Fourth Thursday in November marks National Day of Mourning, others celebrate Thanksgiving

Nov. 28, 2019, marks the 50th anniversary of the National Day of Mourning and is an opportunity for non-native youth to explore Thanksgiving from the perspective of Native American and Indigenous people.

National Day of Mourning plaque
The National Day of Mourning plaque. Photo by Melissa Doroquez, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Thanksgiving is celebrated by many people in the United States as a holiday that brings together friends and family around the table for a feast and celebration of the harvest. For many, Thanksgiving evokes the story of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags joining together in neighborly friendship and sharing a meal together in peace. While it is true these groups did come together to feast in the autumn of 1621, the relationship between European colonists and Native Americans has been one that is largely marked by hostility, racism, oppression and genocide rather than peaceful relations.

The widespread cultural myths and misinformation that continue to surround and make up the “traditional” Thanksgiving story for many Americans is damaging and harmful to many Native Americans. Educational resources are available for those who want to help youth and young people learn about Thanksgiving and the relationship between European colonists and Native Americans in what is now the United States of America.

“Teaching about Thanksgiving in a socially responsible way means that educators accept the ethical obligation to provide students with accurate information and to reject traditions that sustain harmful stereotypes about Indigenous peoples,” says Amanda Morris in her article “Teaching Thanksgiving in a Socially Responsible Way,” published on the Teaching Tolerance website. Morris provides links to a variety of free online resources that are available to help educators interested in disrupting the hegemonic Thanksgiving story.

One of the resources Morris points to is a lesson plan for an activity called “Thanksgiving Mourning,” developed and made available by Teaching Tolerance, which helps young people explore Thanksgiving through the perspective of Native Americans. The lesson introduces students to two texts written by Native American authors that offer a different perspective on the Thanksgiving story than many non-Native Americans may be familiar with.

One of those texts is a speech written by Wamsutta James, an Aquinnah Wampanoag man, which was meant to be delivered in 1970 during a banquet in Massachusetts celebrating the 350th anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims, according to the United American Indians of New England. According to the United American Indians of New England, the organizers of the banquet asked to review James’ speech before the event and, upon reviewing it, decided it was not appropriate for occasion. Instead of giving his speech at the official banquet, James delivered his speech at Coles Hill in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and, in doing so, helped to establish the National Day of Mourning, which continues to be observed by some Native Americans on Thanksgiving.

“Thanksgiving Day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people, the theft of Native lands, and the relentless assault on Native culture,” according to the United American Indians of New England, which established and continues to provide leadership for the National Day of Mourning. “Participants in National Day of Mourning honor Native ancestors and the struggles of Native peoples to survive today. It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection as well as a protest of the racism and oppression which Native Americans continue to experience.”

In addition to the resources on the Teaching Tolerance website, National Geographic also offers a resource called “Recognizing Native American Perspectives: Thanksgiving and the National Day of Mourning” that helps teach young people about the topic.

Michigan State University Extension through Michigan 4-H youth development programming seeks to engage youth and the adults who serve them by providing programs and services that help youth become leaders in a globally connected and multicultural world while developing a commitment to civic service and responsibility. As a result, Michigan youth understand and respect the culture of others and are prepared to respond to local and global issues through leadership, civic engagement and volunteerism.

The educational resources pertaining to the National Day of Mourning that are provided by Teaching Tolerance and National Geographic could be used during 4-H programs and events led by other youth serving organizations as a means to help non-native youth learn about other cultures, history and contemporary experiences of Native American and Indigenous people in the United States of America.

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