Kisha James’ grandfather (center) carrying a box. In the box are the Wampanoag human remains he and other National Day of Mourning protesters liberated from the Pilgrim Museum in 1974. (Courtesy of guest)
This year marks the 400th anniversary of pilgrims arriving at what’s now known as Plymouth, Massachusetts.
The so-called first Thanksgiving has been celebrated and taught to schoolchildren as the origin story of what would later become the United States. But many Native Americans say Thanksgiving Day is a reminder of the slaughter of millions of Indigenous people and the theft of their lands by outsiders.
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The United American Indians of New England declared Thanksgiving a National Day of Mourning 50 years ago. In 1970, the descendants of the pilgrims wanted to hold a banquet to celebrate the anniversary of the Mayflower landing in Plymouth and asked a Wampanoag man named Wamsutta Frank James to make a speech, says his granddaughter, Kisha James.
The banquet organizers invited Wamsutta Frank James to speak on one strict condition: He needed to provide a copy of the speech in advance. Under the guise of editing for spelling and grammar, their true motivation was to check the content, Kisha James says.
Her grandfather’s speech didn’t praise the pilgrims as their descendants wanted.
“They told him that he absolutely under no circumstances could give the speech that he was planning on giving and they offered to write him a different speech,” she says. “They were quite angry about the speech he wrote because it told the truth about Thanksgiving.”
Wamsutta Frank James by statue of Massasoit, in Plymouth, MA on the National Day of Mourning in the 1970s. (Courtesy of guest)
Wamsutta Frank James refused to give the edited speech, his granddaughter says. Instead, he and a group of supporters met atop Coles Hill in Plymouth on Nov. 27, 1970, to commemorate the first National Day of Mourning.
While millions of fellow Americans carve turkeys to celebrate Thanksgiving, 21-year-old Kisha James attends the National Day of Mourning every year.