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Day of Thanksgiving, Day of Mourning

In grade school, many of us were taught about the first Thanksgiving—a joyous day of peace and brotherhood between the American Indians and the newly settled Pilgrims, who shared together, in profound gratitude, an abundant harvest feast. Like many of the legends that accompany the taught-history and modern mythos of this nation, these stories of the first Thanksgiving are woven of high ideals and profound concepts while willfully disregarding historical reality, and the painful facts and shameful acts that are deeply interwoven into the America we know and love today.

The native people who were present on that first day of Thanksgiving (said to have occurred in 1621) were the Wampanoag. In 1970, to commemorate the 350-year anniversary of the arrival of those English settlers on these now-American-shores, a presumably well-meaning group of privileged white folk asked a representative of the Wampanoag tribe to speak at the event. The speech that Wamsutta (Frank B) James was to give that day was never heard by its intended audience, because when the organizers read a copy of the speech ahead of time, Wamsutta was promptly dis-invited. His speech is worth reading, and it inspired the establishment of a National Day of Mourning, an event held annually at Plymouth Rock by the United American Indians of New England and recognized nationally (and internationally) by many others. This year’s event is being live-streamed beginning at 12pm ET on Thursday, November 26.

There is much to take away from Wamsutta's 1970 speech, as well as from the National Day of Mourning, and related Indigenous movements that demand honest conversation around equality, social justice, reparations, and so much more. We must join our Indigenous brothers and sisters in what can only rightfully be a collective mourning—by a united human family, of all nations and races—for the tragic wrongs of the past. So, too, must we collectively face the reality of the profound failures and shortcomings of the present. To do so is to open the door to a new beginning. And to this end, there is one small excerpt of Wamsutta's speech that is especially inspiring to me, and relevant to our nonprofit mission here at Dharma's Garden:

“Today we must work towards a more humane America, a more Indian America, where men and nature once again are important, where the Indian values of honor, truth and brotherhood prevail. You, the white man, are celebrating an anniversary. We, the Wampanoags, will help you celebrate in the concept of a new beginning.