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National Day of Mourning Event Commemorates Thanksgiving from Native American Perspective

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Posted Nov. 27, 2013

Interview with Moonanum James, co-leader of the United American Indians of New England, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

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Thanksgiving Day marks the 44th annual Day of Mourning at Plymouth Rock, Mass., organized by the United American Indians of New England. The event was initiated in 1970 when Wampanoag leader Frank James was asked to give a speech at a Boston celebration of the friendship between the Pilgrims and the native people they met, who helped them survive.

James submitted his proposed speech, based on the writings of a Pilgrim settler, which described the mistreatment of the natives by the English, but was told the speech could not be delivered. In response, he put the call out for native people to gather in Plymouth, to mourn instead of celebrate, and to voice their demands for self-determination, an end to racism – and since 1977 – freedom for imprisoned Native American activist Leonard Peltier.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Moonanum James, the son of event founder Frank James, who now serves as coleader of the United American Indians of New England. Here, James describes the Thanksgiving day Mourning event, some of their current demands, and explains why his group embraces the participation of non-natives in their Thanksgiving Day protest.

MOONANUM JAMES: Well, at noon we gather on Cole's Hill, and we have a speakout where only native people are allowed to speak, and the reason we go to Cole's Hill is there's a statue of Massasoit on it, and Massasoit was the supreme sachem of the Wampanoag when the Pilgrims arrived, and I'm a Wampanoag myself. And the speak-out might take an hour, hour and a half just depending on the number of people who want to speak. And then we have a march; we go down by Plymouth Rock, and I say a few words about how ridiculous the mythology behind Plymouth Rock. And then we go down to Post Office Square, which is where King Philip, or Metacom's head – and Metacom was the youngest son of Massasoit – who would become chief. And when he was killed, the English cut off his head and both his hands, and sent one to Boston and one to England, but they displayed his head on a pike for over 20 years in Post Office Square. And after we have a little gathering there, a little bit of a rally, we go in and we have a social and over the last few years we've been feeding 3, 4, 500 people. We don't keep a count – just anyone who needs a meal, they come and we'll feed 'em.

BETWEEN THE LINES: I understand the violence isn't all in the distant past, right?

MOONANUM JAMES: In 1997, 25 of us were arrested basically for marching on our own land. Twenty-five people were pepper-sprayed, thrown to the ground, handcuffed and taken to jail. And after a long negotiation process – the ACLU got involved, it's quite complicated – we were able to reach an agreement with Plymouth. They dropped all the charges; we have two beautiful historical markers in town; one in Cole's Hill tells people why we're there, why we've been there since 1970, and we also have one in Post Office Square that addresses King Philip's head being displayed on a pike. So some of the goals we've been able to get; getting all those charges dropped; we got some funds to start an education project; no individual got any money. And every year (Leonard Peltier) sends a statement to us, and we do demand freedom for him. Another one of our demands is that the Bureau of Indian Affairs pay up. They owe billions of dollars in royalties for oil drilling leases, land use leases, all over the country. We also demand that the sports teams stop using racist logos.

BETWEEN THE LINES: I know the day also includes solidarity with native activist Leonard Pelter, who was convicted in 1977 of killing two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota in a trial that's considered by many to be completely corrupt.

MOONANUM JAMES: Well, it's been a number of years. Every year we call for clemency, for him getting out of jail, because even the government in open court has said they don't know who's responsible for shooting those FBI officers, and yet he's still sitting in prison. It's just a sad thing. And every year he sends a statement to us, and we do demand freedom for him. Another one of our demands is that the Bureau of Indian Affairs pay up. They owe billions of dollars in royalties for oil drilling leases, land use leases, all over the country, and this money seems to be nowhere; they can't find it. We also demand that the sports teams stop using racist logos and things of that nature. I don't like the term Washington Redskins. I don't think anyone would like the term Jersey Jews, if you know what I'm getting at.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So you all are involved in a lot of native American struggles...

MOONANUM JAMES: Oh, yeah, we're involved in such things as getting food for the reservations, heat for the reservations, good medical care. I mean, after all, we have the highest suicide rate, the highest alcoholism rate of just about any group in this country. You know, some people have to make the choice between heating or eating. So we demand things along those lines, because we have people who come from a lot of these reservations and speak, talking about the conditions they face every day, and believe me, it's not going to a casino and getting a nice warm meal. Sometimes it's just trying to get a meal.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So what do you serve at the dinner? Is it what most Americans consider traditional Thanksgiving fare, or native foods, or what?

MOONANUM JAMES: We serve a variety of things, because we have vegans that come, we have vegetarians that come. We have, of course, turkey and ham and chowders and soups and breads and pies and pastries, coffee, tea – you name it. The only thing we don't serve is alcohol.

BETWEEN THE LINES: I've heard the criticism that United American Indians of New England is actually mostly non-native.

MOONANUM JAMES: I wouldn't want to hazard a guess as to who's native, who's not native, because the people that come support us, whether they're green, white, pink. The issue is to stand in solidarity. It's really difficult and that criticism has been raised many, many times, but I don't want to turn it into a native people-only kind of thing; I prefer to look out and see people from the four directions, which means more to me than whether it's a native day, or whatever, because years and years ago, we did have mostly native people show up up there, and we decided that it should be expanded, that we should look out beyond just native people and invite everybody who'd like to participate and march with us. The only stipulation we still hold – and this is the way the elders set it up in 1970 – is, we don't need the so-called experts telling us anything. We're more than capable of speaking for ourselves.

For more information on the Day of Mourning event, visit the United American Indians of New England at uaine.org.

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