Why Some Native Americans in Cincinnati Observe a Day of Mourning on Thanksgiving

The goal isn’t to stop celebrating Thanksgiving, but to change what’s being celebrated—and its motivation.

When Jheri Neri thinks back to Thanksgiving dinner with his father, he remembers a couple bologna sandwiches and some Kool-Aid.

As an adult, he volunteers. This year, he’s planning to go to the Duke Energy Convention Center, which provides meals and clothing to people who need it and is home of the Fall Feast Coat Drive.

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY JHERI NERI

Neri, of Northside, is a member of the Ndé and Diné nations and the executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Native American Coalition. Instead of Thanksgiving, some native Americans recognize instead the National Day of Mourning.

Dating back to 1970, the National Day of Mourning started in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where indigenous people and their allies gather to commemorate the day. The day is meant to honor indigenous ancestors and native resilience, according to the United American Indians of New England (UAINE), which organizes the event.

It is, at its core, a demonstration, Neri says, and it’s about education. The elementary school story of pilgrims and Indians being friends for a meal is just that—a story.

Two histories, same events

When President Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, it wasn’t about recognizing early European settlers arriving to his country. Instead, the day was intended to be one of reconciliation, to think about the soldiers lost during the Civil War and to pray for the nation’s healing, Neri says. But that’s a mighty dark story, and over the years, the history of Thanksgiving took on a variety of myths and stories—of the pilgrims and Indians sharing all their food and getting along with one another.

Consider how History.com tells the story: In 1620, the Mayflower traveled from Plymouth, England, to the tip of Cape Cod and across Massachusetts Bay, where those first colonists established a new Plymouth. That first winter was brutal, and about half of the original group survived. The following spring, helped arrived through the Wampanoag Indians, who brought Squanto to help.

Squanto (was) a member of the Pawtuxet tribe who had been kidnapped by an English sea captain and sold into slavery before escaping to London and returning to his homeland on an exploratory expedition. Squanto taught the Pilgrims, weakened by malnutrition and illness, how to cultivate corn, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish in the rivers and avoid poisonous plants.

This interchange between Native Americans and European colonists is one of the only examples of goodwill and kinship between the two groups, according to the website.

It’s a version of the story many have heard, one of helpfulness and harmony, of native people handing America over to the European immigrants to create their nation.

But more detailed accounts aren’t so rosy. David Silverman is a history professor for the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C. In an interview with Smithsonian Magazine about his book This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving, he said:

“No question about it, Wampanoag leader Ousamequin reached out to the English at Plymouth and wanted an alliance with them. But it’s not because he was innately friendly. It’s because his people have been decimated by an epidemic disease, and Ousamequin sees the English as an opportunity to fend off his tribal rebels. That’s not the stuff of Thanksgiving pageants.”

Native people in Cincinnati

Locally, Neri estimates that Native Americans make up less than 1% of Cincinnati’s population, though it used to be a metropolis for Native Americans. He points to the Treaty of Greenville, which settled the dispute between the United States and the Northwest Indian Confederation. The Indians gave up most of what would come to be Ohio, plus chunks of Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan. That treaty was signed by many tribes: Miami, Delaware, Ojibwa, Ottawa, Potawatomi, and Shawnee, according to Encyclopædia Britannica.

Neri estimates that 50 tribes used to call this part of Ohio home, and 10,000 native people had trade routes from Cincinnati to the east coast and into Texas.

“The Miami in Oklahoma are not from Oklahoma. They’re from here,” he says. “They were forcefully removed, and their land was stolen, and they built this city on it. Now people say there’s no natives in Ohio.”

A slight tweak to Thanksgiving

Neri doesn’t expect or ask millions of Americans to abandon their Thanksgiving traditions to make way for the National Day of Mourning. Instead, it’s about understanding all this history.

“There are many people who celebrate Christmas, and they celebrate with a secret elf and Santa, but they understand that it’s a myth. They understand that that story is not true,” he says. So if someone can celebrate Christmas as the spirt of Christmas and recognize that Santa isn’t real, the same should be true with Thanksgiving, he says. “You should be able to gather with your family, understand that the story isn’t true at all, and talk about what the story is and have those discussion.”

He understands that some want to abolish Thanksgiving all together, but he also understands that the day is a tradition that has stood for the last 150 years. The goal isn’t to stop celebrating, but to change what’s being celebrated—and its motivation.

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