The true history of American Thanksgiving

By Murphy Browne Wednesday November 21 2012 in Opinion
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“Since 1970, Native Americans have gathered at noon on Cole’s Hill in Plymouth to commemorate a National Day of Mourning on the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday. Many Native Americans do not celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims and other European settlers. To them, Thanksgiving Day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of their people, the theft of their lands, and the relentless assault on their culture. Participants in a National Day of Mourning honor Native ancestors and the struggles of Native peoples to survive today. It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection as well as a protest of the racism and oppression which Native Americans continue to experience.”>From a plaque erected by the Town of Plymouth on behalf of the United American Indians of New England.


The Town of Plymouth’s officials did not erect that plaque out of the goodness of their hearts or to foster inclusion. They were forced to do so by the continued protests of the group, the United American Indians of New England (UAINE).


African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass is credited with this quote:


“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”


When Africans were kidnapped from their homes on the African continent by Europeans, enslaved and taken to what is now the United States of America, the Native people of the land were fighting for their survival against those same Europeans. Over the centuries several myths have been written so often that many people believe they are facts.


Apart from the myth of Colombus discovering the New World which includes the Caribbean and Central, North and South America, one of the biggest myths is that of the American Thanksgiving story. The truth has been whitewashed over the centuries, even taught as history in schools.


The story is told of the peaceful Pilgrims fleeing religious persecution in Europe who befriended the people they found in the new land and shared their bountiful harvest with the “Indians” sometime during the fall of 1621.


The myth was repeated often over the next 200 years until 1863, when then President Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday of November “Thanksgiving Day” with the mythical story of the Pilgrims and the “Indians” celebrating Thanksgiving as the centrepoint.


In 1939, then President Roosevelt changed the date to the fourth Thursday of November to accommodate store owners who wanted to begin selling Christmas items earlier in the year. In 1941, the American government passed into law that the fourth Thursday of November would be Thanksgiving Day.


Ironically, the day after most Americans celebrate Thanksgiving they engage in an orgy of shopping and consumerism called Black Friday. Stories abound of Americans lining up in the wee hours of the morning ready to inflict bodily harm on anyone who gets in their way of bringing down a bargain item on Black Friday.


It was only four years ago on November 25, 2008 that Jdimytai Damour, a 34-year-old African American employee of Wal-Mart, was trampled to death by a rampaging horde of Black Friday shoppers. Other employees of the Long Island Wal-Mart store were injured even though they quickly sprinted out of the way (some reportedly scrambling on top of vending machines) to save themselves from being trampled.


Some people have tried to distance themselves from the shameful true story of Thanksgiving Day by claiming that it is a day to be thankful for good things in their lives and not about the story of Pilgrims and Native Americans. The excess of Black Friday does not say much for Thanksgiving Day being a time to reflect on one’s good fortune.


Since 1970, the fabricated Thanksgiving Day story has been challenged by Native Americans who on the fourth Thursday of November hold a Day of Mourning in protest. In 1970, Native American Wamsutta Frank James, a member of the Wampanoag people, was invited to speak at the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ 350th anniversary banquet celebrating the landing of the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock.


James agreed to speak but was asked by the organizers to provide a copy of the speech he intended to give. When the organizers realized that James would not be praising their Pilgrim ancestors perpetrating the myth about Thanksgiving Day, they asked him to revise his speech.


In his book Native America Today: A Guide to Community Politics and Culture, Barry M. Pritzker writes:


“James refused and did not attend the event. Instead, as word of the incident spread, he and others gathered at Cole’s Hill in Plymouth and declared Thanksgiving to be a National Day of Mourning.”


Since then, Native Americans and their allies have gathered in Plymouth on the fourth Thursday of November to observe a National Day of Mourning. On November 26, 1998 at the 29th National Day of Mourning, Moonanum James, co-leader of UAINE, marked the occasion by stating:


“Many times over the past year we have been asked, what is the true history of Thanksgiving? This comes as no surprise. The truth has been buried for over 375 years. The first Thanksgiving did not occur in 1621 when the pilgrim survivors of the first winter sat down to dinner with their Indian friends. The first official day of Thanksgiving and feasting in Massachusetts was proclaimed by Governor Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637. He did this to give thanks for the safe return of men from the colony who had gone to what is now Mystic, Connecticut to participate in the massacre of over 700 Pequot men, women and children.”


In 1997, Plymouth police used pepper spray to disperse the gathering at that year’s National Day of Mourning and arrested more than 24 people. The case was finally resolved in October 1998 in a historic settlement where the protesters agreed not to sue the town of Plymouth for the injuries they sustained during the police action.


The town agreed to pay $100,000 for education about Native American history, $20,000 as payment for UAINE legal fees and $15,000 for two plaques, one of which contains the statement at the beginning of this column.


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