Thanksgiving—A Day of Mourning

Updated February 21, 2017 | Factmonster Staff
A Not-So-Traditional Thanksgiving
Part 2: Voice of Native Americans

by Neil Miller

The campaign to make a regional holiday into a national celebration was realized on October 3, 1863, when Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as a federal holiday—Thanksgiving Day.

It wasn't until the 1890s that the Pilgrims began to be associated with Thanksgiving, however. The early tourism at Plymouth "was all around the landing on the Rock and the Mayflower Compact," according to Peggy Baker, director of the Pilgrim Society. "The starting of America was the thing."

But even as the Pilgrim story became the story of America, the town of Plymouth was becoming a symbol of protest. As early as 1836, at a Boston lecture on King Philip's War, Pequot Indian minister William Apess urged "every man of color" to mourn the day of the landing of the Pilgrims—and to bury Plymouth Rock in protest. A century and a half later, his wish came true.

Native Americans Soundings

The year was 1970, and the 350th anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims was to be celebrated at a banquet in Plymouth. State officials asked Frank B. James, president of the Federated Eastern Indian League, to be one of the speakers. James prepared a speech in which he accused the Pilgrims, among other misdeeds, of robbing a cache of corn from Wampanoag graves, when they first landed on the Upper Cape. According to James's account, state officials informed him he could not deliver such a speech and offered to write it for him.

James never addressed the banquet. On Thanksgiving of that year, hundreds of Indians from around the country gathered by the statue of Massasoit on Cole's Hill to protest James's treatment. It was the first National Day of Mourning. The protesters buried Plymouth Rock twice that day.

"We buried it, and they went down and raked it off," says James. "We buried it again. We have been there every Thanksgiving since then— in snow, hail, rain."

National Day of Mourning

Organized by UAINE, the National Day of Mourning rally on Cole's Hill became as much a part of Plymouth Thanksgiving tradition as the Pilgrim Progress procession. But it was an uneasy coexistence. UAINE identified the Pilgrims as the source of all evils, accusing them of introducing "sexism, racism, anti-lesbian and anti-gay bigotry, jails, and the class system to these shores," as one UAINE member put it in a speech.

On Thanksgiving 1994, UAINE militants forced their way into the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church, where an interfaith service traditionally took place after the Pilgrim Progress parade; they refused to leave until permitted to speak. Two years later, on Thanksgiving 1996, UAINE confronted the Progress on the streets of Plymouth. With the police nowhere in evidence, the demonstrators forced the latter-day Pilgrims to cut short their parade, pushing them back towards the harbor. The symbolism was lost on no one.

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