Youth leader at National Day of Mourning: ‘We are not vanishing’
By Kimimilasha James
The following is a slightly edited talk given by Kimimilasha James on Nov. 25 at the 52nd commemoration of the National Day of Mourning on Cole’s Hill, in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
Once again on the fourth Thursday in November, United American Indians of New England and our supporters are gathered on this hill to observe a National Day of Mourning for Indigenous people murdered by settler colonialism and imperialism worldwide. Today marks the 52nd time we have gathered here to mourn our ancestors, confront settler mythologies and speak truth to power.
When 200 Native people and their allies gathered in this exact spot 51 years ago to observe the first National Day of Mourning, they could not have foreseen that generations would continue to gather here, year after year, carrying on this tradition. Many of the elders who stood on this hill and organized that first National Day of Mourning are no longer with us, but we feel their spirits guiding us today.
Today we mourn the loss of Aquinnah Wampanoag elder and UAINE co-leader Moonanum James, who joined the ancestors in December of last year, and Wampanoag elder Bert Waters, who entered the spirit world in August of this year. We are also thinking today of so many others, especially those we have lost during the ongoing pandemic. We mourn their loss.
Today, I want to tell you the story of the National Day of Mourning, which was founded by my grandfather, Wamsutta Frank James, an Aquinnah Wampanoag tribal member, more than 50 years ago in 1970. He had been invited by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to speak at a banquet celebrating the 350th anniversary of the arrival of the Pilgrims.
The organizers of the banquet no doubt imagined that Wamsutta would give an appreciative and complimentary speech, singing the praises of the American settler-colonial project and thanking the Pilgrims for bringing “civilization” to these shores. However, the speech that Wamsutta wrote, which was based on historical fact, was a far cry from complimentary.
‘Our spirit refuses to die’
Wamsutta’s speech not only named some of the atrocities committed by the settlers and reflected on the treatment of the Wampanoag at the hands of the Pilgrims but also contained a powerful message of Native pride. “Our spirit refuses to die,” he wrote. “Yesterday we walked the woodland paths and sandy trails. Today we must walk the macadam highways and roads. We are uniting. . . . We stand tall and proud; and before too many moons pass, we’ll right the wrongs we have allowed to happen to us.”
When state officials saw an advance copy of Wamsutta’s speech, they refused to allow him to deliver it, saying that the speech was too “inflammatory.” They told him he could speak, only if he were willing to offer false praise of the Pilgrims. The organizers even offered to write a speech for him, one which would better fit with their settler-colonialist narrative.
But Wamsutta refused to have words put into his mouth. His suppressed speech was printed in newspapers across the country, and he and other local Native activists began to plan a protest. The flyer for this protest, which was circulated among Native people nationwide, read: “What do we have to be thankful for? The United American Indians of New England have declared Thanksgiving Day to be a National Day of Mourning for Native Americans.”
1970: First National Day of Mourning
On so-called “Thanksgiving” Day 1970, Wamsutta and members of at least 25 tribes, as well as a sprinkling of non-Native allies, gathered here on this hill and observed the first National Day of Mourning. That first year, my grandfather never got a chance to deliver his suppressed speech, although some who don’t actually know our history say he did.
Up to 200 Native people and their allies gathered on that day. Indigenous people from this region and members of the Boston Indian Council organized and were joined by others, including some famous members of the American Indian Movement. They spoke out about the Pilgrim invasion and conditions in Indian Country, marched around Plymouth, boarded the Mayflower II and threw the English flag overboard. They even buried Plymouth Rock!
One AIM leader would later say of the first National Day of Mourning: “It is a day American Indians won’t forget. We went to Plymouth for a purpose: to mourn since the landing of the Pilgrims the repression of the American Indian; and to indict the hypocrisy of a system which glorifies that repression. We fulfilled that purpose and gained a spirit of unity that spread across the land.”
National Day of Mourning continued across the years. In the 1970s, UAINE demanded the return of the bones of a Wampanoag girl that were being held by the gravedigger settlers at the Pilgrim Hall Museum. At the fourth National Day of Mourning, my grandfather marched into the Pilgrim Hall Museum and took the bones back, so that they could receive a proper burial.
Over the years we repeatedly disrupted the Pilgrim Progress parade, a tradition we continued until 1996. The following year, in 1997, we were blocked on Leyden Street, brutalized by police and arrested without warning for simply trying to march peacefully. The resulting court case and settlement led to the National Day of Mourning plaque you see here on Cole’s Hill and the Metacomet plaque we will visit when we march.
Consistently, our organization has never collaborated with the Pilgrims or their institutions, whether the Mayflower Society, the Plymouth 400 international colonizer celebrations or the disgusting Thanksgiving parade that took place here five days ago, which members of local tribes rightfully protested.
So why do so many Native people object to the Thanksgiving myth? According to popular myth, the Pilgrims, seeking religious freedom, landed on Plymouth Rock. The Indians welcomed them with open arms and then conveniently faded into the background, and everyone lived happily ever after. The end.
The truth about the Pilgrims
First, the Pilgrims are glorified and mythologized, because the circumstances of the first permanent English colony in North America in Jamestown were too ugly to hold up as an effective national myth. No school seems to want to teach the kids about settler cannibalism. Pilgrims and Indians are a much more marketable story.
Second, the Pilgrims came here as part of a commercial venture. They didn’t need religious freedom; they already had that back in the Netherlands. The Mayflower Compact was merely a group of white men, who wanted to ensure they would get a return on their investment.
When the Pilgrims arrived — on Outer Cape Cod, not on that pebble down the hill — one of the first things they did was to rob Wampanoag graves at Corn Hill and steal as much of their winter provisions of corn and beans as they were able to carry. The writings of the colonists themselves describe these actions taking place.
The next part of the mythology is true: Some Wampanoag ancestors did welcome the Pilgrims and save them from starvation. And what did we get in return for this kindness? Genocide, the theft of our lands, slavery, starvation and never-ending repression.
It is also important to remember that the first official Thanksgiving did not take place in 1621 when the Pilgrims had a harvesttime meal provided largely by the Wampanoag. Instead, the first Thanksgiving was declared in 1637 by Governor [John] Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to celebrate the massacre of over 700 Pequot men, women and children on the banks of the Mystic River in Connecticut.
William Bradford of the Plymouth colony wrote of this event: “Those that escaped the fire were slain with the sword; some hewed to pieces, others run through with their rapiers. . . . they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire . . . 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.”
Subsequent slaughters of Indigenous people would be celebrated by a day of Thanksgiving. And yet the history books call us the savages!
So why does any of this matter? It is simple. When people perpetuate the myth of Thanksgiving, they are not only erasing our genocide but also celebrating it.
Speaking truth to power
But we did not simply fade into the background as the Thanksgiving myth says. We have survived and thrived. We have persevered. The very fact that you are here is proof that we did not vanish. Our very presence frees this land from the lies of the history books and the mythmakers. We will remember and honor all of our ancestors in the struggle who went before us. We will speak truth to power as we have been doing since the first Day of Mourning in 1970.
That first Day of Mourning was a powerful demonstration of Native unity. It has continued for all these years as a powerful demonstration of Indigenous unity and of the unity of all people who speak truth to power.
Sadly, many of the conditions that prevailed in Indian Country in 1970 still prevail today. In 1970, our average life expectancy was just 44 years. Today it is up, but for Native men it is still six years below that of white people. Native women’s death rate has increased 20% over the past 15 years. In 1970, the average yearly income for Native people was $4,347. In 2019, 20% of Native people still earned under $5,000. In 1970, our suicide and infant mortality rates were among the highest in the country. This has not changed.
We all know that racism is alive and well. All of us are struggling under the oppression of a capitalist system which forces people to make a bitter choice between heating and eating. We will continue to gather on this hill until corporations and the U.S. military stop polluting the earth. And until we dismantle the brutal apparatus of mass incarceration.
We will not stop until the oppression of our Two-Spirit siblings is a thing of the past. When the Freedmen are granted equal rights by the so-called “Five Civilized Tribes,” who enslaved their ancestors. When unhoused people have homes. When children are no longer taken from their parents and locked in cages.
The struggle will continue
When the Palestinians reclaim their homeland and the autonomy Israel has denied them for the past 70 years. When no person goes hungry or is left to die because they have little or no access to quality health care. When insulin is free. When union busting is a thing of the past. Until then, the struggle will continue.
In 1970 we demanded an end to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It is still a demand today. Native nations should not need federal oversight to govern ourselves or take control of our own lands.
As we did in 1970, we mourn the loss of millions of our ancestors and the devastation of the land, water and air.
We condemn all acts of violence and terrorism perpetrated by all governments and organizations against innocent people worldwide. Since the invasion of Columbus and the rest of the Europeans, Native people have been virtually nonstop victims of terrorism. From the colonial period to the 21st century, this has entailed torture, massacres, systematic military occupations and the forced removals of Indigenous peoples from their ancestral homelands.
Let us not forget that this country was founded on the ideology of white supremacy, the widespread practice of African slavery and a policy of genocide and land theft. Let us not forget that under the pipelines, skyscrapers, mines and the oil rigs lie the interred bones, sacred objects and villages of our Native ancestors.
On our program will be only Indigenous speakers. This is one day when we speak for ourselves, without non-Native people, so-called “experts,” intervening to interpret and speak for us.
Today on liberated territory, we will correct the history of a country that continues to glorify butchers such as Christopher Columbus, that makes slave-owning presidents such as Washington and Jefferson into god-like figures and even carves their faces into the sacred Black Hills of the Lakota.
‘We are as strong as ever’
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 the 2021 National Day of Mourning.
As my grandfather said in 1970: “We are now being heard; we are now being listened to. The important point is that . . . we still have the spirit; we still have the unique culture; we still have the will and, most important of all, the determination to remain as Indians. We are determined, and our presence here . . . is living testimony that this is only the beginning of the American Indian, particularly the Wampanoag, to regain the position in this country that is rightfully ours.”
In the spirit of Crazy Horse, in the spirit of Metacom, in the spirit of Geronimo. Above all, to all people who fight and struggle for real justice. We are not vanishing. We are not conquered. We are as strong as ever.