Thanksgiving vs. the National Day of Mourning

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A new historical and cultural novel by Larry Spotted Crow Mann (Nipmuc), The Mourning Road to Thanksgiving, challenges the stereotypical American holiday tradition. The story centers on the experiences of a 40-year-old Nipmuc man coming to terms with his life experiences in the midst of family and societal crosscurrents. Mann's writing evokes memories of struggle, leavened with humor and laughter, as it moves toward a resolution of cultural contradictions built into the notion of Thanksgiving in America.

November was declared "Native American Heritage Month" in 1990, when President Bush first signed a joint resolution of the U.S. Congress to that effect. Previously, a variety of days and weeks had been declared to "honor" Indians, sometimes at the behest of Indian leaders and organizations. Even when promoted by Indians, however, it seems the theme was more identity politics than historical honor: images of feathers and drums, rather than a time of reflection about American history.

Mann's novel plays with all this, managing to work through the ways Indian identity politics affect Indians as well as non-Indians. The story opens with his protagonist, Neempau, returning home after a decade or more away. Neempau has been radicalized not only by his experiences of anti-Indian racism, starting in grade school, but by his involvement with the National Day of Mourning movement begun in the 1970s by United American Indians of New England.

Neempau wants to put an end to the Thanksgiving holiday. His sister, Keenah, has made her peace with the dominant cultural narrative, though she clearly remembers their parents as American Indian activists. The relationships among brother and sister, her Nipmuc husband who has a successful job with an insurance company, their two children, and other members of the Nipmuc community provide the fictional framework to work through layers of confusion and contradiction in American and Indian cultures.

Native American Heritage Month offers an annual fork in the road for American culture: one path celebrates the stereotypes of Indians and Pilgrims and ignores the history of the American Holocaust; the other path uncovers the history and explores its continuing effects in the world. Both paths may include family and community gatherings around tables of food.

A federal Native American Heritage Month website sponsored by a coalition of agencies, chief among them the Library of Congress, provides an extensive menu of educational materials that peek beneath the surface of American culture, but without ruffling too many feathers. These materials appear to aim for the middle ground between the two paths—safe for people who only want the turkey and cranberry sauce, but pointing to deeper issues for those who want food for thought.

The Teacher's Guide to primary sources on the website includes memoirs and photographs from the infamous Indian boarding schools. The introduction states (understates), "Indians have weathered conscious attempts to replace their traditional ways with those sanctioned by the U.S. government." It adds that the purpose of the boarding schools was "to remove Indian children from the influence of tribal traditions and offer them a proper education."

"Conscious attempts" surely indicates the boarding schools were not an accidental tactic, but it doesn't come close to acknowledging that "removing Indian children from the influence of tribal traditions" meant kidnapping Indian children from their homes. And the Guide doesn't put "proper education" in quotes, which it should be, because the definition of "proper"—like "beauty—arises in the mind of the beholder. There is and was nothing "improper" about traditional Indian education.

The Guide goes on to say that the purpose of the boarding schools was "to make Indian children patriotic and productive citizens." This implies that traditional Indians were not "productive." As for "patriotism," the boarding schools were actually trying to undermine organic Native patriotism and replace it with a synthetic patriotism of allegiance to the United States.

One more example from the Guide: It says the boarding schools "strictly adhered to the speaking of only the English language. They were conducted with military-like schedules and discipline." This doesn't admit that the tactics employed included brutal beatings, solitary confinement, and other horrible punishments, often resulting in children's deaths.

When we add what the Bureau of Indian Affairs website says about National Native American Heritage Month, we have all the evidence we need to prove that conventional Thanksgiving does not accurately symbolize American Indian—or American—heritage. According to the BIA website, "Americans both Indian and non-Indian have urged that there be permanently designated by the nation a special place on the calendar to honor the contributions, achievements, sacrifices, and cultural and historical legacy of the original inhabitants of what is now the United States."

Needless to say, this "special place on the calendar" does not substitute for the historical dispossession of Native peoples from their special places on Earth. The reference to "sacrifices" hardly touches the surface of the American Holocaust. The "contributions [and] achievements" barely hints at the heroic survival of Native peoples against nearly overwhelming violence, disease, displacement, racism, religious discrimination, and all the other historical events that have burdened and endangered Native peoples.

Larry Mann's book deserves a special place among the resources available to teachers and students trying to learn what makes Thanksgiving a contested holiday. His novel touches all the atrocities that a sensitive and critical character cannot forget as he comes face-to-face with yet another Thanksgiving, struggles through his anger and memories, and comes to understand that "every day is Thanksgiving, so we don't need any special time or day."

If you want to know more about the history of Thanksgiving as a special day, the websites mentioned above have useful starting points, but they can only help you come to terms with that history if you read critically and with an open heart and mind. Larry Mann's book can help you do that.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was Staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on indigenous issues.