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Kisha James speaks in Plymouth, Massachusetts

"Many of the conditions that prevailed in Indian Country in 1970 still prevail today," Kisha James said in Plymouth, Massachusetts on November 24, 2022, pointing to life expectancy, suicide, and infant mortality rates—along with the rising death rate for Native women. (Photo: screenshot/hate5six/YouTube)

Indigenous People Push Back Against US 'Thanksgiving Mythology'

"We will not stop telling the truth about the Thanksgiving story and what happened to our ancestors," says Kisha James, whose grandfather founded the National Day of Mourning in 1970.

Jessica Corbett

The United American Indians of New England and allies gathered at noon Thursday at Cole's Hill in Plymouth, Massachusetts for the 53rd National Day of Mourning—an annual tradition that serves as "a day of remembrance and spiritual connection, as well as a protest against the racism and oppression that Indigenous people continue to experience worldwide."

"It has continued for all these years as a powerful demonstration of Indigenous unity and of the unity of all people who speak truth to power."

"We don't have any issues with people sitting down with their family and giving thanks," Kisha James—who is an enrolled member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) and is also Oglala Lakota—told BBC. "What we do object to is the Thanksgiving mythology."

In a Thursday speech, James—whose grandfather founded the National Day of Mourning in 1970—challenged the lies of "mythmakers" and history books, instead highlighting "genocide, the theft of our lands, the destruction of our traditional ways of life, slavery, starvation, and never-ending oppression."

"When people celebrate the myth of Thanksgiving, they are not only erasing our genocide but also celebrating it. We did not simply fade into the background as the Thanksgiving myth says. We have survived and flourished. We have persevered," she declared.

"That first Day of Mourning in 1970 was a powerful demonstration of Native unity," she said, "and it has continued for all these years as a powerful demonstration of Indigenous unity and of the unity of all people who speak truth to power."

James noted that "many of the conditions that prevailed in Indian Country in 1970 still prevail today," pointing to life expectancy, suicide, and infant mortality rates—along with the rising death rate for Native women—and taking aim at racism and "the oppression of a capitalist system which forces people to make a bitter choice between heating and eating."

"And we will continue to gather on this hill until we are free from the oppressive system; until corporations and the U.S. military stop polluting the Earth; until we dismantle the brutal apparatus of mass incarceration," James vowed.

"We will not stop," she said, "until the oppression of our LGBTQ siblings is a thing of the past; until unhoused people have homes; until human beings are no longer locked in cages at the U.S. border despite the fact that no one is illegal on stolen land; until Palestine is free; until no person goes hungry or is left to die because they have little or no access to quality healthcare; until insulin is free; until union-busting is a thing of the past; until then, the struggle will continue."

Writing about the annual event for The Lily last year, James explained that "my grandfather was heroic, and I am proud to be his granddaughter and help lead UAINE as we continue our work. But I also have noticed over the years, and especially while going through old newspaper clippings, that for decades the media often focused solely on the men as spokespeople and organizers of National Day of Mourning."

She continued:

In recent years, my mother and I have worked to ensure that women's voices, as well as those of two-spirit and LGBTQ people, are amplified at the National Day of Mourning. When I look at the Line 3 struggle or at the Indigenous people who were on the streets in Glasgow demanding climate justice, I see Indigenous people of all ages, and especially women and two-spirit leaders, as part of a continuum of resistance leading into the future.

Women have long been at the center of Indigenous activism, and are respected and revered within many traditional Indigenous cultures as leaders and culture-bearers—even if they were silenced by settlers. That's why it's crucial for our voices to be amplified within modern-day movements, especially because settler-colonial violence continues to disproportionately impact women, as evidenced by the ongoing epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in the United States and Canada.

James pledged that "we will not stop telling the truth about the Thanksgiving story and what happened to our ancestors."

The gathering in Massachusetts was not the only annual Indigenous-led event held Thursday.

Lakota historian Nick Estes—a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, co-founder of the Red Nation, and author of the book Our History Is the Future—tweeted: "On the East Coast, there is the National Day of Mourning. On the West Coast, today is marked by a sunrise ceremony to commemorate the Alcatraz Island takeover by the Indians of All Tribes in 1969."

"The reclaiming of Alcatraz… I call it one of the original 'land back' movements," Morning Star Gali, the community liaison coordinator for the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC), told Axios. "Alcatraz represented the lack of housing, the lack of education, the lack of having access to healthy food and clean water. None of that existed on the island."

The purpose of the 43rd annual Indigenous Peoples Thanksgiving Sunrise Gathering on Alcatraz Island, Ohlone Territory—hosted by IITC—is "to celebrate our resilience, resistance, and survival and to affirm truth in history," Gali wrote earlier this week for the San Francisco Examiner.

According to Gali:

Many Americans prefer a skewed retelling of Thanksgiving over the painful and shameful truth, because viewing the Day of Mourning through the lens of tribal people challenges their role in the continuing colonization of Native people in the United States and around the world. This includes appropriation of lands and resources, strategic disempowerment, and dehumanization of Indigenous people.

During the fall-themed holiday, the average American consumes 3,000 calories in celebration of an abundance of resources, while at the same time a recent study by the Native American Agricultural Fund found that 56% of Native people reported food insecurity during the pandemic. Many tribal nations in rural reservations have been designated as "food deserts" with lack of access to affordable, healthy, and traditional foods, resulting in diabetes and other poor health outcomes. Thanksgiving is the embodiment of Eurocentrism, overindulgence, and complete disregard for the trauma and lived experiences of Indigenous people.

"Today, Native people are disproportionately incarcerated in comparison to other racial and ethnic groups—double the incarceration of whites. Criminalization and confinement of Native people, Native women and youth in particular, is as American as apple pie," she added. "To gather diverse people and cultures in Indigenous-led prayer and solidarity on the island turns the notion of colonial Thanksgiving on its head and asserts the interconnection and resilience of Indigenous people, cultures, and lands."

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