Tuesday, December 11, 2012

On Thanksgiving and the Dispossessed

By Reginald Johnson
Dec. 11, 2012

Like most Americans, I’ve always loved Thanksgiving. It’s a day to share good times with family and friends, have a terrific meal and yes, be thankful for what we have.

I must say that now, however, I have different perspective, after having attended an event on put on by American Indians in Plymouth, Mass. called “The National Day of Mourning” on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 22. I had heard about this event for years, but never got around to going. It was an eye-opener.

Plymouth, of course, is where English Pilgrims arrived aboard the Mayflower in 1620 and began a settlement that many Americans associate with the start of the United States. The first Thanksgiving, at least according to legend, took place a year later and saw the Pilgrims partaking in a meal with Indians, “giving thanks” for a bountiful harvest and for having successfully lived their first year in the “New World.”

Most Americans, I think, see this history in a pretty positive way. The Pilgrims, fleeing religious persecution in England, made a settlement that laid the groundwork for what later would become America, a democratic society where people could practice their religion freely and speak and write as they wished. Many Americans are aware that at the same time, the evolution of our country was not all smooth, that Native people were not treated well, there was a lot of killing and the English and other Europeans broke agreements and stole Indian land.

But the mythology surrounding the Mayflower, the Pilgrim settlement, the march westward and “the birth of a nation” is so strong that the Indian side of the story, and just how bad the Indians got treated, tends to get lost. Also, in the view of many present-day Indians, there hasn’t been enough teaching in the schools about the Native American history so people will better know what indigenous people have gone through.

“The National Day of Mourning” is an effort to educate people about the Indian narrative of what actually took place in those early years of the country as well as to “honor Native ancestors and the struggles of Native people to survive today,” in the words of a statement by the United American Indians of New England, which holds the event.

A plaque put up on Cole’s Hill ---- overlooking the bay where a replica of the Mayflower is docked and above the fabled “Plymouth Rock,” where the Pilgrims allegedly first stepped on shore ---- captures the harsh view that many Indians have about the beginnings of this country. It reads in part: “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.”

Moonanum James, a Wampanoag Indian whose ancestors greeted the Pilgrims when they arrived, talked of the many distortions in history about what occurred in the early days and the Pilgrims themselves.

“When they arrived, they didn’t find an empty land. Every inch of this land was Indian land,” he said in a speech before about 400 people on Cole’s Hill.

James said that by the written account of one of the Pilgrims themselves, in the first year settlers went out and robbed Indian graves, stole crops, kidnapped Natives and sold them into slavery for 220 shillings apiece.

James, co-leader of the UAINE organization, also said that the legend of Thanksgiving beginning with a peaceful dinner in 1621 with the Indians was erroneous. He maintained that the first official Thanksgiving Day took place in 1637, when the head of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Gov. John Winthrop, proclaimed a “Day of Thanksgiving,” celebrating the safe return of 200 volunteers who had gone to Mystic, Connecticut and slaughtered 700 women, children and men of the Pequot tribe.

Some historical accounts hold that in the area of eastern Massachusetts there was relative peace for a number of decades between the colonists and Indians. But by the 1670s, trouble was brewing, with the Indians fed up with mistreatment by the colonists and constant land encroachments. Metacomet, the son of the Wampanoag leader Massasoit, who had greeted the Pilgrims, decided to unite all the Indian tribes and drive the English back.

For two years, Metacomet, also known as King Philip, led Native warriors in battles over much of southern New England. Thousands were killed in the conflict. Eventually, the English forces proved too strong, and King Philip was captured and killed, and the war all but ended.

The victors weren’t satisfied with killing the Indian leader and subduing Native forces. They mutilated Metacomet’s body, decapitated him and put his head on a pole for public observation in a Plymouth square. The skull remained there for 20 years.

Moonanum called Plymouth Rock “a monument to racism and oppression” which he and Indian activists had covered with sand on two occasions.

In their suffering, Moonanum said, Natives had a lot in common with African-Americans, who were kidnapped and brought here from Africa to be slaves.

He recalled black leader Malcolm X’s quote about Plymouth Rock. “We didn’t fall on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock fell on us.”

James and others said conditions for Native people today --- who represent about 1.5 percent of the country’s population --- are very difficult. A large proportion of Indians live on reservations, and the poverty rampant. Alcoholism and suicide rates are high.

This was the 43rd National Day of Mourning, with the first one being in 1970. James said not much has changed for Indians since then. Just as they did at the first event in 1970, Indians are demanding an end to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a branch of the U.S. Dept. of Interior, which manages the reservations.

James called the BIA “corrupt.” He said Indians should be allowed to manage their reservations on their own.

Others spoke at the rally, including Tiokasin Ghosthorse, a Lakota Sioux who has a radio show called “Indigenous Voices” aired on a number of stations including WBAI in New York and WPKN in Bridgeport, Ct.. Tiokasin spoke of environmental issues and how there had to be more respect for “mother earth.” He said present day American society is “abusing mother earth,” and this will backfire.

Other speakers expressed empathy for the Palestinian people, who in early November had to endure yet another attack by the Israeli military in Gaza. Some 200 people were killed, many of them children.

Speakers said the Palestinians were a “dispossessed people,” much like the Native people here. One UAINE speaker said the Israeli leaders were showing the same callous and racist disregard for human life in Gaza as the U.S. military showed in its wars against the Indians. She said comments by officials to the effect that Gaza should be “flattened” and “bombed back to the Middle Ages” were similar to remarks made by an Indian fighter, Colonel John Chivington.

Chivington led forces which carried out the Sand Creek, Colorado massacre, in which over 200 largely unarmed Indians were killed in 1864.

Two weeks prior to the expedition, Chivington promised a Denver audience that he would kill all Indians he encountered, including children. “Nits make lice,” he said.

A letter of support from imprisoned Indian activist Leonard Peltier was read as well. In a highly-controversial case, Peltier has been locked up in federal prison for over 35 years following a conviction for killing two FBI agents in a gunbattle on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota.

However, considerable information has emerged that casts doubt on the validity of the conviction, and there’s been a decades-long campaign to have Peltier released.

The rally was followed by a march through the quiet streets of Plymouth. (Just days before, leaders of the town, which bills itself as “America’s Hometown,” had a Thanksgiving celebration, featuring a “Pilgrim’s Parade”). The marchers chanted as they walked past picturesque colonial-era homes, churches, the Mayflower and Plymouth Rock. There were a few curious onlookers, although most residents were inside having Thanksgiving dinner or watching a football game.

At the front of the march was a banner which read: “We are not vanishing. We are not conquered. We are as strong as ever.”