I was today years old when I learned about the National Day of Mourning. Intentionally coinciding with Thanksgiving Day, it is a day set aside by Native American tribes to mourn the millions of their ancestors who were murdered by uninvited European colonists. Established in 1970, the Day of Mourning is an attempt to tell a more honest story.
As a holiday, Thanksgiving began in 1637 when it was proclaimed by Governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to celebrate the safe return of the men who had gone to fight against the Pequot in Mystic, Connecticut. From the beginning, Thanksgiving Day has represented struggle and loss for the Native American population in our country.
In Plymouth this year, participants from all over New England beat drums, offered prayers and condemned what organizers described as "the unjust system based on racism, settler colonialism, sexism, homophobia and the profit-driven destruction of the Earth" before marching through downtown Plymouth's historical district. The march also paid special attention to the growing recognition of federal boarding schools all over the US and Canada, where children were taken from their families to be “assimilated” to become more “white” and where hundreds of bodies of children have been found
Coincidentally, this year on the National Day of Mourning I was reading, quite unintentionally, a book chapter on the history behind the Trail of Tears, which originated in my home state of Tennessee. I felt grief and sadness sitting with the losses this story in history represents…and the dishonesty and disregard it reveals by white men towards the original inhabitants of “our” land.
I know, I know. So many would read these words and think: “Great. Just more outrage. When will it stop? Can’t we just enjoy a day for our families and loved ones?”
I am exhausted by outrage, too. I also want to enjoy a day with family and loved ones. I also want to make sure we tell stories that are true, even if they are hard. Our days of celebration get to morph and change as we grow in our understanding of what our society needs. We get to sit around a table and eat and love and enjoy…and we get to grow and tell a truer story than we told last year. It can be both. It has to be both.
When I first saw the words “Day of Mourning” I read it in the context of the LGBTQ community in an article I saw online. I gave a cursory look at the article and, to be honest, I thought it meant something else. Before doing my research and diving into the history of the title, I assumed it referenced the mourning experienced by the LGBTQ community on Thanksgiving Day. This community knows about loss, too.
I went back and gave the article a more thorough read and discovered that the author was standing in solidarity with Native Americans as someone familiar with disenfranchisement, loss, and banishment.
I in NO way want to minimize the experience of Native Americans by comparing it to any other people group. Their grief and story is theirs alone to own, hold and tell.
What I DO want is to honor the grief experienced by people who do not feel the same joy on Thanksgiving Day as many white Americans.
So, if that is you, here is what I want to say: you made it, Sweetie.
You got through it. That deep reserve of grief that is brought on only by the overt and covert shunning from family and faith communities…you felt it, you held it, you reached out to someone, you created a new tradition, you leaned into your chosen family, you took care of yourself, and you got through. Maybe the sadness, although it still lingers, grows fainter with time. Even so, your body, heart and mind remembers. There is no shame in still struggling. It does not mean you aren’t growing and healing. It doesn’t mean you can never be ok. It just means that holidays are hard. Grief washes up and knocks you over like an unexpected wave on the beach. One minute you are enjoying the sun and the bopping up and down of tiny, tame waves and the next thing you know you are coughing and spurting up salt water through your nose. It can be scary, shocking and feels like you are going to die.
Maybe you showed up for the family meal, but the tension and lack of acceptance is like background noise that grates on your nervous system and leaves you feeling edgy and tearful for the rest of the day. My friend and colleague, Anne Marie calls it the “half embrace”. You know it when you get it. There are full embraces and there are half embraces.
Or? Maybe you are the family members who still are so stuck in rigid belief systems that prioritizes rightness over relationship that you are stuck behind prison bars that do not let you reach out and hug your loved one. I grieve for you, too. I mourn all that you are missing behind those bars.
I love seeing all of the family pictures on holidays. They make me smile. I hold that joy in my heart.
I also hold the grief.
I give thanks…and I mourn.
It can be both. It has to be.
Photo credit: https://www.wcvb.com/article/national-day-of-mourning-held-next-to-plymouth-rock-on-thanksgiving-day/38355234#