Native Americans marked the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth, not with a celebration, but with the 50th anniversary of the National Day of Mourning gathering in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
The event, which began in 1970, has commemorated and reflected on the struggles Native Americans have faced since Europeans began colonizing their lands. The United American Indians Of New England, or UAINE, organizes the annual protest on Thanksgiving.
Kisha James — whose grandfather Wamsutta Frank James, a member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head Aquinnah, started the tradition — noted the continuing struggles that Native Americans confront.
"Sadly, many of the conditions that prevailed in Indian Country in 1970 still prevail today," she said. "In 1970, our average life expectancy was just 44 years. Today, it is up, but for Native men it is still six years below that of white people. Native women's death rate has increased 20 percent over the past 15 years."
James, a senior at Wellesley College, also cited disparities in income.
"In 1970, the average Native yearly income was $4,347," she said. "In 2019, 20 percent of Native people still earned under $5,000 per year. In 1970, our suicide and infant mortality rates were among the highest in the country. This has not changed."
The event was livestreamed and had to abandon some of its customs, like a potluck meal, because of the pandemic. Speakers also pointed out how COVID-19 has hit Native American communities especially hard.
"We pray for those who cannot be with us today. For all of the people in communities hit hard by COVID, especially Indigneous and Black and Latinx communities with much higher rates of hospitalizations and deaths," said Mahtowin Munro, co-leader of UAINE who is Lakota. "As of yesterday, the hard-hit Navajo Nation has had more than 15,000 positive cases and 638 deaths. Many other communities are suffering tremendously. Our people all too often lack basic resources: clean water for washing, decent healthcare and other things that would help to reduce the amount of sickness and death."
Samantha Maltais, who started the #MayflowersKill campaign to shed light on the history of colonization of Native Americans and how many of the same issues are prevalent today, said the traditional way Thanksgiving has been portrayed has impacted the community.
"The history of the Mayflower is very real and very present," said Maltais, who is Aquinnah. "It's our present and our future. And it's impacting us every day. Contact and colonialism impacts us every single day. And it's not just here. It's not just Plymouth or Massachusetts or New England. It's impacting Indian Country around the country. Tribes are fighting for their self-determination, their sovereignty in the courtroom, on the frontlines, in front of pipelines that are cutting through traditional burial grounds in sacred sites. And we're fighting this fight in the classroom, asking for people to listen to us and center Indigenous voices in the education that we teach about Thanksgiving."
Despite the struggles of Native American communities in the past year, Munro ended her speech on an optimistic note.
"I don't want anyone who hears this to feel like you should give up, despite how hard 2020 has been," she said. "We can fight together for climate justice. We can take care of each other and do our best to mask up and reduce the spread of this plague. We can end settler colonialism. We can reclaim our lands. We our not vanishing. We are not conquered. We are as strong as ever."