While millions of Americans give thanks around a table overflowing with turkey and stuffing this “Thanksgiving,” their indigenous counterparts will be observing a national day of mourning. The Mirror News reached out to the United American Indians of New England (UAINE), who annually stages a protest at the site of the first “Thanksgiving,” in what is present-day Coles Hill in Plymouth, MA. UAINE calls on Americans to think how for Native Americans, “Thanksgiving day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people, the theft of Native lands, and the relentless assault on Native culture.”
With that spirit in mind, we provide here a brief history of Thanksgiving in the context of what was taken. In 1621, the Pilgrims shared a three day feast with the Wampanoag Nation, in what is now called Plymouth, MA. Yellow Feather Oasmeequin and ninety of his men came to the pilgrims to assess their intentions, stayed for three days, and decided to create a treaty with the Pilgrims. The treaty, signed by Oasmeequin and John Carver, who was the governor of the settlement known as Plymouth at the time, stated that both parties would protect each other if presented with a threat. Although the Wampanoag Nation fulfilled their end of the treaty on multiple occasions, this was the first of many treaties to be broken by Europeans and marks the beginning of a long history of forced relocation.
European settlements began to spring up throughout North America, which grew into colonies that eventually became the United States of America. As the population grew, the demand for land grew with it. The native tribes, still owning millions of acres created a problem for a government that believed in “manifest destiny.” To solve this problem, Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, which forced indigenous peoples to leave the land that their ancestors had owned for thousands of years and walk to federally granted lands west of the Mississippi River. Although it is unclear how many Native Americans were forced to relocate, approximately 4,000 are reported to have died on the march, now referred to as the Trail of Tears.
The Trail of Tears is one of many injustices. In the 1850s, Native Americans again were made to leave the land of their ancestors during the Gold Rush in California. The spike in the population of European and American settlers along with the overall increase of the value of land in California put the natives directly in the way of America’s manifest destiny once again. The governor of California at the time, John McDougal, forced many of the tribes to sign treaties handing over their land saying, resistance would “make war” and would cause “extermination of many of the tribes.” Those that didn’t hand their land over had their homes raided, their children enslaved, and were systematically hunted down by militias.
The oppression of the natives did not end in the 1800s. As recently as 1973, violence between Native Americans and the federal government broke out on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. A group of about 200 members of the American Indian Movement staged a civil rights protest at the site of the Wounded Knee massacre, where, in 1890, federal troops had a final clash with the Souix, resulting in the death of hundreds, including women and children. During the 1973 standoff between the FBI and AIM, gunfire was exchanged for days. Hundreds of arrests were made, two AIM members were killed and one FBI agent was paralyzed. According to FBI records, over 40 natives participated in the shooting but only one was convicted, Leonard Peltier, who was an AIM leader and activist. The death of AIM member, Joseph Stuntz was never investigated; Leonard Peltier on the other hand is currently serving out two life sentences in prison. Despite his imprisonment, he is still a major activist for the American Indian Movement’s cause. Leonard Peltier continues to call attention to the disparities between standards of living on Indian reservations and the rest of the country. Regarded by many as a political prisoner, there is currently an international coalition urging President Obama to pardon him.
As part of their call for a national day of mourning, UAINE wants Americans to think about the ongoing mistreatment of Native Americans, who continue to experience severe injustices related to health care, economic status, and educational standards. According to the 2010 Census, there are approximately 5.2 million self-identified American Indians living in the U.S., of which 28 percent were at poverty level. As reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national unemployment rate among Natives in 2011 was 14.6 percent, which is twice the average for their white counterparts. According to the Office of Minority Health, Some tribal communities experience consistent levels of unemployment at 80 percent. In terms of health care, 29.2 percent of Native Americans lack basic health insurance coverage, have higher rates of tuberculosis, diabetes and alcoholism, not to mention mental health issues. Natives are 2.5 times as likely to commit suicide.
In addition to treating “Thanksgiving” as a national day of mourning, UAINE has called for the public condemnation of Christopher Columbus on Columbus Day, and renaming it Indigenous Peoples Day, to commemorate and promote indigenous cultures.
If you want to participate in the celebration of Native American culture this Thanksgiving, educate yourself about indigenous people and their history and the issues they continue to face. And maybe along with UAINE, you can help spread awareness of the National Day of Mourning, which honors the ancestors of this land and remembers what was taken from them.