Day of Mourning challenges story behind Thanksgiving
The fourth Thursday in November, a day of gathering with friends and family, of sitting around a table, giving thanks and eating until buttons of pants and shirts scream out in pain, is also a day of avoidance for many Americans. With the football games blaring through the speakers and the mundane chitter-chatter and the Black Friday planning, the uncomfortable truth of American history is drowned out.
While Thanksgiving is a celebratory holiday for many, for some, the fourth Thursday of November is a solemn day of remembrance and activism. Since 1970, Native Americans and advocates have gathered in Plymouth to commemorate the National Day of Mourning, a protest started by the United American Indians of New England (UAINE) to raise awareness of the genocide of millions of Native Americans, to address current issues faced by Native peoples and to challenge the mainstream mythology of Thanksgiving.
The history taught, rather than the history that ought to be, has been white washed, nationalized and purified.
“People do not know that there are alternative experiences to history. Someone recently asked me, ‘why do people not like Christopher Columbus anymore?’ And the answer is that for some people, that holiday was always a celebration of their historical tragedies. And Thanksgiving is the same way,” said Assistant Professor Carla Cevasco in the Department of American Studies.
According to History.com, Columbus was not the grand explorer that discovered new land, simply sailing in search of gold and new trade routes. He was a conqueror, an enslaver of indigenous people he labeled as “Indians,” one who put profit and gains far above humanity.
Upon arriving at islands now known as the Bahamas, Columbus wrote in his log that the indigenous people “would make fine servants… With 50 men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want,” according to Howard Zinn's book "People's History of the United States."
The once idolized explorer ushered in the ravaging of a continent and the subjugation of a people. In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. And, thus began the European invasion, which led to genocide and exploitation.
While there has been a successfully growing movement in America to recognize the imperfections and injustices of history seen in the wrestling with Columbus Day and the replacement of it with Indigenous Peoples' Day, the movement to debunk Thanksgiving has been far less accepted.
“Because of American exceptionalism, we much rather think about pilgrims as those who migrated for religious freedom and not for economic gains and think about colonial America as strong, sufficient colonies and not colonies that were starving and regressed to cannibalism, which we have the archaeological evidence to prove. But this is not the national origin story that people want to think about,” Cevasco said.
The pure and peaceful story of trading and bartering and helping one another is far more digestible to the American public than the cannibalism, scalping, murdering and weakness of the colonies.
“This is not triumphant, nationalistic, America is awesome, national history. In this country, we do not engage with these difficult narratives from our history but rather we rewrite a new narrative instead,” Cevasco said.
Michel Foucault, 20th-century French philosopher, historian and social theorist, expressed that history continues to teaches us that "discourse is not simply that which translates struggles or systems of domination, but is the thing for which and by which there is struggle, discourse is the power which is to be seized.”
American history is not an easy history to reckon with.
“We face a particularly challenging history being this incredibly diverse and complicated country that has its origins in slavery, settler colonialism, violence and war,” Cevasco said.
But the rewriting of history to avoid this challenge is regressive and stunts growth towards a more equal and just society as it forms the foundation of the subjugating system still in place today.
“Settler colonialism refers to the effort to replace indigenous people with settlers, but that has not stopped in America. Colonialism in America is still ongoing and the fact that Native people are facing all of these challenges is because they are navigating a system predicated and built by a superiority complex over time to keep them in an inferior subclass. Similar for other marginalized groups in America,” Cevasco said.
A major barrier between progressive discourse and the public has been the implementation of the myth of the disappearing Indian.
“Through my work, I have noticed that a lot of students believe that the number of Native Americans living in the U.S. today is in the five-figure range—usually 10,000 to 30,000. There are actually almost 5 million Native Americans alive in the United States. The myth of the disappearing Indian has come out of efforts to displace and disenfranchise Native Americans and destroy Native cultures,” Cevasco said.
With a similar sentiment, the UAINE said, “We are treated either as quaint relics from the past, or are, to most people, virtually invisible.”
Because of the lack of visibility, the conditions of Native Americans are often overlooked.
On Nov. 8, 14-year-old Jason Pero was shot and killed by police on an Indian Reservation after the boy himself called 911 to report that a man was walking down the street with a knife in Odanah, Wisconsin. In fact, per capita, Native Americans are killed by police at higher rates than any other racial or ethnic group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Also, according to a study funded by the Department of Justice, one in three Native American women are sexually assaulted, a large majority of which is committed by non-Native Americans.
“You can’t make conditions better for people if you don’t know they exist in the first place or if you don’t know the challenges that they face. Education is key, and a willingness to talk about issues is a much more productive starting point than avoidance and not talking at all,” Cevasco said.
The UAINE is hopeful as technology and connectedness has increased the visibility and exposure of Native American struggles as well as the adversities of other marginalized groups in America.
“Increasing numbers of people are seeking alternatives to such holidays as Columbus Day and Thanksgiving. They are coming to the conclusion that, if we are ever to achieve some sense of community, we must first face the truth about the history of this country and the toll that history has taken on the lives of millions of Indigenous, Black, Latino, Asian and poor and working class white people,” said the UAINE jointly.
Whether there will be a mass-movement that brings sweeping change that is responsive to historical events rather than forged myth has yet to be seen, but Professor Cevasco is still optimistic about the future.
“I feel (an) immense amount of optimism about the future. There is a stereotype that millennials are disengaged and don’t care about anything other than their phones, but I see a lot of compassion and eagerness to learn and wrestle with complicated topics," she said. "History is all around you today and shaping everything we are experiencing for good and for ill. We tend to put a lot of historical figures on a pedestal, but we must recognize that those of the past are just as imperfect as those in the present, and the only way to progress from the past is to address these imperfections.”
Between the football games and second servings of pumpkin pie, a conversation can be sparked acknowledging that the land beneath our feet had once belonged to a different people, the Native Americans, who were forced off of their land and for the past 500 years have faced struggles and adversities that have continued to this today. Yet, despite their immense adversities, they have survived and attempt to challenge America to see the nation’s history through an honest lens, not distorted by exceptionalism or insecurity.