When Cedric Cromwell sits down with his family for a meal on Thanksgiving each year, the day holds a unique kind of significance.
Cromwell is the chairman and president of the tribal council of the Mashpee Wampanoag, the same Native American tribe that first made contact with the Pilgrims who arrived in Massachusetts in 1620. While the Wampanoag welcomed the Pilgrims and helped them ensure a successful first harvest, they were nearly wiped out by warfare and disease that arrived with the settlers.
For Cromwell, Thanksgiving is an opportunity to give thanks, but also to highlight the way that his people suffered at the hands of the settlers.
“We are Americans as well, and so even today, I sit down at Thanksgiving with family,” he said. “I do have that Thanksgiving meal on that day with family but it gives me an opportunity to speak to the kids and the family about the truth of the day, and why that day is important to give thanks.”
Cromwell’s perspective illustrates the dual meaning that Thanksgiving holds for some Native Americans. The day is both a chance to ceremoniously express gratitude — a practice that existed in Native American culture before the Pilgrims arrived — and an opportunity to highlight the challenges the community faces today. Just as some are pushing to recognize “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” on Columbus Day, there is an effort to use the Thanksgiving holiday to bring an accurate representation of Native American history into mainstream American culture.
Cromwell said that it was important to both give thanks and highlight the brutal history Native Americans have faced.
“Some would say, ‘Why be so dark about it?’ Well, it’s real, it’s truthful, it was a holocaust, and that holocaust must be shared and communicated so that we ensure that mankind doesn’t do that to each other again,” Cromwell said. “We know this world is made up of travesty and tragedy. We also know that this world is made of a lot of goodness and hope and honesty and integrity.”
On Thanksgiving, between 700 and 1,200 people will gather in Plymouth, Massachusetts, for a “National Day of Mourning” to educate people about the vicious history of the treatment of Native Americans and the issues affecting them today.
The event has happened since the early 1970s, when Frank James, a Wampanoag leader, was barred from giving a speech that portrayed Europeans unfavorably at an event celebrating the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival.
“There’s nothing wrong with having a meal with friends and family, and I would say especially for many of us where our families have survived genocide, it’s so important for us to be able to sit down with each other and be grateful that we have food and to enjoy spending time with each other,” said Mahtowin Munro, a co-leader of United American Indians of New England, the group that organizes the event, who has attended every year since the 1980s.
“The real underlying issue is the mythology; there’s a view that we’re this big melting pot country, or there’s a view that the Natives and the Pilgrims lived happily ever after and the Native people just evaporated into the woods or something to make way for the Pilgrims and all of the other aspects of the European invasion,” she continued. “All around the country, schools continue to dress up their children in little Pilgrim and Indian costumes and the Indians welcome the Pilgrims and they all sit down together and everybody says ‘Isn’t that cute, that’s so nice.’ That’s not at all what happened.”
Munro said that her group encourages both Native Americans as well as non-Native Americans to attend the National Day of Mourning, where she expects speakers to touch on what happened to Native people, but also focus on contemporary issues like high dropout and suicide rates among Native American youth.
The suicide rate among Native Americans between ages 15 and 24 is 2.5 times the national rate, and the graduation rate among American Indians and Alaska Natives is the lowest for any racial or ethnic group, according to a 2014 White House report.
Munro added that she expects speakers to discuss efforts to get sports teams to change offensive mascots and names, express solidarity with the “Black Lives Matter” movement, and highlight the disproportionate number of Native Americans who are killed by police.
After the demonstration concludes, some who attend will leave to go and have a Thanksgiving meal with their families, while others will stay for a feast and social planned by event organizers, Munro said.
Ramona Peters, a tribal historic preservation officer for the Mashpee Wampanoag, said that highlighting the horrific treatment of Native Americans won’t stop her tribe from having a celebration to give thanks — something it did long before the Pilgrims arrived and does multiple times each year, not just on the day recognized as Thanksgiving.
The celebration started on the weekend before the holiday, with some Wampanoag going to church dressed in regalia to pray and then to a traditional fire where members of the tribe can gather to give thanks for the season — an event that can last multiple days.
While Peters said that she’s angry at the way that Native Americans were treated, she’s proud that the United States has a holiday to give thanks.
“As far as actually extending friendliness, I don’t want to be embarrassed or ashamed of that as a Wampanoag person,” she said. “It’s part of our culture and we had been that way long before they arrived and we still are.”
*This article was originally published on The Huffington Post by Sam Levine.