For Me, Thanksgiving Is A “Day Of Mourning”

Photo: Yoon S. Byun/The Boston Globe/Getty Images.
An attendee lights a small fire at the National Day of Mourning in 2010.
Every year on Thanksgiving, the United American Indians of New England holds its own commemoration — a protest and march known as the National Day of Mourning in Plymouth, MA. Kisha James, a 17-year-old high school student of Lakota and Wampanoag descent, has been attending the Thanksgiving Day protests her whole life. She shared her story and what it means to her to be a Native American woman on Thanksgiving with Refinery29. As told to Lilli Petersen and edited for length and clarity. I remember vividly my first Thanksgiving in elementary school. The teacher sat the entire kindergarten class down and asked us to share what we were thankful for and talk about what we were going to do to celebrate that Thursday. Everybody else before me was like, "Oh, I’m going to be traveling to see my family," or "I’m going to be eating this amazing Thanksgiving dinner." When it got to me, of course, I didn't have those traditions to share. Instead, I was attending a protest. It wasn't until that moment, when I was around other children, that I really realized my family did something very different from them on Thanksgiving. Each Thanksgiving, we celebrate the Day of Mourning. Well, it’s not really celebrated, but it happens on the fourth Thursday of November — and it’s basically a reaction to the traditional Thanksgiving myth that the Pilgrims came over, landed on Plymouth Rock, and then sat down with the Indians and had a giant dinner. And they all got along, happily ever after, and that’s how America was created. The Day Of Mourning is a time for us Native Americans to voice our stories and views because, for the rest of the year, it seems that we’re often marginalized or aren’t featured in the media. It’s a day for a celebration of indigenous people, but it's also a day of mourning the loss of our ancestors and the loss of our country and lands.
Photo: Courtesy of Kisha James.
Kisha James at age 10, with her mother at the National Day of Mourning in 2009.
I started attending the Day of Mourning before I was even born. I was born in February of 1999, and my mom attended the November before while she was pregnant with me. I was there the next year, too, before I even celebrated my first birthday. Some of my oldest memories are probably the meal at the Day of Mourning, because the food is pretty great. I also remember watching my mom speak. Each year after those speeches, we march in a loop around Plymouth, and we stop at Plymouth Rock to scare some tourists and teach them about the history. (A lot of tourists flock to Plymouth Rock on Thanksgiving, for obvious reasons.) One of our speakers regives the history of Plymouth Rock from our point of view, what happened with the Pilgrims and that whole mythology. Many of the tourists usually ignore us because they’re just there to see the rock. Then we walk up to a big gathering space, and the social happens for several hours. It’s just a great time, very much like Thanksgiving dinner, but with a family of 700-plus people. It's always very hectic. There are a lot of people trying to get the same tables; the lines for the food are very long; and there’s a lot of laughter, joking, and hugging. People who haven’t seen each other, maybe in years, coming together and celebrating that they’re able to be there. The National Day of Mourning means a lot to those of us who’ve been coming here for years, because we feel like we belong there.

It’s very difficult growing up as a Native American youth in this country.

It’s very difficult growing up as a Native American youth in this country, because you feel like your people are basically invisible. So, by extension, you feel sort of invisible, like you’re caught between these two worlds, and you’re not really sure which one to follow. Because I’m a light-skinned Native American, I had this weird psychological complex going on for a while in middle school where I was sort of thinking that I could pass as a white person. I think that middle school is when most people go through weird change in their lives — I lost my way a little bit. There was a point where I was kind of ashamed that I didn’t celebrate the normal Thanksgiving. When people asked me, I would lie and say that I was doing something else, like going to see my family, because explaining it was so much harder than just going along with what everyone else was doing. I don’t think that there was ever a point where I really wanted to do this, but it was a mix between peer pressure and sort of losing myself in general — forgetting who I was, my racial and cultural identity. At the time, my mom's response was, "We have to go and do this. This needs to be told." I don’t think she ever really realized how lost I was at that point in terms of my cultural identity, but she could see that I was struggling with it a little bit. She knew that by going to the National Day of Mourning I would refind myself. It’s a time when I refind my cultural heritage and reground myself in it.
Photo: Courtesy of Kisha James.
Kisha James, center foreground in red, at the National Day of Mourning in 2015.
I think a lot of people might feel, "I don’t want to learn about this alternate history to Thanksgiving, because I don’t want to give up this beautiful myth that was created." And I think it’s okay to have your myth, but also know that there’s this other side of things. I don’t resent people who hold on to the Thanksgiving myth, but I would like it if they at least acknowledged that there is this other side. Those myths are very harmful to Native Americans, and especially Native American youth. I know it was very harmful to me as a child, because it made me actually question my cultural heritage. It made me question whether Native American history was valid or not. It made me question if I was valid as a human being. I think a lot of this perpetuation of the myth stems from people not asking if this might hurt someone. So, ask people if this might hurt them. I would definitely say, stay open to learning new things and meeting new people and learning their sides of the story. And if you want to get involved, come to the National Day of Mourning. I'll be there.

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