The 50th annual Indigenous Day of Mourning took place in Plymouth, Massachusetts on Nov. 28, the day others celebrate as Thanksgiving. This event has been organized for the last half-century by the United American Indians of New England. It was held on Cole’s Hill near a statue of the Wampanoag Chief Massasoit, above Plymouth Rock, as whitecaps roiled the ocean and a light rain fell.
On this day, only indigenous people speak, reminding those gathered round about historic injustices as well as current ones. Since the late 1970s, the event has included the reading of a letter sent for the occasion by imprisoned indigenous leader Leonard Peltier.
During the mid-1970s, the Pine Ridge Lakota reservation in South Dakota had the highest murder rate in the country, as those trying to live a more traditional lifestyle were terrorized by the tribal chairman and his allies, who actually called themselves the GOON Squad. The traditionalists requested security help from the American Indian Movement.
Two FBI agents who drove on to the reservation were involved in a firefight and were killed, along with a native man whose death was never investigated. Two AIM members were arrested, but were later acquitted of the murders of the agents, based on self-defense. Another AIM member, Leonard Peltier, fled to Canada, where he was extradited back to the U.S. based on perjured testimony. No evidence tied him directly to the crime, and the prosecution withheld exculpatory evidence. Peltier, who has always denied killing the agents, was convicted and sentenced to two consecutive life terms in prison. He is currently held at the federal penitentiary in Coleman, Florida, far from his family and where he suffers with serious health problems.
Peltier sends annual greetings to those gathered for the Thanksgiving “Day of Mourning,” here read by Bert Waters, a Wampanoag elder.
LEONARD PELTIER: The [year] of 2019 is coming to a close, and with it comes the day most Americans set aside as a day of thanksgiving. As I let my mind wander beyond the steel bars and concrete walls, I try to imagine what the people who live outside the prison gates are doing and what they are thinking. Do they ever think of the indigenous people who were forced from their homelands? Do they understand that with every step they take, no matter the direction, that they are walking on stolen land? Can they imagine even for one minute what it is like to watch the suffering of the women, the children, the babies, yes, the sick and elderly, as they were made to keep pushing west in freezing temperatures with little or no food? These were my people, and this was our land.
There was a time when we enjoyed freedom and were able to hunt buffalo and gather the foods and sacred medicines. We were able to fish and enjoy clean water. My people were generous; we shared everything we had, including the knowledge of how to survive the long, harsh winters and the hot, humid summers. We were appreciative of the gifts from our Creator and remembered to give thanks on a daily basis. We had ceremonies and special dances that were a celebration of life. With the coming of foreigners to our shores, life as we knew it would change drastically. Individual ownership was foreign to my people; fences were unheard of back then. We were a communal people and we took care of each other; our grandparents weren’t isolated from us. They were the keepers of wisdom and storytellers and were an important link to our families. The babies – they were, and are – our future. Look at the brilliant young people who put themselves at risk fighting to keep our water and environment clean and safe for the generations yet to come. They are willing to confront the giant multi-national corporations by educating the general public of the devastation being caused. I smile with hope when I think of them. They are fearless and ready to speak the truth to all who are willing to listen.
We also remember our brothers and sisters in Bolivia, who are rioting in support of the first indigenous president, Evo Morales. (cheers) His commitment to the people, the land, their resources and protection against corruption is commendable. We recognize and identify with that struggle so well.
So today, I thank all the people who are willing to have an open mind, those who are willing to accept the responsibility of planning for seven generations ahead, those who remember the sacrifices made by our ancestors so we can continue to speak our own languages, practice our own way of thankfulness in our own skin and that we always acknowledge and respect the indigenous lineage that we carry.
For those of you who are thankful that you have enough food to feed your families, please give to those who are less fortunate. If you are warm and have a comfortable shelter to live in, please give to those who are cold and homeless. If you are someone hurting and in need of kind words, or to be that person who steps forward and lends a hand, and especially, when you see injustice anywhere, please be brave enough to speak up to confront it. I want to thank all who are kind enough to remember me and my family, in your thoughts and prayers. Thank you for continuing to support and believe in me. There isn’t a minute in any day that passes without me hoping this will be the day I will be granted freedom. I long for the day when I can smell clean, fresh air, when I can feel a gentle breeze in my hair, witness the clouds as their movement hides the sun and when the moon shines light on the path of the sacred inipi – that would truly be a day I could call a day of thanksgiving.
Thank you for listening to whomever is voicing my words. My spirit is there with you [indigenous word].
In the spirit of Crazy Horse, Leonard Peltier.
For more information, visit United American Indians of New England at uaine.org.