Life + Culture

Thanksgiving? or National Day of Mourning?


How do you celebrate Thanksgiving?

Many American Christians celebrate Thanksgiving as a day dedicated to celebrating all of the ways that God has blessed them. We enjoy the company of family, friends, and of course, a savory Thanksgiving meal! It’s a time of warmth, laughter, and love for many. For those who have small children, Thanksgiving often includes a little bit of teaching on the beautiful peace and feast that was shared on the very first Thanksgiving. Yet, amidst these celebrations happening all over our country this Thursday, the Wampanoag Tribe will be observing a day of mourning.


For those who need a quick history lesson, the Wampanoag Tribe is the Native American people group that those we refer to as ‘Pilgrims’ came and “had a feast with”. Chances are, if you are an adult in the here and now of 2015, you know that thanksgiving wasn’t the end of the story for our Native American brothers and sisters- But I’ll recount the story here.


According to the website for Plimoth Plantation:

“Giving thanks for the Creator’s gifts had always been a part of Wampanoag daily life. From ancient times, Native People of North America have held ceremonies to give thanks for successful harvests, for the hope of a good growing season in the early spring, and for other good fortune such as the birth of a child. Giving thanks was, and still is, the primary reason for ceremonies or celebrations.”

As with Native traditions in America, celebrations – complete with merrymaking and feasting – in England and throughout Europe after a successful crop are as ancient as the harvest-time itself. In 1621, when their labors were rewarded with a bountiful harvest after a year of sickness and scarcity, the Pilgrims gave thanks to God and celebrated His bounty in the Harvest Home tradition with feasting and sport (recreation). To these people of strong Christian faith, this was not merely a revel; it was also a joyous outpouring of gratitude”


This peace between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag was indeed very beautiful. The Pilgrims had barely survived up to this point, and the only reason they had was due to the Wampanoag Tribe teaching them how to survive in this new, strange, and unfamiliar climate. The feast we celebrate as Thanksgiving would not have happened if the Wampanoag had let the Pilgrims starve. But instead, the Wampanoag decided to help the strangers that had entered their land. I could draw a lot from that alone, and continue writing about how God was faithful and sent his people the Wompanoag as a means of survival- But the story didn’t end there. Although the Pilgrims may have been God-fearing people, they eventually looked for ways to use and usurp the very people that helped them in their time of need; Killing so many in the name of the very God they claimed to serve. According to National Geographic:


“The peace between the Native Americans and settlers lasted for only a generation. The Wampanoag people do not share in the popular reverence for the traditional New England Thanksgiving. For them, the holiday is a reminder of betrayal and bloodshed. Since 1970, many native people have gathered at the statue of Massasoit in Plymouth, Massachusetts each Thanksgiving Day to remember their ancestors and the strength of the Wampanoag.”


In 2015, that day so many of us celebrate with feasting and thanksgiving is not referred to as “Thanksgiving” for the Wampanoag Tribe. That day is formally recognized by United American Indians of New England as the National Day of Mourning– and many Native American’s all over the United States will observe this day, not with Joyous parades and feasting, but with protests, prayer, and fasting.


“Since 1970, Native Americans and our supporters have gathered at noon on Cole’s Hill in Plymouth to commemorate a National Day of Mourning on the US thanksgiving holiday. Many Native Americans do not celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims and other European settlers. Thanksgiving day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people, the theft of Native lands, and the relentless assault on Native culture. Participants in National Day of Mourning honor Native ancestors and the struggles of Native peoples to survive today. It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection as well as a protest of the racism and oppression which Native Americans continue to experience.”-UAINE


I once had a roommate who was a descendant of the Wampanoag people. When Thanksgiving came around, we had a house meeting to discuss how we wanted to celebrate this holiday. My roommate explained how Thanksgiving was very important to the Wampanoag, how it was something that was essential to everyday life. The Wampanoag people have living a lifestyle of Thanksgiving down! My roommate also shared how it was hurtful that people did not understand the National Day of Mourning, and how it was often condemned by people who only remember to live in a spirit of thanksgiving once a year. Every one of us living in the house was a Christian, and we wanted to thank God for our blessings, but also take time to be reverent and honor the lives that were lost. We wanted to embrace our roommate and cross the cultural divide that many Christian Americans refuse to even acknowledge. We ended up meeting in the middle, taking time for feasting and thanksgiving, as well as taking time to pray and mourn.


As Christians,as people who claim to follow Christ- It is so important for us to be informed and to be people of reconciliation, healing, hope, and love. I don’t think that means that we all have to march in solidarity with the Wampanoag this Thursday, but I do believe that our prayers should be there with them as we look for ways to promote the healing of a wound left open for so long. 


If you would like to learn more about the National Day of Mourning, click here:

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