Manataka American Indian Council





December 2010








On Thanksgiving Day, many Native Americans and their supporters gather at the top of Coles Hill, overlooking Plymouth Rock, for the "National Day of Mourning."


The first National Day of Mourning was held in 1970. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts invited Wampanoag leader Frank James to deliver a speech. When the text of Mr. James’ speech, a powerful statement of anger at the history of oppression of the Native people of America, became known before the event, the Commonwealth "disinvited" him. That silencing of a strong and honest Native voice led to the convening of the National Day of Mourning.


The historical event we know today as the "First Thanksgiving" was a harvest festival held in 1621 by the Pilgrims and their Native American neighbors and allies. It has acquired significance beyond the bare historical facts. Thanksgiving has become a much broader symbol of the entirety of the American experience. Many find this a cause for rejoicing. The dissenting view of Native Americans, who have suffered the theft of their lands and the destruction of their traditional way of life at the hands of the American nation, is equally valid.


To some, the "First Thanksgiving" presents a distorted picture of the history of relations between the European colonists and their descendants and the Native People. The total emphasis is placed on the respect that existed between the Wampanoags led by the sachem Massasoit and the first generation of Pilgrims in Plymouth, while the long history of subsequent violence and discrimination suffered by Native People across America is nowhere represented.


To others, the event shines forth as an example of the respect that was possible once, if only for the brief span of a single generation in a single place, between two different cultures and as a vision of what may again be possible someday among people of goodwill.


History is not a set of "truths" to be memorized, history is an ongoing process of interpretation and learning. The true richness and depth of history come from multiplicity and complexity, from debate and disagreement and dialogue. There is room for more than one history; there is room for many voices.



By Russell M. Peters


Russell Peters is Wampanoag, born and raised in Mashpee, less than twenty miles from Plymouth Rock. Mashpee was considered an Indian community and was, in fact, an Indian District within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, until it was illegally dissolved in 1870.


Mr. Peters has been involved in Native American issues at a state, local and national level. He is the President of the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian Tribal Council, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights from 1976 to 1984, a member of the Harvard Peabody Museum Native American Repatriation Committee, a member of the White House Conference on Federal Recognition in 1995 and 1996, a board member of the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, a board member of the Pilgrim Society, and the author of Wampanoags of Mashpee (Nimrod Press), Clambake (Lerner Publications), and Regalia (Sundance Press).


Mr. Peters’ notes that the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian Tribal Council is constantly working to improve the spiritual and material lives of their people. They are not opposed to demonstrations but are opposed to needless confrontations that serve no purpose for the Native American people they purport to serve.


"When Frank James, known to the Wampanoag people as Wampsutta, was invited to speak at the 1970 annual Thanksgiving feast at Plymouth, he was not prepared to have his speech revised by the Pilgrims. He left the dinner and the ceremonies and went to the hill near the statue of the Massasoit, who as the leader of the Wampanoags when the Pilgrims landed in their territory. There overlooking Plymouth Harbor, he looked at the replica of the Mayflower. It was there that he gave his speech that was to be given to the Pilgrims and their guests. There eight or ten Indians and their supporters listened in indignation as Frank talked of the takeover of the Wampanoag tradition, culture, religion, and land.


"This was a missed opportunity to begin a dialogue between the Wampanoags and the Pilgrims. Instead the `Day of Mourning’ began, and continues to this day. I commend Frank for taking the stand that he took, and we and our supporters recognize the token role the Wampanoags had played in this pageantry. It was not appropriate for the native people to feast in thanksgiving; instead we decided to fast and show by contrast our way of remembering our history.


"As the years went by, the numbers at the Massasoit statue increased and the presentations, skits and demonstrations did indeed show a contrast between feasting and fasting. Reporters arrived from local news media as well as the New York papers, the Atlanta Constitution, the Chicago Tribune, and the Los Angeles Times, and told the stories of the Wampanoag to the American people.


"Some of the Wampanoag people who live in the vicinity of Plymouth began to look at positive ways in which we could impact our lives, both past and present. It occurred to us that the Europeans had a history of the colonists, well documented, albeit quite Eurocentric. The history of the Wampanoag people in southeastern Massachusetts and Martha’s Vineyard was barely mentioned. Ironically, the Indian communities of Mashpee, Aquinnah (Gay Head) and Herring Pond still exist just a short distance away from the Plymouth Rock.


"The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head is a Federally Recognized Indian Tribe. Their Tribal roll lists 1000 Wampanoags. Under the leadership of their chief, the tribe conducts daily business, economic development, as well as community and social activities for its tribal members. The Mashpee Wampanoag Indian Tribal Council, of which I am President, has a tribal roll of 1200 Wampanoags. It conducts business and other related activities on a daily basis. Our annual Pow Wow took place in Mashpee on July 3, 4 and 5, 1998. We own and maintain the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian Museum with plans to expand the facilities. We are very active in revitalization of our language which was taken from us by the colonists. And we are doing research and writing of the Wampanoag history, particularly concerning the relationship with the English and other European colonists during the early seventeenth century up to the present.


"These are some of the positive ways in which we can balance the scale of history and establish pride in the Wampanoag identity and heritage. Ours is as much a part of the American story as that of the Pilgrim, in fact more so since it was our land.


"While the `Day of Mourning’ has served to focus attention on past injustice to the Native American cause, it has, in recent years, been orchestrated by a group calling themselves the United American Indians of New England. This group has tenuous ties to any of the local tribes, and is composed primarily of non-Indians. To date, they have refused several invitations to meet with the Wampanoag Indian tribal councils in Mashpee or in Gay Head. Once again, we, as Wampanoags, find our voices and concerns cast aside in the activities surrounding the Thanksgiving holiday in Plymouth, this time, ironically, by a group purporting to represent our interests.


"The time is long overdue for the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags to renew a meaningful dialogue about our past and look towards a more honest future. Our history is a vital and dynamic part of pre-American and American history. We must be the ones who research, write, and interpret that history."