Thanksgiving has been a national holiday in the U.S. since President Abraham Lincoln declared it as such in 1863. Although President Lincoln holds a respected place for Americans of African descent, he is considerably less revered by Indigenous populations.
In 1863 America, under the Lincoln administration, Native Peoples were subjected to federal policies that were not only discriminatory, but culturally crippling. Federally mandated protocols like the construction of the transcontinental railroad deprived Indigenous people from their land and resources. Lincoln’s settlement policies displaced Indigenous populations from their natural land inhabitations to US government-run reservations. These moves were often brutal, such as the Navajo Nation that was forced to trek over 450 miles in their displacement and endure a loss of life of over 2,000 people. Also, during Lincoln’s term in office, several atrocities were perpetrated upon Indigenous peoples like the Dakota War and Sand Creek massacre.
America’s Indigenous populations therefore, overwhelmingly, did not feel they had anything to be grateful for back when this national holiday was originally commissioned. But the popularity of this holiday grew amongst Americans of European descent and is often quickly adopted as a uniquely American thing to do by immigrant populations, as well as racial and ethnic minorities. For many years, Indigenous peoples did not have the political power to protest the holiday or stop its growth into a holiday tradition. In fact, Indigenous Peoples were not even considered citizens of the U.S. until 1924 when President Calvin Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act. And even this act was more in response to gaining Indigenous enlistment in the military during World War I, rather than giving Indigenous peoples the rights and privileges afforded to citizens.
It wasn’t really until the civil rights era that Indigenous peoples began to push back against the Thanksgiving narrative. However, as Indigenous Peoples are as nuanced as other populations, over time, some adjusted to the holiday, while others even today resist this particular celebration.
Unthanksgiving Day, also known as the Indigenous Peoples Sunrise Ceremony, is an annual observance on the fourth Thursday in November. The organizers chose Thanksgiving specifically to raise awareness of the enormity of injustice Indigenous peoples have endured since the arrival of Europeans. The day is commemorated with a pre-sunrise ceremony organized by the International Indian Treaty Council. Different Indigenous nations don traditional clothing and perform traditional dances and speak about their history, culture and rights. Its roots began November 20, 1969 when a group of Indigenous Peoples calling themselves “Indians of All Tribes” took over the island of Alcatraz. This group of mainly young college students “claimed” the island, citing the Treaty of Fort Laramie. which was an agreement the US government made with an Indigenous nation that declared that any abandoned and out of use federal land was to be returned to the Native peoples who previously occupied it. As the Alcatraz prison had been closed and declared surplus property five years prior, the group of college students felt the island qualified as property to be reclaimed.
Although the initial takeover was mainly organized by college students and a charismatic leader, over time, multiple groups of Indigenous peoples became involved in this initiative and occupied the island for 19 months until President Richard Nixon sent in Federal marshals, FBI agents, and special forces police. Although the number of people holding the island had fallen considerably by then, this particular incident was instrumental in the US government development of policies that afforded Indigenous people the rights of self-determination.
Indigenous peoples who participate in this particular event present a different narrative of the Thanksgiving holiday. Unthanksgiving day is not the only Indigenous peoples’ observance held on the fourth Thursday in November. The ‘National Day of Mourning’ is held yearly in Plymouth, Massachusetts with the purpose of reminding and commemorating those who were lost during the genocide against Indigenous populations, and celebrating the resiliency of Indigenous populations who endured these aggressions.
American schools teach the story that religiously oppressed Europeans set sail for a new land seeking a place where they would be free to practice their own beliefs. These pious pilgrims settled in North America and were greeted by Indigenous peoples who helped, welcomed, and even joined with them in a harvest meal to celebrate their arrival. But, for those who attend the National Day of Mourning, they remind all that this story is a fable. In fact, the oral traditions of the descendants of the original Wampanoag people who interacted with these settlers have a different reality. The Wampanoag People had a longstanding history of working with other Indigenous nations and sharing knowledge of terrain and harvesting. Their interaction with the European settlers was one of diplomacy and politics more so than celebrating an arrival. Although agreements were arduously developed due to cultural and language impediments, the European settlers seldom held up their end and encroached upon the Indigenous people and their lands. In fact, the oral histories of the Wampanoag people tell of how there were many harvest feasts in the 1630s, and how these feasts were typically held by the European settlers to celebrate the military victories they had achieved over the Indigenous population.
The National Day of Mourning began in 1970 with the express goal of showcasing the oral histories of Indigenous people and bringing awareness of the genocide perpetrated upon them. It is held at Cole’s Hill which is above Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts, the original site of the European settlers. The organizers seek to educate the public on the true history of Thanksgiving. Although this observation is over 50 years old, the attendance is mainly Native Peoples themselves, who come together and support each other during this time when their fellow citizens gather for an observance with an unknown and misunderstood bitter origin.
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