THE NATIONAL DAY OF MOURNING
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.
COMMENTS ON THE DAY OF MOURNING
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."
Fast and Thanksgiving Days
of Plymouth Colony
by Carolyn Freeman Travers, Research Manager
The Separatists who founded Plymouth Colony observed three holy days; the weekly Sabbath, the Day of Humiliation and Fasting, and the Day of Thanksgiving and Praise. The latter two were held for special circumstances. A series of misfortunes meant that God was displeased, and the people should both search for the cause(s) and humble themselves before him. Good fortune, on the other hand, was a sign of God’s mercy and compassion, and therefore he should be thanked and praised. Over time, with the influx of new colonists and new faiths, as well as the political changes in England and New England, the holiday changed, becoming more secular. By the end of the century, the colonial government established a cycle of annual spring Fast Days and autumn Thanksgivings.
Early fast days and thanksgiving days were similar in many respects. They were called by either church or civil officials or the two working together. Occasionally, officials reacted to one overwhelming situation, such as an epidemic. More frequently, there were a number of reasons. For example, causes for a 1641 Day of Humiliation in the Barnstable church were: “In regard of the wett & very cold Spring, as also for the quelling of Strange & heretical tenets raised principally by the Ffamilists, as also for the healing of the bloodye Coffe amonge children especially at Plimouth.”1 A 1685 Day of Thanksgiving in the Plymouth church was held for “continuance of spirituall & civill liberties, a good harvest notwithstanding a threatening drought, & for health.”2 In the minds of the Plymouth colonists, that mixture of events were all traceable to one source – God – and his relationship with the community. Relief from misfortune would come (they hoped) after reconciliation with God through fasting, prayer and repentance. Fortunate events required public expression of gratitude with praise and thanksgiving.
The first Day of Humiliation for the Plymouth colonists actually occurred before the Separatist congregation left the Netherlands. As described in Bradford’s history, “So being ready to depart, they had a day of solemn humiliation, their pastor taking his text from Ezra viii.21: ‘And there by the river, by Ahava, I proclaimed a fast, that we might humble ourselves before our God, and seek of him a right way for us, and for our children, and for all our substance.’ Upon which he spent a good part of the day very profitably and suitable to our present occasion, the rest of the time was spent in pouring out our prayers to the Lord with great fervency, and with abundance of tears.”3 This type of fast day was not a response to misfortune, but an appeal for God’s aid at the beginning of a new enterprise. Later colonial churches would call these fast days when choosing new officers and creating or renewing their covenant.
While the harvest celebration held in Plymouth Colony in 1621 has been mistakenly referred to as the “First Thanksgiving” since the 1800s, the first Thanksgiving Day as the Separatists understood it occurred in 1623. As with many later New England Days of Thanksgiving, it followed a Day of Humiliation. The events of that summer, described in colonist Edward Winslow’s Good Newes from New England, show clearly how the Separatists saw their relationship with God and used these two holidays to reconcile and affirm that relationship.
In 1623, the colony was still struggling to survive. The colonists were critically low on food. For months they had been expecting a ship with supplies and additional colonists. The spring planting of Indian corn and beans began well. By mid-July, however, “it pleased God, for our further chastisement, to send a great drought, insomuch as in six weeks after the latter setting there scarce fell any rain; so the stalk of that which was first set began to send forth the ear, before it came to half growth, and that which was later was not like to yield any at all, both blade and stalk hanging the head, and changing color in such a manner, as we judged it utterly dead. Our beans also ran not up according to their wonted manner, but stood at a stay, many being parched away, as though they had been scorched before the fire. Now were our hopes overthrown, and we discouraged, our joy being turned into mourning.” Additionally, the expected ship had not been heard of for three months, “only the signs of a wreck were seen along the coast, which could not be judged to be any other than the same.” The colonists were devastated. “The most courageous were now discouraged, because God, which hitherto had been our only shield and supporter, now seemed in his anger to arm himself against us.”
These misfortunes “moved not only every good man privately to enter into examination with his own estate between God and his conscience, and so to humiliation before him, but also more solemnly to humble ourselves together before the Lord by fasting and prayer. To that end a day was appointed by public authority,....” Winslow did not describe the religious exercises, but stated that they lasted “some eight or nine hours.” The next morning “distilled such soft, sweet, and moderate showers of rain, continuing some fourteen days, and mixed with such seasonable weather, as it was hard to say whether our withered corn or drooping affections were most quickened or revived.” Captain Myles Standish, returning from the north, brought further good news. The supplies and new colonists were safe, although delayed, and again on their way.
Their prayers answered, the colonists thought “it would be great ingratitude, if secretly we should smother up the same, or content ourselves with private thanksgiving for that, which by private prayer could not be obtained. And therefore another solemn day was set apart and appointed for that end; wherein we returned glory, honor, and praise, with all thankfulness, to our good God, which dealt so graciously with us;....”4
This, then, was the first Thanksgiving Day held in Plymouth Colony. It occurred most likely at the end of July and consisted of a lengthy church service. Probably, there was no feasting. Bradford lamented in his history, that when the new colonists arrived soon after, the “best they could present their friends with was a lobster or a piece of fish without bread or anything else but a cup of fair water.”5 Descriptions of later observances in surviving church records provide more details of the probable structure of the services.
Reverend Cotton described a 1684 Plymouth Fast Day service “May 2: the day of Fasting & Prayer was solemnly attended by the whole church in the Pastors house. The Pastour first prayed & preached, then Mr Fuller prayed: Afternoone the Elder prayed, Secretary Morton, Deacon Finney & Thomas Faunce; ... Deacon Morton spake to the church about Intemperance, & long sitting at ordinaryes etc the Elders & Bretheren that spake to it all agreed in their Testimony against those evills & their desires that God would helpe all to more care & watch fullnesse in all respects: the 122 Psalme was sung, & the Pastour minding of the Lords supper to be the next Sabbath, he then ended with a prayer;...”6 Reverend Cotton did not mention food in connection with this fast day, although it was permissible to eat after the final prayer on a fast day. An English visitor to a 1660 Salem fast day for the ordinations of a teacher and elder said, “After the exercise, I was invited to the elder’s house, where was good company and good cheer [food].”7
At a 1636 Day of Thanksgiving held by Reverend Lothrop’s Scituate church: “in ye Meetinghouse, beginning some halfe an houre before nine, & continued until after twelve a clocke, ye day beeing very cold, beginning with a short prayer, then a psalme sang, then more large in prayer, after that an other Psalme, & then the Word taught [sermon], after that a prayer – and then a psalme, - Then makeing merry to the creatures, the poorer sort beeing invited of the richer.”8 About a 1639 Thanksgiving Lothrop said, “our praises to God in publque being ended, wee devided into 3 companies to feast togeather.”9 As early as the 1630s, therefore, some congregations were feasting after the service.
Over the 17th century, Plymouth Colony held many of these special observances as circumstances required. Beginning in the 1680s, officials called for public thanksgiving and fast days “for the mercies of the yeare” on an annual basis. In the 1700s, they settled into a cycle of spring Fast Days and autumn Thanksgivings. The Massachusetts government abolished the state’s April Fast Day in 1894. Its annual Thanksgiving Day, held on the last Thursday of November, was absorbed by the national Thanksgiving Day established by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. The latter was the first nationally declared Thanksgiving Day for the United States, which is still observed on the fourth Thursday each November to the present day.
1. John Lothrop, “Scituate and Barnstable Church Records,” The New England Historical and Genealogical Register 10 (January, 1856):p. 38.
2. John Cotton, Jr., “Plymouth Church Records, Volume I, Part V,” Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts: Volume XXII: Collections (Boston: The Society, 1920), p. 257.
3. William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647, Ed. Samuel Eliot Morison (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952), p. 47.
4. Edward Winslow, Good Newes from New England, , ed. Alexander Young (Bedford: Applewood Books, 1996), pp. 54-56.
5. Bradford, p. 130.
6. Cotton, p. 255.
7. Thomas Hutchinson, The History of the Colony and Province of Massachusetts-Bay, ed. Lawrence Mayo, 3 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1936), I:359.
8. Lothrop, p. 39.
9. Lothrop, p. 39.