historical narrative behind Thanksgiving itself echoes these sentiments - it tells of the cooperation and shared celebration of a harvest between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag, an American Indian tribe in New England. Of course, this rosy, cheerful story of peoples coming together glosses over the dark, irreversible consequences which colonial settlement and expansion had on American Indian peoples across the country.

Over the past few decades, sections of the American Indian population have continually voiced their dissatisfaction concerning this narrative. Perhaps most notable are the United American Indians of New England, who instead choose to describe Thanksgiving as a “national day of mourning,” in a protest which can be traced from its planning stages in various newspaper articles contained with American Indian Histories and Cultures.

 

                                                                                                                                

Image © of Newberry Library. Further reproduction without permission prohibited.     

                                                

In 1970, the United American Indians of New England danced on Plymouth Rock, the original landing site of the Pilgrims, during the state of Massachusetts’ celebration of the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival. The coordination and efforts to generate pan-Indian interest in the build-up to this monumental protest can be seen in the Akwesasne Notes, a periodical released by the Mohawks in New York contained within American Indian Histories and Cultures. In a letter to the editor in the issue released just before Thanksgiving, Everrett “Tall Oak” Weeden, one of the protest’s founders based in New England, wrote to the newspaper to drum up support for the first “National Day of Mourning,” calling for a “United Stand of all Native Americans.” Tall Oak defined what he felt was the actual historical significance of Plymouth Rock, describing it as the place where “the practice of dividing us began,” so it would be “fitting that the practice of uniting us as one people should also have its beginning there."

This protest in its first few years indeed enjoyed support from segments of American Indians across the country, as evidenced by a publication in Oglala Sioux country. The Shannon County News ran the full declaration read by the United American Indians of New England at Plymouth Rock following Thanksgiving in 1971, in which over 500 people had gathered. The initial success and popularity of the "National Day of Mourning" has made it an annual event, which has been organized at Plymouth Rock for the 46th consecutive year this week.

          

Headline and Cartoon featured in the Akwesasne Notes coverage of the Plymouth Rock protests in 1972. Image © of the Newberry Library. Further reproduction without permission is prohibited.

These symbolic, poignant contestations of the traditional Thanksgiving narrative at Plymouth Rock demonstrate the significance and sensitivity surrounding how history is publicly and collectively remembered, even hundreds of years later regarding a holiday which is steadfastly embedded within American society. It is a reminder to us all to critically examine longstanding historical narratives and triumphant nationalistic sentiments beyond their surface level, however comforting and uniformly pleasant they may seem.

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About the Author

Eugene O'Driscoll

Originally from New York, I am an Editorial Assistant within the production team. My historical interests include empire, settler societies and the Irish. I am currently working on several different projects to be released in 2016.

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