By Matt Juul
The event, held annually on Thanksgiving, is meant to honor Native American ancestors who died due to the European invasion, and to expose the bloody history behind the November holiday.
Now in its 45th year, the National Day of Mourning’s organizers hope to shine a light on modern issues facing Native Americans today, as well as to bring more awareness to the real, horrific story behind Thanksgiving.
“I think there seems to be this myth in this country propagated about Thanksgiving that, ‘Oh, you know, the Pilgrims and the Indians all sat down to have a meal together and they were good friends and everybody lived happily ever after,” says Mahtowin Munro, co-leader of the United American Indians of New England, which organizes the annual event. “It’s really important for us to stand up and talk about what the reality was and to teach others about that reality.”
By Sonali Kolhatkar
American Indians are not simply a footnote in our collective origin story. They are here because they have survived genocide. Today there are nearly 3 million American Indians, comprising more than 500 federally recognized indigenous communities and nations. In the late 1800s, after centuries of extermination, there were fewer than 1 million indigenous people left who had descended from 15 million inhabitants of the land that we now call the United States of America. In a Nov. 5 interview on “Uprising,” Dunbar-Ortiz told me that “the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890 marks what people in the U.S. call ‘the end of the trail’—the last Indian. There was a [real] genocide and then a ‘narrative genocide’ in history.” It is this narrative genocide that Dunbar-Ortiz attempts to undermine, because, as she writes in her book, “it was crucial to make the reality and significance of Indigenous Peoples’ survival clear.”
To understand the magnitude of the genocide, it is instructive to lay out the pre-colonial sophistication of indigenous societies in the Americas. Not only were their agricultural systems highly developed to coexist with natural systems, they even invented methods of mass food storage, and charted trails within and between territories, many of which form the basis of the modern freeway system. Additionally, American Indians “were very healthy [and] lived long lives,” said Dunbar-Ortiz, “partly supported by excellent hygiene, which the Europeans always noted with some suspicion.” Many American Indian forms of self-government were matrilineal, which, explained Dunbar-Ortiz, was not simply “the opposite of patriarchy”; rather, it was a democratic form of government. In fact, “women were in charge of the food supply and the distribution of food.” There was also a rich and vibrant system of trade. These facts about pre-colonial Native American history “[don’t] make it out of the technical and archaeological journals,” she lamented.
The arrival of the pilgrims, which is celebrated today as part of this nation’s birth story, represented the beginning of the end of an indigenous way of life. Foremost in the project of extermination was the land grab, which is rooted in notions of “manifest destiny,” a sense of entitlement of land by Anglo settlers that was free for the taking. But that land was not free—it was inhabited for generations by indigenous people who had a very different approach to land ownership from the settlers. Dunbar-Ortiz expanded on that difference, saying, ” The United States when it was founded created this whole new idea of ‘parcels of land’ ... making parcels that were commodities for sale, real estate.” It promoted the notion of land as “private property,” which had never before existed on the continent.