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There is always that question: “What do Indians think about Thanksgiving?” On two coasts Native people offered prayers.

In the San Francisco Bay, on the 50th anniversary of the Alcatraz occupation, there was a sunrise commemoration. This year the International Indian Treaty Council, an organization of Indigenous Peoples from North, Central, South America, the Arctic, Caribbean, and Pacific Islands, chose to honor those who originally occupied Alcatraz Island in 1969.

The nineteen month occupation by students of various tribal backgrounds focused attention on the rights of Indigenous tribal people in the United States raising issues ranging from treaty violations to termination and the removal of Indigenous children from their homes.

“It’s very important that we continue to carry out these sunrise gatherings twice a year on this sacred and historic place to tell the truth about our histories, share our cultures, and commemorate and give thanks to all those who have gone before us and who left us these ways, no matter what the sacrifice,” said Andrea Carmen, Yacqui, executive director of the International Indian Treaty Council. “We also give thanks for the lives of our children and future generations and recommit ourselves to do whatever is needed to protect Mother Earth and our ways of life so that they can survive and thrive.”

“We are gathering together in prayer, thanksgiving, and solidarity, sharing our resilient cultures and honoring the original occupiers who stood up and paved the way for us by asserting sovereignty and self-determination for all Indigenous peoples. Fifty years later, we continue their commitment to defend the rights of Indigenous peoples in the spirit of unity, resistance, and healing,” said Morning Star Gali, Pit River Nation, and the treaty council’s liaison to the California community.

Morning gathering on Alcatraz. (Photo courtesy of the International Indian Treaty Council and Morningstar Gali)

Morning gathering on Alcatraz. (Photo courtesy of the International Indian Treaty Council and Morningstar Gali)

The sunrise gathering began at 5 am with an Ohlone welcome, followed by California Indian traditional dance groups from the Ione Band of Miwok and Round Valley Pomo, and the Tule River Dance group. The Opening Blessing was an Ohlone welcoming offered by Dee Dee Manzaneras and Gregg Castro. Radley Davis from the Pit River Nation offered another prayer and inspiring words to all assembled: ” We are gathering here on Alcatraz this morning in order to re-connect with ourselves as Indigenous people. We want to pass on to our families, the next generation, the beauty and resiliency of our cultural traditions and heritage. We must honor those who sacrificed so much so that we can meet here this morning and give thanks as the sun rises yet again on our people.”

The Kumeyaay Bird Singers from Southern California traveled to Alcatraz in order to sing for the original occupiers and those assembled. It is rare for this group of California traditional singers to be heard and appreciated so far from their traditional homelands.

National Day of Mourning

On the other side of the continent, the Wampanoag were the first tribal people to meet who met those who landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts. The 50th annual National Day of Mourning took place in the seaside town where the Pilgrims settled.

United American Indians of New England has held the solemn remembrance on every Thanksgiving Day since 1970 to recall what organizers describe as "the genocide of millions of Native people, the theft of native lands and the relentless assault on native culture."

But Thursday's gathering raised another issue. 

Next year is the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims' landing in 1620. And as the 2020 events approach, members of the  Wampanoag Tribe are determined to ensure the world doesn't forget what happened.

"We talk about the history because we must," said Mahtowin Munro, a co-leader of the group.

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"The focus is always on the Pilgrims. We're just going to keep telling the truth," she said. "More and more nonnative people have been listening to us. They're trying to adjust their prism."

As they have on every Thanksgiving for the past half-century, participants will assemble at noon on Cole's Hill, a windswept mound overlooking Plymouth Rock, a memorial to the colonists' arrival.

Beneath a giant bronze statue of Massasoit, the Wampanoag leader in 1620, Native Americans from tribes around New England will beat drums, offer prayers and read speeches before marching through Plymouth's historic district, joined by dozens of sympathetic supporters. 

Francis Bremer, a Pilgrim scholar and professor emeritus of history at Pennsylvania's Millersville University, thinks the nation is becoming more receptive "to a side of the story that's too often been ignored."

"Fifty years ago, for non-Native people, these were uncomfortable truths they didn't want to hear. Now they're necessary truths," he said.

To help right old wrongs, Munro's coalition is pushing what it calls the Massachusetts Indigenous Legislative Agenda. Among other things, the campaign includes a proposal to redesign the state flag, which critics say is repressive. It depicts a muscular arm wielding a broadsword over a Native American holding a bow.

“Well, historically the Wampanoag’s had 13 thanksgiving celebrations. One for every new phase of the moon cycle. For example, we celebrated the New Year with the Herring returning to the river. We also celebrated the Strawberry thanksgiving, the Deer dropping antlers thanksgiving, the maple sugar flowing thanksgiving, so many, one for each month. Each month was celebrated with feasting, dancing, singing, playing team sports, the usual Native American things we do when we celebrate,” said Hartman Deetz, Wampanoag. “Remember that it was Squanto who first taught the English how to grow corn by putting herring in with the corn seed so that you could even have a decent harvest. They (the English) knew nothing about this. They had never planted seeds with fish.”

Deetsa said the Puritans celebrated their first harvest with a silent prayer and church. No feasting, music, dance, or sporting games.

“This was truly a mystery to us. Then as history tells us, they celebrated their second thanksgiving by killing every member of a neighboring Piquat village with poison. That was their first proclaimed thanksgiving. You can see from history what different worlds we inhabited simultaneously,” said Deetz.

Hartman Deetz calls Thanksgiving “a day of mourning. We mourn over the loss of people, culture, land, and traditions. The decision to honor this day in mourning started in 1970, during the occupation of Alcatraz. So today, on this day of November 28, the folks of Wampanoag remember Frank James Wumsutta, the Wampanoag from Aquinnah, Massachusetts which is on Martha’s Vineyard. We celebrate the 350th Anniversary of the Plymouth landing because when Frank James Wumsutta tried to give a speech that he was asked to write and deliver to the State Representatives in 1970, and they read it before he gave it, they rejected it. He was not allowed to read his speech,which was really quite conservative by today’s standards.”

The Day of Mourning started at the Statue of Massasoit. His name literally means “great leader” or “great hill.” Massa is the root word in the name Massachusett. His statue overlooks Plymouth Harbor ahd Plymouth rock.

Deetz is proud that many tribal people of the Mashpee Wampanoag marched on Thanksgiving day as a protest against the silencing of a great leader who spoke truth.

Nanette Deetz is Dakota, Cherokee, and German. Disclosure: Hartman or Matahunan Deetz is her cousin and a tribal member of the Mashpee Wampanoag.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.