A National Day of Mourning: A Post-Thanksgiving Reflection

Anna Lee ‘24

Opinions Editor

This past Thursday, my family and I gathered around the table for our annual overcooked turkey and a hodgepodge of 1970s side dishes. There was the usual drama – political debates, side glances across the red tablecloth, some good smells and some burnt ones. But among the usual clamor, I found myself removed from the discussion – a bit annoyed by the jovial atmosphere, and even a bit disgusted. For the holiday of Thanksgiving is not cherished family time reminiscent of a Hallmark commercial for all; in fact, for many Native Americans, it is a national day of mourning. 

The real story of Thanksgiving is not as celebratory (or clear) as it seems. In fact, descendants of the original Pilgrims and Wampanoag people agree that there is no written or oral record to confirm that the “first Thanksgiving” in 1621 ever happened (Stenhouse). What began as an alliance for mutual protection between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people turned into a violation of property and the theft of Native land due to the influx of European settlers. In addition, Pilgrims brought over diseases that wiped out large swaths of Native American tribes, inhibiting their ability to stop European exploitation of their land. After 50 years of barbaric executions and violations of the original agreement, tensions erupted into King Philip’s War, which permanently shifted the fate of America in the favor of European settlers. As Professor David Silverman of George Washington University states, European settlers had been tormenting Native lands far before the arrival of the Mayflower. It was simply this one moment of many when European colonizers were decidedly portrayed as “founding fathers” rather than those of genocide and theft.  

Clearly, the impact of colonization marked by a “jovial” Thanksgiving persists into present day treatment of indigenous people. When the news broke that 700 bodies of indigenous children were found in former Canadian residential schools, there was little discussion about paying retribution to the families of those children (NYT). Peaceful gatherings and protests were held, but the discovery soon disappeared into the archives. In addition, the nationwide reckoning after the disappearance of Gabby Petito, a white woman, cannot be spared for the thousands of missing Native American women (Golden). In a report released by the state of Wyoming, Indigenous people make up just 3% of the population but 21% of homicide victims. Despite this, I cannot think of one Native American woman (or person, for that matter), who has garnered such a public outrage over her disappearance that she seized national media’s attention.  

As for this past Thursday, Native Americans from tribes around New England did not gather for a day of feasting and celebration, but met in downtown Plymouth. This past Thursday marked the 52nd National Day of Mourning, set aside on Thanksgiving Day not to celebrate, but to offer prayer to Native American ancestors in a time of mourning. Because I have no Native ancestry, I will reference Kisha James for accurate insight. As a member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag and Oglala Lakota tribes, James announced at the Plymouth gathering: “We Native people have no reason to celebrate the arrival of Pilgrims. . . Thanksgiving is a day of mourning because we remember the millions of our ancestors who were murdered by European colonists such as the Pilgrims” (NPR). James’s narrative about Thanksgiving is quite different from the myth that most American students grew up with. Most American schools opt for the jovial story of Thanksgiving, painting a picture of European settlers and Wampanoag people eating fowl and corn in harmony. To really compact the moral message of friendship, activities like making construction-paper headdresses or making handprint turkeys are also encouraged. The happy myth of Thanksgiving omits the truth, including the genocide of Native Americans, theft of land, and the persisting consequences of European colonization into present-day Native American communities. Teaching young children a watered-down (or simply wrong) version of Thanksgiving contributes to a shield of ignorance and false information in adulthood. 

As for the College of the Holy Cross itself, I recognize that as a student, I am actively colonizing the land on which this institution sits. Situated on Pakachoag Hill, or in the original Massachusett language “where the river bends,” this land belongs to that of the Nipmuc nation. Just like the Wampanoag tribe, who suffered under the territorial conquests of European settlers and the disease they brought, the Nipmuc people were decimated by the European transfer of smallpox in the 1620s. The infamous story of Thanksgiving and the one of the Nipmuc nation are not set in history, but percolate into the fabric of the nation and Holy Cross itself. So as you sit in the warm cove of Dinand Library, behind your office desk, or under the comforter of your dorm room, keep in mind that this land is not your land. 

For most of us, November is the month of Thanksgiving. But it is also Native American Heritage Month – which consists not just of celebration, but mourning and remembrance. Instead of eating bad turkey and setting up autumnal fall decor, I would like to emphasize suggestions from the United American Indians of New England. Though this article falls after Thanksgiving, there are numerous ways to support the Native American community year-round, whether that be in protest, solidarity, donations, or changes in elementary education. It took a group of European settlers to take over Native land – let’s see if we can help these groups who this land actually belongs to. Apologies for spoiling your appetite. 

Photo Courtsey of Anna Lee ’24

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