National Day of Mourning: Date, History & Observance

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Anyone with even a vague interest in Native American culture and history knows it to be fascinating. From oral folklore to Native American death rituals, there is plenty to explore and learn about.

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Those who know the subject also understand the history of Native Americans is fraught with struggle. It’s crucial that we remember this. Some Native Americans ensure we never forget the horrors of the past by organizing a National Day of Mourning for Native Americans every year.

What is the National Day of Mourning? When does it take place? What does it involve? The following guide will explore the subject in greater detail to help you appreciate why many Indigenous Americans consider this observance to be a very important day.

When is the National Day of Mourning?

The National Day of Mourning occurs every year on the fourth Thursday of November. You may have noticed this corresponds with a more well-known holiday in the US: Thanksgiving.

The National Day of Mourning became an annual tradition in 1970 because many members of Native American communities felt traditional Thanksgiving celebrations failed to accurately represent the way their ancestors suffered as a result of European colonization.

Observing the National Day of Mourning on the same day as Thanksgiving provides a different narrative. It also gives Native Americans an opportunity to direct attention and action to the way historical injustices continue to negatively affect their communities to this day.

Indigenous People’s Thanksgiving Day

The National Day of Mourning isn’t the only observance that challenges the typical Thanksgiving narrative. The National Day of Mourning began in Plymouth, MA, and has remained a primarily East Coast-based tradition. The West Coast has the Indigenous People’s Thanksgiving Day (although many continue to refer to it by its original informal name, “UnThanksgiving Day.”)

Indigenous People’s Thanksgiving Day began in November 1969 when Richard Oakes (who helped establish and develop a Native American-studies curriculum at San Francisco State University, one of the first of its kind in the nation) and several friends snuck onto Alcatraz Island. Although guards discovered them, they returned with more friends two weeks later.

Oakes and his fellow protesters cited the Right of Discovery as justification for the group claiming the island for Native Americans. This is the same doctrine the US government sometimes used when claiming lands that Native Americans previously owned.

Just a couple of days later, hundreds more joined the protest, bringing enough supplies to sustain an occupation that lasted 19 months. Now, many travel to Alcatraz Island on the fourth Thursday of November every year, participating in observances similar to those of the National Day of Mourning.

Not all participants are Native Americans either. For instance, during one recent Indigenous People’s Thanksgiving Day, NFL star Colin Kapernick joined the crowd to show solidarity and deliver a speech about the value of resistance in the face of injustice.

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What is the National Day of Mourning?

Regardless of how an American feels about their country today, all citizens need to recognize our dark past and its current-day impacts. We can’t ignore these realities. Instead, we need to acknowledge them. Doing so is the only way to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

In the US, it’s particularly important to understand that the Native Americans who originally called this country home suffered greatly during periods of conflict with European colonists. Native American tribes still feel the effects of this tragic past today.

Unfortunately, just as all nations have their historical tragedies, all nations also have citizens and leaders who try to cover up these blemishes instead of allowing citizens to accept and learn from them. The US is no exception, and perhaps one of the greatest perpetrators.

While there arguably may be some truth to the stories of peaceful cooperation between the Native Americans and colonists that inspired Thanksgiving, focusing solely on those stories every November can cause many to forget that most interactions between Native Americans and colonists were not peaceful.

That’s why many Americans also observe the National Day of Mourning every November. It doesn’t merely give Native American communities the chance to reflect on the pains their ancestors endured. It’s more important purpose might actually be to ensure non-Natives don’t forget about an important chapter in this nation’s history.

Origins

Wampanoag leader Wamsutta Frank James established the National Day of Mourning when the organizers of a banquet commemorating the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock invited him to deliver a speech.

However, when they read his notes and discovered he planned to address the darker side of the story, they canceled his appearance. This made him realize it’s important that Native Americans be able to talk about these issues on Thanksgiving. He started the National Day of Mourning to give them that opportunity annually. The observance has continued ever since.

How is the National Day of Mourning Observed?

The primary observances for the National Day of Mourning take place in Plymouth. However, many throughout the nation observe the National Day of Mourning in their own ways, even if they can’t visit Plymouth for the official events.

Cole’s Hill Gathering

The National Day of Mourning became an annual observation in 1970. Every year since, Native Americans have gathered at Cole’s Hill in Plymouth at noon. Many often hold signs or banners featuring protest messages that serve to remind onlookers that traditional beliefs about the nature of the first Thanksgiving may not be entirely accurate, and certainly downplay the severity of the experiences Native Americans suffered in the following years.

The United American Indians of New England sponsors the event every year. The gathering at Cole’s Hill also leads to a march through major historic areas of Plymouth. As a result, those who might want to hide from the past by simply avoiding Cole’s Hill that day may not be able to. The march forces them to confront a national shame.

Speeches

You don’t need to have Native American heritage to participate in the gatherings and marches that take place in Plymouth during the National Day of Mourning. The UAINE actually encourages people of any background to take part in the observances.

However, the UAINE does enforce some understandable restrictions. Specifically, the organization only allows Native Americans to deliver speeches about the struggles of their ancestors and their current communities.

This limitation corresponds with the National Day of Mourning’s very nature. Those who organize it believe non-Natives have claimed Native American history and attempted to make it their own (much the way European colonists claimed Native American land as their own) by misrepresenting what occurred during the First Thanksgiving.

Thus, it’s important that those delivering speeches during the National Day of Mourning only be Native Americans. Their goal is to reclaim their own voices.

Food & drink

Don’t make the mistake of assuming the National Day of Mourning is an exclusively somber affair. Although participants do emphasize the importance of treating the day as an occasion for serious reflection, like traditional Thanksgiving celebrations, National Day of Mourning observances also give members of a community the chance to come together and express their love and support for one another.

That’s why the UAINE encourages participants to bring food and drink. That said, the organization doesn’t allow participants to bring alcoholic beverages. This may be partially due to the ways relatively prevalent alcohol use among Native American populations (resulting from such factors as economic disadvantage and cultural trauma) has negatively impacted their communities.

Education

Many teachers throughout the US often feel pressure to only cover Thanksgiving in positive terms when the holiday approaches. This stops them from addressing important points regarding the conflicts between Native Americans and European colonists.

This is one of the main reasons the National Day of Mourning serves a useful purpose. Its existence gives educators more freedom to cover a crucial topic from a perspective that school curriculums might otherwise gloss over.

Using the National Day of Mourning to teach American students about the horrors inflicted upon the Native Americans isn’t necessarily an “official” way in which we observe this day. Additionally, because most schools in the US are off on Thanksgiving, teachers can’t deliver lessons about Native American history on the National Day of Mourning itself. However, many educators offer lessons in indigenous history in the weeks leading up to this day.

National Day of Mourning: The Importance of Cultural Memory

It’s important to understand that observing the National Day of Mourning isn’t something only Native Americans participate in.

On the contrary, its purpose is to encourage non-Natives to learn more about the United States’ shameful history. We can only learn from the past if we allow ourselves to remember it.


Sources

  1. Fermoso, Jose. “A Thanksgiving bonfire at dawn: celebrating Native American resistance on Alcatraz.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media Limited, 22 November 2018, www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/nov/22/thanksgiving-native-american-sunrise-ceremony-alcatraz-occupation-protest
  2. Juul, Matt. “National Day of Mourning Reflects on Thanksgiving’s Horrific, Bloody History.” Boston, Boston Globe Media Partners, LLC, 26 November 2014, www.boston.com/news/local-news/2014/11/26/national-day-of-mourning-reflects-on-thanksgivings-horrific-bloody-history
  3. “The Myth of Thanksgiving and National Day of Mourning.” Wellesley College, 3 December 2019, www.wellesley.edu/news/2019/stories/node/171551
  4. “National Day of Mourning.” National Today, National Today, 26 November 2020, nationaltoday.com/national-day-of-mourning/
  5. “Risks of Alcoholism Among Native Americans.” American Addiction Centers, American Addiction Centers, 02 January 2020, americanaddictioncenters.org/alcoholism-treatment/native-americans
  6. Wibby, Brian. “Fourth Thursday in November marks National Day of Mourning, others celebrate Thanksgiving.” MSU Extension 4-H Global & Cultural Education, Michigan State University, 14 November 2019, www.canr.msu.edu/news/fourth-thursday-in-november-marks-national-day-of-mourning-others-celebrate-thanksgiving

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