Teeksa Photography

Photography of
Skip Schiel

The 30th Annual National Day of Mourning, Thanksgiving, November 25, 1999,
Plymouth Massachusetts

By Skip Schiel


© All text copyright Skip Schiel, 2005 and earlier

National Day of Mourning, 1997, an altercation

The 30th annual day of mourning, how many I’ve been to I’m not sure, probably back to the early 1980s. Riding with friends, standing with friends, but without my partner who wished to have a day of reflection. Or to take a breath after many days of mourning to reconsider what her involvement with this sometimes divisive event might be.

This year about 300 people attended, one of the most diverse groups I’ve been in—elders and the very young, Indians, blacks, whites, Hispanics, perhaps a smattering of Asians, some looking completely straight, others with hoops and braids and tassels and nearly bare feet. A feeling of joy, celebration, accomplishment pervaded the crowd. Moonanum James reminded us of the 30 year history, beginning with his father (tho not named as father) invited by Plymouth elders to speak to the Indian condition, but not doing this in a manner pleasing to the town fathers who offered to rewrite his speech. He refused. The National Day of Mourning was born when he spoke his original words at the foot of Massasoit’s statue.

Speaking of the long history of genocide continuing to the present day when whites try to marginalize, discredit, ignore, and effectively silence Indians, Frank James brought his sensibility and oratorical powers to the shores of one of the founding points of this American nation. His son, and Moonanum’s wife, Mahtowin Munro, continue the rich tradition by telling us that the town has installed two temporary plaques as part of the settlement from the conflict 2 years ago. I was there, people fought, I photographed, and never could imagine such a settlement as this:

  • Commemorative plaques speaking truth about the Indian history, in particular, killing, dismembering, then displaying body parts from Metacom, or King Philip, leader of the rebellion in 1675. Plymouth displayed his head on a pike for some 20 years not far from where we marched yesterday. And about the Days of Mourning themselves. We saw and I photographed temporary plaques, with wording sounding suspiciously like that of the United American Indians of New England, Moonanum and Mahtowin. Bronze markers are being made. We heard that some Plymouth residents oppose the wording, bristling especially at the word genocide.
  • Permission to peacefully march thru town without a permit. This had been an issue in 1987. March leaders claimed they were indigenous people, their ancestors had lived here long before the ancestors of the white folk, and so they could march without a permit, town said no, altercation resulted.
  • Money for an educational fund.
  • And generally a more friendly attitude between the various factions, police, business people, speak out and march organizers, marchers.

Highlights of the speaking were for me Moonanum, his clear and ringing voice, without anger, with compassion and wisdom; several of the Indian elders whose words were not polished but were heartfelt; the Mayan elder who spoke of global concerns; the woman speaking for Mumia Abu Jamal, her pithiness and passion; and Mahtowin’s call to the gawking tourists to join in our parade. The rhetorical fellow was there again, in Mayan or Aztecan garb, bare legs, bare shoulders, fancy dancing type clothes, and as before he alternated between ranting and whispering, uttering a few useful-to-me phrases like Steve Biko’s "The most powerful weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed."

Drizzle fell on us, cold wind, but not stinging, eminently bearable. A friend, Michael, told me that last year, heeding a national call, some 2000 stood in the rain, a rain unremitting, cold, and driven by wind.

Another friend, Mary, greeted me, camera in hand and poised, snapping a shot of my buddy, JVB and me without asking—a fit retort to the tradition of whites grabbing shots of natives? I introduced her to JVB as someone who I might be working with to make prints from my recent trip. She underscored the word, might. I relied on her Indian appearance to alert JVB to her background, and didn’t say she was native. Later she introduced me to her partner, an older white haired white looking woman who extolled me about how important my photo workshop had been to Mary, how transformed she’d been. I listened, but had to beg off, saying, "Excuse me, but I have to get back to this," pointing to my camera.

The march was in process, we were nearly at the spot where the police had attempted to interrupt the march 2 years ago. We were then and now on our way to Plymouth Square, site of the head exhibit and burial hill and the Unitarian church whose congregation dates back to the founding year, 1620. "Here, gathered on this hill, the pilgrims first worshipped..."

A woman from the Boston Globe interviewed Mary, JVB, and his wife, Minga, and me—me saying, "Why do we call the founders pilgrims? What is pilgrimic about them, what in fact was their solemn and sacred mission?

Moonanum had declared the "pilgrim" mission in reality had been mercantile, it was a business venture. Yes, they were seeking religious freedom, but, he claimed, they had that in Holland. Recorded very clearly, as far as I know, is the Plymouth Compact setting out the mission and conditions of this colonizing effort.

Before Plymouth, another colonizing effort, Jamestown was attempted, but, Moonanum said, this had included cannibalism so the English were not keen to memorialize that attempt. And I believe the colony failed. Ditto for one in Maine. One lead might be to pursue the exact wording of the documents setting out Plymouth’s original mission, how much was money-based, how much prayer and worship?

Personally, I felt gleeful, content, achieving, fit to celebrate "our" accomplishment of gaining a new footing for Indian people in this most auspicious of places. To celebrate I joined the revelers at Memorial Hall, also part of the settlement I heard, from the city, for turkey plus. A long table of goodies, many people eating, organized by none other than Food Not Bombs. I stayed long enough to help serve, standing beside Linda Simon, dishing out turkey-based chili, turkey fricassee, succotash, squash, much of this Indian fare. I served the myriad others who’d stood and walked in the rain for our fundamental human rights.

Over the years perhaps, thanks to vision and tenacity, courage and surprise, the National Day of Mourning gradually turns to a day of celebration.

Our "Just Desserts"?

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