As Armenians, we are no strangers to denial. Yet in this country, perhaps no community has been dealt the hand of denial more severely than the Native Americans. As Thanksgiving approaches, a day in which Native Americans are so central to the narrative, I decided to delve deeper and investigate the myths that perpetuate this denial, one that continues to traumatize this community in America.
I have been following the struggle of the Native American community since the seventies. Several times, I even traveled to Plymouth, Massachusetts with activists from the International Action Center (IAC) to familiarize myself with the native perspective on Thanksgiving, in particular. We visited the Wampanoag tribe (the People of the Dawn), a community that is indigenous to the Plymouth area.
During this trip, I met Moonanum James, a co-leader of the United American Indians of New England (UAINE). He explained that for Native Americans, Thanksgiving is not a joyous holiday. Among other things, the UAINE is known for starting the National Day of Mourning, which falls each year on Thanksgiving Day, as a way of protesting the holiday. The origins of the Day of Mourning date back to 1970, when Wamasutta Frank James, a member of the Wampanoag tribe, was invited by Plymouth town officials to give a speech on Thanksgiving Day. But when officials read a copy of it before the ceremony, they told him it was prohibited. That’s because he had planned to speak at length about the violence that occurred against native peoples.
Every year since then, the Wampanoags gather on Cole’s Hill in Plymouth. Hundreds of supporters join in their ceremony to honor their ancestors and protest the ongoing racism and oppression they experience and to tell their true history. They stand facing different directions and blow a conch shell. The directions they blow the conch represent the “directions” of Mother Earth. They tell of how in 1637, William Bradford, the governor of Plymouth, ordered the killing of the Pequot people, another tribe which was based in Connecticut. At night, when Pequot women and children were sleeping, his soldiers burned their villages and when they returned, Bradford gave them a dinner in honor of their bloody victory and safe return. He proclaimed an official Day of Thanksgiving.
Native Americans decry the myth of “the friendly Pilgrims” and the 1621 Pilgrim-Native dinner. Massasoit, the leader of the Wampanoag community, had heard gunfire and sent 60 of his soldiers who discovered the settlers were celebrating their harvest. He decided to bring food and joined them even though he knew the Europeans had robbed his mother’s grave, stolen their corn and had already enslaved some of his people.
The settlers regarded the Wampanoag as soulless heathens. Some were thankful when the Wampanoag died from the smallpox disease the settlers had brought, so that they could take their land. Both parties distrusted each other, but perhaps were just trying to get more information about each other.
By 1675, over 50,000 European settlers were taking Native land. A Wampanoag chief, King Phillips, led a rebellion; his head was posted on a pike in the town square for 20 years after he was killed by the English.
I found out the settlers didn’t land on Plymouth Rock which is actually a small boulder. They didn’t wear black clothes with a buckle. Yet, the town of Plymouth gets millions of tourist dollars, while many Native people are impoverished and have high infant mortality and suicide rates.
Today, the UAINE marches around the town of Plymouth to protest the continued misrepresentation and commercialization of its history.
In 1997 they won a court case against the town of Plymouth, where demonstrators (including children and elders) were arrested and pepper-sprayed. As part of the settlement, there are plaques acknowledging Native history, including one which is displayed where King Phillips’ head was on display for two decades; there’s also an educational fund to teach children in schools about native history.
The UAINE also protests the racist use of Native names of sports teams (the Atlanta Braves and the Redskins) and cars (Cherokee). They rally for a more accurate representation of Native people in films and textbooks.
Many Native people think the pleasant narrative of Thanksgiving taught in schools hides the truth and perpetuates negative stereotypes of Native people.
Many Native people think the pleasant narrative of Thanksgiving taught in schools hides the truth and perpetuates negative stereotypes of Native people. It was actually the Natives who had a tradition of giving, and today, they feel Thanksgiving is just a reminder of the betrayal of their hospitality and helping the settlers survive. They consider it a propaganda tool of the invaders who create false memories to make themselves look good, while hiding their crimes.
Dennis W. Zotigh works as a cultural specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. He is a member of the Kiowa Gourd Clan, the San Juan Pueblo Einter Clan and a descendant of Sitting Bear and No Retreat. In his blog “Do American Indians Celebrate Thanksgiving?” he feels Thanksgiving, as it is taught American schools, is a mockery of Native culture and history.
Jaqueline Keeler, of Dineh and Yankton Dakota heritage says Thanksgiving is really “a U.S. celebration of early arrivals in a European invasion” that culminated in the death of up to 30 million native people.
Many Americans don’t want to hear anything that will detract from their happy family gatherings on Thanksgiving, but if they want to show solidarity, they can do so by posting #NationalMourningDay on social media and sharing the UAINE website.
On Thanksgiving, I hope Armenians especially, in solidarity with Native Americans, can say a prayer for their ancestors who also died in a genocide.