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The Refugees who Came for Thanksgiving

The Refugees who Came for Thanksgiving

As I prepare for the Thanksgiving holiday, I am reminded of the autumnal harvest time's spiritual significance. As a time of connectedness, I pause to acknowledge what I have to be thankful for. But I also reflect on the holiday as a time of remembrance—present and historical.

Presently, I hope over this holiday season there will be a change of heart with many U. S. governors now closing their doors to Syrian refugees since the recent terrorist attacks in France. Historically, I am reminded that for many Native Americans, Thanksgiving is not a cause of celebration, but rather a National Day of Mourning.

Since 1970, Native Americans have gathered at noon on Coles Hill in Plymouth to commemorate a National Day of Mourning on this U.S. holiday. And for the Wampanoag nation of New England whose name means “people of the dawn,” this national holiday is a reminder of the real significance of the first Thanksgiving in 1621 as a symbol of persecution of Native Americans and their long history of bloodshed with European settlers.

Oddly, the first group of settlers were refugees—the Pilgrims. And like many Syrians today, the Pilgrims were seeking a better life. However, the Pilgrims, who sought refuge here in America from religious persecution in their homeland, were right in their dogged pursuit of religious liberty. But their actual practice of religious liberty came at the expense of the civil rights of Native Americans. And because the Pilgrims’ fervor for religious liberty was devoid of an ethic of accountability, their actions did not set up the conditions requisite for moral liability and legal justice. Instead, the actions of the Pilgrims brought about the genocide of a people, a historical amnesia of the event, and an annual national celebration of Thanksgiving for their arrival.

In 1990, President George H.W. Bush designated November as “ national American Indian Heritage Month” to celebrate the history, art, and traditions of Native American people. As we get into the holiday spirit, let us remember the whole story of the arrival of the Pilgrims. "It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection as well as a protest of the racism and oppression which Native Americans continue to experience,” reads the text of the plaque on Coles Hill that overlooks Plymouth Rock, the mythic symbol of where the Pilgrims first landed. 

The United American Indians of New England (UAINE), a Native-led organization of Native people supporting Indigenous struggles in New England and throughout the Americas, as well as the struggles of communities of color, LGBTQ communities, and, yes, Pilgrim refugees understand the interconnections of struggles.

“Most pilgrims would have died during the harsh winter had it not been for the open arms of the Native Americans,” Taylor Bell wrote in "The Hypocrisy Of Refusing Refugees at Thanksgiving.”It is in the spirit of our connected struggles for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that we not solely focus on the story of Plymouth Rock but instead as Americans we focus on creating this nation as  a solid rock that rests on a multicultural and inclusive foundation.

And in so doing, it helps us to remember and respect the struggles that not only this nation’s foremothers and forefathers endured, but it  also helps us to remember and respect the present-day struggle Syrian refugees face as well as the ongoing struggle our Native American brothers and sisters face everyday—and particularly on Thanksgiving Day.