Standing at Plymouth Rock

By Michael Blanche

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Protesters march through Plymoth, Mass. during the National Day of Mourning commemorated by the United American Indians of New England. Photo by Michael Blanche

Not everyone celebrates a traditional Thanksgiving. In fact, certain people find the holiday disturbing and traumatizing.

I visited Plymouth Rock on Nov. 24 to witness the National Day of Mourning, observed by people of Native American heritage.

I arrived in Plymouth, Mass. shortly after 9 a.m. and walked towards the Plymouth Rock Monument on the Cape Cod Bayfront where some people had gathered to see the actual rock, engraved with the year 1620.

It was a bitter cold and overcast day with spurts of drizzling rain, low-spirited scenery be fitting the tone of the afternoon event and people recalling ancestral genocide and exploitation.

At 10:30 a.m., a small parade of people dressed as Pilgrims walked along Water Street in front of the monument and produce a heaviness in the air. The drummer’s timing and serious facial expression exposed demeanors that create tension, like the marching beat of an armed force going into enemy territory.

Cole’s Hill overlooks the bay.Standing, tall, and facing eastward is the statue of Massasoit, the Wampanoag intertribal chief and first Native ally to the first immigrants. Visitors to the statue read a plaque adjacently placed by the United American Indians of New England that describes the Day of Mourning and the meaning the holiday has for the people of Native heritage.

A large marble sarcophagus nearby memorializes the mass burials of the first Pilgrim settlers that died from varied sicknesses shortly after their arrival.

One man stopped and burned a tied bunch of dried sage in between the feet of the statue, which some people believe cleanses the air of bad spirits.

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The march concludes between monuments of Plymoth Rock and Massasoit on top of Cole’s Hill in Plymouth, Mass. Photo by Michael Blanche

The official ceremonies started with Grammy nominated singer Wind Walker of the Cherokee Nation at 12:00 p.m. As she sang traditional Native songs, a large circle formed around the woman and other Native Americans as they prayed under the feet of Massasoit’s statue.

Visitors were asked to refrain from taking photos or record audio of the ceremonies out of respect and honor for the sacred rituals. The belief that photographs could steal ones’ soul has primitive roots among tribal nations like the Mayans.

A small makeshift stage with loudspeakers and microphones was built for descendants of the Wampanoag civilization to describe their historical recollection and account.

The only people that spoke were of Native American descent, well known political activists, radio personalities, students, and authority figures who give voice to ongoing issues that Native Americans still fight against, such as the Dakota Access Pipeline and the imprisonment of Leonard Peltier.

Leonard Peltier is a Native American activist and member of the American Indian Movement, who is considered by many prominent world figures to be a political prisoner of the United States is from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

Many visitors came to show solidarity with people at Standing Rock, as shown by their protest signs. Some of the speakers came directly from Fort Yates, N.D. to spread messages of hope and strength in the face of distressing times. There was a verifiable focus on the struggle currently going on with the people defending their inalienable right to clean drinking water.

As one speaker read a prayer from his Native ancestors about honoring the environment he burst into tears. A Native woman from Mexico came to his aid, finished his prayer in broken English and embraced him afterward.

After the ceremony and speeches, a plain white truck was fitted with the loudspeakers and a young woman lead chants as the visitors turned protesters march through the small and seemingly empty downtown area of Plymouth.

She yelled into the microphone, “Street by street, block by block, we stand with Standing Rock! Free Leonard Peltier! Mni Wiconi! Water is life, you can’t drink oil!”

Many people waved signs in the air that protest injustices against the environment and indigenous people who have been at the forefront of environmental struggle for hundreds of years.

The day’s focus was mainly the Dakota Access Pipeline. The 1,168-mile proposed route will transfer over 400,000 barrels of crude oil a day from northwestern North Dakota to Illinois. Much of the pipeline will travel under the Missouri River and could contaminate Standing Rock Reservation’s drinking water.

Although the pipeline will travel on federal land and doesn’t cross into reservation territory, “water protectors” say it will disturb and desecrate sacred burial grounds.

Violence has erupted among protesters and police throughout the eight-month standoff that has garnered national attention from notable celebrities, news organizations and more recently members of Congress.

Senator Corey Booker of New Jersey has voiced support for the protesters by writing Attorney General Loretta Lynch asking for federal intervention for the safety of protesters.

Reports of aggressive determents used by law enforcement like concussion grenades, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and water exposure in freezing temperatures has been filmed and posted on social media by protesters and news organizations.

The Dakotas have been the front line for prominent Native American struggles in recent history.

Peltier is serving two consecutive life sentences in a U.S. penitentiary in Coleman, Fla. and was found guilty of two counts of first degree murder of two FBI agents in 1977.

His forty-year imprisonment, which resulted from questionable testimonies and misleading evidence, inspired a Hollywood movie and two documentaries. Peltier has also been the subject of many songs written by prominent artists throughout serving his sentence.

Many are imploring President Obama by petition to intercede on behalf of Peltier and grant him clemency before he leaves office due to Peltier’s health issues, false imprisonment and time well served.

Pine Ridge has been the site of traumatic events recently. Last year 11 people under the age of 25 committed suicide between December and April. Two hundred and fourty one attempts of suicide were successfully prevented.

Furthermore, the reservation has historically seen many staggering statistics, according to Re-Member.org, the unemployment rates in 2007 varied between 80 and 90 percent, infant mortality rates were at three times the national rate and alcoholism rates estimated to 80 percent of the population. The life expectancy of residents there is the lowest in the United States and the second lowest in the Western Hemisphere. Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and the survival of the Native Americans that live there illustrate in detail the state and struggle of the current Native American population.

This was the 47th annual commemoration of the National Day of Mourning, the organizers, the UAINE, claim that it has become bigger every year since it began in 1970 and there were some 1,000 attendees this year.

The organizers and attendees of this year’s National Day of Mourning will continue to voice opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline and write letters to President Obama for help while he is in office.

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During the National Day of Mourning on Nov. 24, 2016, protesters march through the streets of Plymouth, Mass. to show solidarity with Native Americans and Standing Rock protesters in N.D. Photo by Michael Blanche

Contact Michael Blanche at communitarian@mail.dccc.edu