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National Day of Mourning: A 1970 protest changed how Native Americans see Thanksgiving

The Mayflower's arrival is often acknowledged on American Thanksgiving, because its legacy is entwined with the story of the first meal shared between the Pilgrims and local Wampanoag people. But celebrations surrounding the Mayflower have always been contentious. 
Mayflower II was a replica of the original Mayflower, which brought the pilgrims to Massachusetts. (Peter Stackpole/The LIFE Picture Collection)

400 years ago, the Mayflower arrived on the shores of Plymouth, Massachusetts, bringing the pilgrims to North America for the first time.

The ship's arrival is often acknowledged on American Thanksgiving, because its legacy is entwined with the story of the first meal shared between the pilgrims and local Wampanoag people. 

But celebrations surrounding the Mayflower have always been contentious. 

Fifty years ago, in 1970, plans were underway for the annual festivities, which included building a replica of the ship.

"The ship was … mainly set up for tourists to be able to kind of walk through, maybe get some sense of nostalgia of the harrowing trip that [the pilgrims] had taken to be able to create this new colony," said Kent Blansett, who is a Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Shawnee, Potawatomi  professor of history and Indigenous studies at the University of Kansas.

American Indian Movement (AIM) leader Russell Means at a press conference Oct. 18, 1973. Means was at the raid of the Mayflower replica on Thanksgiving in 1970. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

That year, during the Thanksgiving celebration, activists from the American Indian Movement — or AIM — stormed the Mayflower ship, and occupied it in protest. 

"It became a symbol that needed to be confronted, and Russell Means [from AIM] poignantly understood that confrontation," Blansett said. 

He explained that the protestors not only climbed aboard and took down the Union Jack, they also tossed a cannon and a mannequin meant to immortalize one of the ship's captains, off the deck.  

"It was about that time that the police showed up, and they agreed to peacefully leave the Mayflower." 

But, as Blansett explained, not everyone was involved in the protest.

"[The Wampanoag] would later go to the press and they would tell the press … 'we are not here to cause trouble, there's a difference of opinion here between the national Indians … [from] the American Indian Movement, and we locals about how we should mark this day." 

It was then that Wampanoag leader Frank James decided the day should instead be marked as a national day of mourning, to bring awareness to the long lasting impacts that colonization had on the Wampanoag and other Native American tribes.

Fifty years later, Blansett said we still need to examine Thanksgiving with a critical eye. 

"This is not a day that people should basically be eating to gluttonous proportions and then watching football," he said. 

"This is the day that they should be reflecting on the true history of this nation. And out of that, maybe learning a little bit about equity, learning a little bit about how to make this a better world, or a more just world." 

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