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Native American Thanksgiving protest draws thousands with virtual event

In Plymouth, the National Day of Mourning observed the harm Indigenous tribes suffered from settlers.

People marched in in Plymouth while participating in the 50th anniversary of the National Day of Mourning.
People marched in in Plymouth while participating in the 50th anniversary of the National Day of Mourning.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

For the first time in half a century, thousands of people joined together for the National Day of Mourning both in person and virtually Thursday afternoon – underscoring the impact the pandemic has had on another longstanding tradition.

In rainy, warm weather, dozens assembled in person by the statue of Massasoit on Cole’s Hill in Plymouth at noon to reflect on the origins of Thanksgiving. A livestream of the event, hosted by the United American Indians of New England, was set up for people to participate from home.

Kisha James, the UAINE youth coordinator, who is Aquinnah Wampanoag and Lakota, said the National Day of Mourning is a time to reflect on the injustices Native Americans have faced since settlers arrived in America.

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“We have our own story to tell in our own way,” said James, the granddaughter of Wamsutta Frank James, the founder of National Day of Mourning. “We want to educate people so that they understand the stories we all learned in school about the first Thanksgiving are nothing but lies.”

At its peak, nearly 1,600 people were tuned into the livestream.

Hundreds of Native Americans have gathered annually for the Thanksgiving Day protest since its founding in 1970. To Native Americans, the holiday is a reminder of millions of ancestors who died at the hands of European colonists over the past four centuries, organizers said.

Chali'Naru Dones, of the United Confederation of Taino People, prayed while kneeling in front of the statue of Wampanoag sachem Massasoit.
Chali'Naru Dones, of the United Confederation of Taino People, prayed while kneeling in front of the statue of Wampanoag sachem Massasoit. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

“Some Wampanoag ancestors did welcome pilgrims with open arms,” James said. “And what did we get in return? Genocide, the theft of our lands, slavery, and never-ending oppression.”

In decades past, many stories about the origin of Thanksgiving have been corrected by Indigenous educators across the state, with teachers and parents following suit. As part of a revamped education, every public school in Massachusetts will receive copies of a new state history book cowritten by Linda Coombs, a member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe. The book documents America long before the colonists arrived.

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At the protest Thursday, organizers focused on the inequalities Native Americans still face in the United States. For example, the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe lost its effort to establish a sovereign reservation in Taunton to build a casino after a federal judge ruled four years earlier that the US government did not have the authority to confer the designation.

“Four hundred years after the arrival of the Mayflower, Indigenous people are still denied the respect and lands that are theirs by right. Change is long past due,” James said.

Billy Myers burned sage while marching.
Billy Myers burned sage while marching. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

COVID-19 has also had a disproportionate impact on Native American communities, according to a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Organizers also touched on the higher infant mortality rates and lower life expectancy among members within the Indigenous community.

During her speech, Mahtowin Munro, coleader of UAINE, criticized state officials for not voting to redesign the state flag, which depicts an arm holding a sword over the head of a Native American, not banning the use of Native American mascots, and not changing the name of Faneuil Hall, which is named after Peter Faneuil, a merchant and slave trader.

“Let us not forget this country was founded on white supremacy, the widespread practice of slavery, and a policy of genocide and land theft,” she said.

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Previous Globe materials were used for this report.


Matt Berg can be reached at matthew.berg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattberg33.