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.”
~ Wamsutta (Frank B) James
What I hear in these words is an opening for that oft-told falsehood that is the Thanksgiving Myth to one day ring true. This idea that human brethren from far off lands, strangers to one another, can come together in peace, to tend the land wisely, reap the harvest gratefully, and share the bounty with one another generously. That is a beautiful myth that should continue to guide us all. We must not white-wash the past, but instead come face to face with the historical atrocities and the modern day injustices, and work tirelessly to right these wrongs—all the while holding true to the ideal that has carried through time to form the basis of the Thanksgiving Myth so often told.
Here at Dharma's Garden, much of what we are doing our best to demonstrate—and to advocate for in the greater society and culture around us—is based in a profound shift of perspective that seems new and foreign to most of us in this modern "western" society. But it is wise to remember that our focus here at Dharma's Garden—on developing a living human relationship with the land that sustains us, as stewards of the land, and building living relationships with the people around us through the cooperative tending of that land—is not at all new in the human experience on this Earth. This lived experience of reverence for Nature and respect for the Land was a way of life for the original inhabitants of this nation, as was the recognition of the human role in that natural world: man not separate from nature, but a part of it, and wholly dependent on it, while also wielding tremendous power within it. Such wisdom was certainly not limited to the indigenous peoples of the Americas. No matter what our national or racial heritage, each and every one of us can trace our own lineage to ancestors who themselves had a lived experience of interwoven relationship and sacred connection with the natural world and with their fellow man. Today, we have largely forgotten, and yet we each carry within us the ancestral memory of this profound truth. It is incumbent on us to remember.
Each and every one of us has a personal ability and capacity to cultivate a living relationship with the Land. Let us together usher in this new beginning, starting in our own local communities, by joining together to love and tend the land, with wisdom and compassion, as humble stewards; let us gratefully receive the bountiful nourishment that Nature provides, and share with one another, with love for each other, as a global human family; and in so doing, we can actually manifest as true the Thanksgiving myth that has been taught to our children, and every day will be a day of Thanks-Giving.
The website for the National Day of Mourning
“American Indian Perspective on Thanksgiving” — a good PDF resource for teachers or homeschool
The NativeHope.org blog article “What Does Thanksgiving Mean to Native Americans?”
The New York Times article “Everything You Learned About Thanksgiving Is Wrong”
The article on Insider.com “The True Story Behind Thanksgiving”
Native-Land.ca — where you can search for first inhabitants of lands by entering your address.