The National Day of Mourning
On Thanksgiving Day, many Native Americans and their supporters gather at the top of Coles Hill, overlooking Plymouth Rock, for the “National Day of Mourning.”
The first National Day of Mourning was held in 1970. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts invited Wampanoag leader Frank James to deliver a speech. When the text of Mr. James’ speech, a powerful statement of anger at the history of oppression of the Native people of America, became known before the event, the Commonwealth “disinvited” him. That silencing of a strong and honest Native voice led to the convening of the National Day of Mourning.
The historical event we know today as the “First Thanksgiving” was a harvest festival held in 1621 by the Pilgrims and their Native American neighbors and allies. It has acquired significance beyond the bare historical facts. Thanksgiving has become a much broader symbol of the entirety of the American experience. Many find this a cause for rejoicing. The dissenting view of Native Americans, who have suffered the theft of their lands and the destruction of their traditional way of life at the hands of the American nation, is equally valid.
To some, the “First Thanksgiving” presents a distorted picture of the history of relations between the European colonists and their descendants and the Native People. The total emphasis is placed on the respect that existed between the Wampanoags led by the sachem Massasoit and the first generation of Pilgrims in Plymouth, while the long history of subsequent violence and discrimination suffered by Native People across America is nowhere represented.
To others, the event shines forth as an example of the respect that was possible once, if only for the brief span of a single generation in a single place, between two different cultures and as a vision of what may again be possible someday among people of goodwill.
History is not a set of “truths” to be memorized, history is an ongoing process of interpretation and learning. The true richness and depth of history come from multiplicity and complexity, from debate and disagreement and dialogue. There is room for more than one history; there is room for many voices.