Fifity years ago, then Massachusetts Gov. Frank Sargent invited Wamsutta Frank James, a member of the Aquinnah tribe of Gay Head, to participate in a ceremony marking the 350th anniversary of the arrival of the Pilgrims.
But James refused to join the celebration of people who took the land from the Native Americans, and instead gave a speech on Thanksgiving Day that was the Wampanoags' view of what befell them after the Pilgrims arrived in 1620. That speech marked the first National Day of Mourning, which Native Americans will commemorate again this year with speeches in Plymouth.
James' son Moonanum says his father was asked to submit his 1970 speech ahead of time so state officials organizing the 350th commemoration could “check it for grammatical errors.” But James, who passed away in 2001, was a highly educated teacher, Moonanum says, and what the organizers were really concerned about was what he might say.
Sure enough, James was not pulling punches. He had written: "We, the Wampanoag, welcomed you, the white man, with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end; that before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoag would no longer be a free people."
He went on to describe the taking of Indian land, atrocities, broken promises and the exploitation of the Native Americans, who the settlers called savages.
After reviewing the speech, the organizers told him that "the theme of the anniversary was brotherhood, and anything inflammatory would have been out of place,” Moonanum said.
Instead, he would only be allowed to speak if he delivered what Moonanum called “a sugar-coated speech,” written by the event's public relations team. James refused and decided to deliver his original speech in Plymouth on Thanksgiving Day, beginning the tradition that has continued each year.
Kisha James, president of Wellesley College's Native American Student Association, says her grandfather’s speech was an act of bravery, because at the time, no one in Plymouth was expecting that kind of pushback.
“He was really the first voice, really publicly saying that Thanksgiving should not be celebrated,” she told GBH News. “At National Day of Mourning, we say it's the one day of the year that people won't speak for us because essentially, they were trying to put words in my grandfather's mouth, and this has happened since the beginning of contact.”
Mahtowin Munro, co-leader of the United American Indians of New England, described James’ speech as a turning point.
“It was really a landmark event when it happened back in 1970. It really put not only Plymouth — but the world — on notice that indigenous people were not going to stand anymore for mythologizing the history of this country,” she said.
But Kisha James thinks not much has changed for Native Americans since her grandfather’s speech.
“In 1970, in the speeches that were given, they talked about how conditions on many Indian reservations are deplorable, and conditions in Indian country have very much remained the same,” she said.
Munro says, however, that the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement has also elevated awareness of the oppression of Native Americans.
“I do think because of the movement for Black lives in recent years, they've certainly opened up a lot of conversations about white supremacy," she said. "There are more openings as well for indigenous people to be able to tell our stories."
But that doesn’t mean her group will be retelling the Pilgrims’ story on this 400th anniversary, Munro says, pointing out that the history of Native Americans in Massachusetts goes back thousands of years before the Pilgrims' arrival.
“Our organization has had nothing to do with the 400th [anniversary of the Pilgrim's arrival] intentionally," she said. "We felt that telling our story within the framework of celebrating 400 years since the Pilgrims invaded was not the proper framework and that we would tell our story outside of that.”
At the conclusion of his original speech, James was hopeful.
“You, the white man, are celebrating an anniversary. It was the beginning of a new life for the Pilgrims. Now it is a beginning of a new determination for the original American: the American Indian,” he said.
Since James' speech 50 years ago, Munro says, there has been a change in how Native Americans see themselves.
”I think there's much more Native pride now, there's a lot of commitment to making things better in our communities and for our children," she said. "I think there's just been a real change since that time. And I think that's something that he foresaw.”