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  • US President Donald J. Trump signs an Executive Order Establishing the Task Force on Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives at the White House, Washington, DC, USA, 26 November 2019.

    US President Donald J. Trump signs an Executive Order Establishing the Task Force on Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives at the White House, Washington, DC, USA, 26 November 2019. | Photo: EFE/EPA

Published 27 November 2020
Opinion

‘National Day of Mourning’ for Native peoples in Plymouth comes as the United States begins to deal with its colonial legacy.

As the United States celebrated Thanksgiving on Thursday, the community where it first took place continues to grapple with the Mayflower's arrival legacy, the ship that 400 years ago transported the English Pilgrims. They celebrated the apocryphal first feast with members of the Wampanoag tribe. 

But the modern telling of the U.S. holiday is mostly forgotten. It ignores a more extended, bloodier history of conflict and colonization, according to Native American organizers in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where Pilgrims first settled for a short time in 1620.

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The United American Indians of New England (UAINE) has organized a "National Day of Mourning"  on the fourth Thursday of November since 1970 to bring attention to the history of the Wampanoag – and Indigenous people across the U.S. – who faced war, disease, and ethnic cleansing with the arrival of European colonists.

"We Native people have no reason to celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims. We want to educate people so that they understand the stories we all learned in school about the first Thanksgiving are nothing but lies", Kisha James, who is Aquinnah Wampanoag and Lakota and an organizer with UAINE, said in a statement emailed to Al Jazeera.

The Wampanoag helped the Pilgrims survive after their 1620 arrival in North America. While often depicted as offering the newcomers goodwill, the tribe had been decimated in the preceding years by disease, likely introduced by European settlers in 1616, and also faced by rival tribes. The striking of an agreement with Europeans was likely strategic: the Wampanoag needed an ally.

The treaty lasted around 50 years before descendants of the Wampanoag leader Massasoit and colonists fought one of the bloodiest wars of the colonial period, amid increased tensions over colonist expansion into Indigenous lands and raids by local tribes. The war ended with a crushing defeat and high death toll for the Wampanoag, who then largely disappeared from the historical record after survivors were sold into slavery or indentured servitude.

But they remained and persisted, Herring Pond Wampanoag Tribe Chairwoman Melissa (Harding) Ferretti said in an interview with Al Jazeera, despite "colonial and state policies intended to justify the theft of our lands and to make us 'disappear.'"

That history "is what we think of right now, during Native American Heritage Month and during a holiday which has not acknowledged the complex truths of U.S. history or New England's history," she continued.

There are three primary tribes left in the Wampanoag Nation: Mashpee, Aquinnah, and Manomet or Herring Pond, with several other groups in the process of reforming. The Wampanoag have worked to fortify their language through educational initiatives and spread awareness of their culture among the 4,000-5,000 tribal members who live in present-day New England.

"As chairwoman of the Herring Pond Wampanoag Tribe, one of my main concerns is preserving tribal knowledge of our history and the experiences of our ancestors, which include their struggles to protect our homeland and to sustain the livelihood of our tribal community over the past 400 years," Ferretti said.

Increased awareness of this history is vital to UAINE. But present-day struggles, including border issues, threats to tribal sovereignty, and COVID-19, which is three and a half times more likely to infect Indigenous people, will also feature prominently in the solemn commemoration.

"Four hundred years after the arrival of the Mayflower, Indigenous people are still denied the respect and lands that are theirs by right," James said. "Change is long past due … Today, we and many Indigenous people around the country say, 'No thanks, no giving.'

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