Each year of the fourth Thursday in November, indigenous people of the eastern United States, led by the Wampanoag, observe the arrival of the Mayflower and the Pilgrims in Plymouth not as a day of thanksgiving, but of mourning. They mourn their authentic history. They mourn their ancestors and their children. And they mourn the mythology that undergirds the traditional celebration of Thanksgiving Day.

It began in 1970. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts and much of civil society in Plymouth prepared to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the arrival. A grand dinner was organized and, in an effort to re-enact the mythical 1621 thanksgiving feast of Pilgrims and Wampanoags, a community leader Wamsutta Frank James, a high school teacher from Cape Cod, was invited to speak.

When organizers of the event learned that James was going to speak critically of the Thanksgiving myth, they told him he would not be permitted to present his ideas. They offered to write him a different speech which praised the bravery of the Pilgrims and was silent about any negative reactions to their arrival. James asked how many other speakers had had their speeches scrutinized, and how many had been offered a chance to read someone else’s words. When he replied to their silence by insisting that Native people be given a place for their own voice, the invitation to participate was withdrawn.

Wamsutta reached out to other bands of Wampanoag and to other Indigenous nations of New England, as well as to national leaders of the American Indian Movement, to form the United American Indians of New England. UAINE called people together for a National Day of Mourning.

This is, of course, a political event. I think it is impossible to consider settler colonialism without getting political. At the gathering at the statue of Massasoit, only members of Native American nations speak. Supporters like me are asked to be silent and to step to the edges of the gathering. The political agenda of the morning and the telling of the story of mourning are left to the First Nations people themselves.

But it is also a deeply spiritual commemoration. Some people prepare for the gathering by dressing in particular clothes and marking their bodies with particular colors. An invocation of Spirit occurs by flute and drums. The medicine of smudging occurs with burnt sage grass and other herbs. For a while, all cameras are turned off as an invocation is made of the four colors and the four directions, and all the elements of earth. Leaders are blessed and elders and babes in arms are blessed. And the whole assembly stands for a few moments of silence listening to the sound of sea and wind, the birds and squirrels, our own hearts beating.

After a series of testimonies, the entire assembly walks together through the streets, parkways and by the monuments of Plymouth. As a gay man myself, this reminds me of how meaningful it is for me to participate in Pride marches each year. Perhaps the proudest declaration of pride at the National Day of Mourning is the bold assertion by UAINE: “We are not vanishing. We are not conquered. We are strong as ever.”

Here is a video about the National Day of Mourning created for the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower: