PLYMOUTH — More than a thousand people gathered Thursday afternoon on the hill overlooking Plymouth Harbor not to celebrate the Pilgrims’ arrival but to mark a solemn day of remembrance for the Indigenous people killed by European settlers and the ongoing injustices their descendants face today.
The 52nd annual Day of Mourning was an emotional event, as people hugged friends they hadn’t seen for months because of the pandemic and mourned those in their community who died as a result of the COVID-19 virus.
The event was organized by the United American Indians of New England. It took place on Cole’s Hill, just feet away from Plymouth Rock and the Mayflower II, a reproduction of the original ship that arrived in 1620 on land now known as Massachusetts. The sky was a clear blue Thursday afternoon and the mild temperatures perhaps contributed to a crowd so large it surprised event organizers.
After a program of speakers, the crowd marched down the hill to Plymouth Rock (or “Plymouth pebble,” as several speakers called it) and on to the town square, holding banners and filling the air with the scent of burnt sage.
“When people perpetuate the myth of Thanksgiving they are not only erasing our genocide but also celebrating it,” said the event’s first speaker, Kisha James, a member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe and the granddaughter of Wamsutta Frank James, one of the original founders of the National Day of Mourning in 1970.
From the podium James told the story of how in 1970 her grandfather had been invited by state officials to speak at a banquet celebrating the arrival of the Pilgrims. He was disinvited after state officials saw an advance copy of his speech, which named the atrocities committed by the settlers and reflected on the treatment of the Wampanoag. “Our spirit refuses to die,” the original speech said.
Since he was not allowed to speak, he and others organized the first Day of Mourning. The attendees marched around Plymouth, buried Plymouth Rock, boarded the Mayflower II, and threw the English flag overboard, James said.
In her speech James also tried to correct commonly held myths about the arrival of the English settlers. They arrived on outer Cape Cod, she said, not in Plymouth. They robbed Wampanoag graves and stole winter provisions of corn and beans.
Some Indigenous people did welcome the settlers and saved them from starvation, she said. “What did we get in return for this kindness? Genocide, the theft of our lands, slavery, starvation, and never-ending oppression.”
Scholars consider European settlers responsible for the deaths of millions of Indigenous people, primarily through the spread of diseases like smallpox and measles. Settlers also killed many Native Americans in wars, massacres, and other acts of violence. The mistreatment continued for centuries across all of North and South America.
The Indigenous population on the two continents decreased by between 80 and 98 percent following colonizers’ arrival in the early 1600s, according to various pieces of research.
James and other speakers also addressed many ongoing challenges faced by native peoples, including lower life expectancy and higher rates of poverty, suicide and infant mortality.
They called on President Biden and federal officials to return land back to Indigenous people and also spoke against climate change, mass incarceration, detention of immigrants at the border, homelessness, and other issues often faced by their communities.
“We are not vanishing, we are not conquered, we are as strong as ever,” James said.
Melissa Harding Ferretti, chairwoman of the Herring Pond Wampanoag Tribe, recited “A Prayer for Every Time” in the tribe’s native language, Wôpanâak.
The event drew Indigenous people from across the region and beyond. Buses left from Brooklyn and Yankee Stadium at 6 a.m. and also came from Boston.
“It is OK to celebrate and say thank you. It is not OK to celebrate genocide,” said Vanessa Inarunikia, a member of the Boriken Taino nation and an elder and founder of the Bohio Atabei, a Caribbean Indigenous women’s council, who drove from the Bronx to speak at the ceremony.
Among those in attendance was Olivia Maliszewski, 22, a member of the Rappahannock Tribe and a senior at Brown University who came with her parents and boyfriend.
As they were walking to the event, she heard an older white man telling an elderly woman that there were no Indigenous people in New England and questioning whether genocide had taken place.
“I looked at him and I was like ‘I am living proof that there are native people in New England!’ ” she said.
Maliszewski became emotional after the encounter. When she went to the bathroom to fix her makeup she also scrawled a message across her face in lipstick and permanent marker.
“Land back” her face read, a phrase that has become popular shorthand for the longstanding movement to return Indigenous lands to Indigenous people.
Maliszewski’s grandfather, who is now 92, was one of the organizers of the first National Day of Mourning in 1970, she said. She planned to visit him later that afternoon, she said, and tell him what had happened. Growing up he always told her to keep her head held high.
“I know he’ll tell me that I did the right thing,” she said.
Also in the crowd was Keith Kovacs, 63, of Woburn. Kovacs decided to attend the event on a whim, after he saw on Facebook that a friend planned to go. His ancestors were some of the earliest European settlers of Massachusetts, he said, and one was a Minuteman soldier.
As the ceremony began, Kovacs approached an Indigenous man who was performing a smudging ceremony, a ritual that involves burning sacred herbs as a type of cleansing. Kovacs apologized to the man on behalf of his ancestors.
“I really felt very powerfully that I needed to say I’m sorry, as a generational thing, for the wrongs that have been done,” he said.
Kovacs said he did not expect to become overwhelmed at the event, but he said he believes in the power of apologizing in all aspects of life. The men hugged and called each one another brothers.
“We can’t ignore the past. We have to acknowledge it and do better,” he said.