‘Our very presence frees this land from the lies of the history books’

The following full remarks were given by Moonanum James, co-leader of United American Indians of New England, at the 46th Annual Day of Mourning rally in Plymouth, Mass., on Nov. 26.  Go to tinyurl.com/hga5975 to hear his entire talk.  

Moonanum JamesPhoto: Hannah Kirschbaum

Moonanum James
Photo: Hannah Kirschbaum

Once again on the fourth Thursday in November, United American Indians of New England and those who support us have gathered on this hill to observe a National Day of Mourning. Today marks the 46th time we have come here, in all kinds of weather, to mourn our ancestors and speak the truth about our history.

Those who started National Day of Mourning could not have envisioned that we would be here, year after year, carrying on this tradition.  Many of the elders who stood on this hill and organized that first day of mourning are no longer with us, but we feel their spirits guiding us today.  

Nearly 46 years ago, my father, an Aquinnah Wampanoag man named Wamsutta Frank James, was invited to address a gathering of so-called dignitaries celebrating the 350th anniversary of the stumbling ashore of the pilgrims. When asked by the organizers of the dinner to provide an advance copy of the speech he planned to deliver, Wamsutta agreed. Within days, he was told his words were not acceptable.  The planners of the gathering, fearing the truth, told him he could speak only if he were willing to speak false words in praise of the white man.  The organizers were even willing to write a speech for him.  After all, they said, ”The theme of the celebration is brotherhood and anything inflammatory would be out of place.” He refused to attend the banquet and have words put into his mouth.  National Day of Mourning came into being as a result of his refusal to speak untrue words.  

What was it that got those state officials so upset?  Wamsutta used as a basis for his remarks one of their own history books, “Mourt’s Relation,” a pilgrim account of their first year on Indian land.

What really happened at the first thanksgiving — or what some of us call the first “thanks taking?”  According to popular myth, the Indians (us) and the pilgrims (them) sat down and had a wonderful dinner.  Everyone got along and held hands in friendship. Everyone lived happily ever after.  The end.

The truth has been largely buried for 396 years.  In 2020, Plymouth is planning to celebrate 400 years of pilgrim mythology.  I don’t think that anyone from UAINE is going to be invited to address that banquet!  If we are, rest assured that no advance copy of our remarks will be sent.  

Here is the truth.  We might say that the first thanksgiving occurred when the pilgrims arrived here and gave thanks for the untimely deaths of most of the Wampanoag due to diseases contracted from earlier European visitors. As a result, when the pilgrims arrived, they found the fields already cleared and planted, and they called them their own.

The first officially declared day of thanksgiving in Massachusetts was proclaimed in 1637 by Gov. John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He did this to give thanks for the safe return of white men from the colony who had gone to what is now Mystic, Connecticut, to participate in the massacre of over 700 men, women and children of the Pequot Nation.

The pilgrim William Bradford, in his famous “History of the Plymouth Plantation,” rubbed his hands together with delight and had this to say about the Pequot massacre:

“Those that escaped the fire were slain with the sword; some hewed to pieces, others run through with their rapiers, so as they were quickly dispatched, and very few escaped. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire, and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stink and scent thereof, but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to enclose their enemies in their hands, and give them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enemy.”

Year after year, the white settlers of Massachusetts gave thanks for the ongoing deaths of the Indigenous peoples of New England, culminating with the years of King Philip’s War, 1676-1677, when the whites declared “a day set apart for public thanksgiving, because there now scarce remains a name or family of the Indians but are either slain, captivated or fled.”  

About the only true thing in the mythology is that these pitiful European strangers would not have survived their first several years in “New England” were it not for the aid of the Wampanoag people.  What Native people got in return for this help was genocide, the theft of our lands and never-ending repression.  Our mourning began the minute the English first landed.

Another truth:  The reason that the mythmakers prefer to talk about the pilgrims and not the earlier English-speaking colony, Jamestown, is that in Jamestown the circumstances were way too ugly to hold up as an effective national myth.  For example, the white settlers in Jamestown turned to cannibalism to survive.  Not a very nice story to tell the kids in school.  The pilgrims did not find an empty land any more than Columbus “discovered” anything.  Every inch of this land is Indian land.  The pilgrims (who called themselves “saints”) did not come here seeking religious freedom; they already had that in Holland, and they only wanted religious freedom for themselves.  They came here as a part of a commercial venture.  The Mayflower Compact was nothing more than a bunch of white men sticking together to ensure that they would get a return on their investment.  They introduced sexism, racism and a class system to these shores.  And guess what?  They did not even land at the sacred shrine down the hill called Plymouth Rock,  a monument to racism and oppression which we are proud to say we buried, not once but twice in 1970 and again in 1995.

Upon arriving on the outer Cape, the pilgrims opened my ancestors’ graves and took funeral objects.  They also took as much of our corn and bean supplies as they could carry.  Massasoit, the great sachem of the Wampanoag, knew of this, yet he and his people welcomed the settlers, saving them from extinction, little knowing how many Wampanoag and other Native people would be enslaved or killed by their guns or dead from their diseases.  Later, from this very harbor in Plymouth, the pious pilgrims sold my ancestors as slaves for 220 shillings each.  In today’s money, that would be 33 U.S. dollars, give or take.  

Some would ask what we have gained by observing National Day of Mourning since 1970.  The very fact that you are here is perhaps our greatest gain.  People from the four directions, having seen through the pilgrim myth, join us every year in the struggle to destroy that mythology.  I notice that there are even suddenly a couple of movies that claim to be setting the record straight.

I’m not here today to give movie reviews, but am glad to see that efforts are being made now to be more historically accurate. However, it is still outsiders telling our story.

Sadly, the conditions which prevailed in Indian Country at the first National Day of Mourning in 1970 still prevail today.  In 1970, we demanded an end to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  It is still a demand today.  Native nations do not need federal oversight to govern ourselves.  Mashpee, Aquinnah and other Native nations should not need legal permission from the state or feds to open any kind of business, including casinos, on our own ancestral lands.

Those who started Day of Mourning spoke of terrible racism and poverty.  Not only Native people but many people from the four directions face racism daily and are mired in the deepest poverty.  Every winter, millions of people have to make a bitter choice between heating and eating, and individuals and families are homeless in many towns and cities.  

As we did in 1970, we mourn the loss of millions of our ancestors and the devastation of our beautiful land and water and air.  We pray for our people who have died during this past year, and during the past 523 years since Columbus showed up.

I hope that you will join me in grieving, too, for our sisters and brothers in all countries; human beings, who are referred to by this government as “collateral damage.”  Keep in mind that for centuries, people throughout the Americas have been the “collateral damage” of the European invasion.  I also hope you will join me in grieving, too, for the immense suffering of our sisters and brothers in so many other countries, all human beings who suffer and face acts of terror on a daily basis.  Remember too, the hundreds of millions of people who are hungry today no matter where they live.

We condemn all acts of violence and terrorism perpetrated by all governments and organizations against innocent civilians worldwide. Since the invasion of Columbus and the rest of the Europeans, Native people have been virtually nonstop victims of terrorism.  The slaughter of the Pequots at Mystic, Connecticut, in 1637.  The U.S. military massacres of peaceful Native people at Wounded Knee and Sand Creek and so many, many other places.  The very foundations of this powerful and wealthy country are the theft of our lands and the slaughter of Native peoples, and the kidnapping and enslavement of our African sisters and brothers. We remind the modern-day pilgrims that their families were often refugees, and rebuke them for their current refusal to help others who are refugees.

Today, on liberated territory, we will correct some history and do so in a country that continues to glorify butchers such as Christopher Columbus, in a country that glorifies slave-owning presidents such as Washington and Jefferson and even carves their faces into the sacred Black Hills of the Lakota.

On our program will be only Native speakers.  This is one day when we speak for ourselves, without non-Native people, so-called “experts,” intervening to interpret and speak for us.  

That first Day of Mourning in 1970 was a powerful demonstration of Native unity.  Today is a powerful demonstration of not only Native unity, but the unity of all people who want to speak truth to power; people who want the truth to be told and want to see an end to the oppressive system brought to these shores by the pilgrim invaders.

Our very presence frees this land from the lies of the history books, the profiteers and the myth makers.  We will remember and honor all of our ancestors in struggle who went before us.  We will speak truth to power.  We will remember in particular all of our sisters and brothers, including Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal and Oscar López Rivera, who are caged in the iron houses.

In 1970, very few people would have given any thought to the fact that the Indigenous people of this hemisphere do not look upon the arrival of the European invaders as a reason to give thanks.

Today, many thousands stand with us in spirit as we commemorate our 46th National Day of Mourning.

In the spirit of Crazy Horse, in the spirit of Metacom, in the spirit of Geronimo.  We are not vanishing.  We are not conquered.  We are as strong as ever.