The Descendants of the One Percent
For many Native Americans, Thanksgiving is a National Day of Mourning. As we mark the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower arrival to America, we should consider the holiday’s true origins.
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“You’re one of us, aren’t you?”
I knew exactly what she meant. And yes, I was one of them. This brief encounter occurred with a custodian at the gym. In a world where our existence is deemed fiction until proven factual, there I was in silence standing with someone who both saw and understood me.
Who are we? You should know us. After all, we are the one percent. Not that one percent—the other one percent. Actually, we are not even “other” anymore; we are something else.
The truth is, we are Indian Country. We are the descendants of the one percent who have survived, and continue to survive, the ongoing genocide of Indigenous peoples. We are a country of Nations, tribes, and clans that continue to fight, survive, and reclaim what is ours—our land, our culture, our language.
In a year of tribulation and turmoil, 2020 also marks the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s voyage that ultimately landed on the shores of Wôpanâak territory. For many, this voyage tells the tale of courageous men and women who sailed the ocean blue to settle in the New World in pursuit of religious freedom. After all, it was their destiny and we celebrate this fictitious tale of turkey that symbolizes the “friendship” between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people.
The truth is, this feast celebrating the first harvest would never have happened if it was not for Tisquantum, a Patuxet Wampanoag who only spoke English because he had been previously kidnapped and sold into slavery in Spain before eventually making his way back home. He taught the colonists how to fish and plant crops because many of the seeds they brought were not suitable for our soil. A successful harvest was critical not just for their physical survival, but their financial survival as well.
Not only did the Pilgrims bring disease and a vision for a New World that was already inhabited by an estimated 60 million+ Indigenous people, they brought debt as well. Many of the passengers on the Mayflower spent over a decade in Holland where they were able to exercise religious freedom without fear of persecution. However, being immigrants, they ultimately decided to leave because they were unhappy that the only jobs available to them were poorly paid and that their children were starting to assimilate into Dutch culture.
In order to escape poverty, they secured funding from investors. The idea was to trade goods and crops for fur from tribes and send them back to their investors to be sold. The investors were deeply unsatisfied when the first shipment fell short due to the first harsh winter that claimed half of their lives and most of their crops. It took them more than 20 years to pay back the debt.
The truth is, it seems like everything has changed, yet nothing has changed at all. Four hundred years later, the US is experiencing a pandemic that has claimed more than 250,000 American lives. The country is also $22.9 trillion dollars in debt, and immigrants arriving in hopes of a better life are still fighting for a living wage.
For many of us in Indian Country, November 26 is a National Day of Mourning. It is not that we have nothing to be grateful or thankful for. For us, giving thanks for the Creator’s gifts has always been a part of Wampanoag daily life. The foundation of our People is to only take what you need, use all that you take, and always give thanks. We do this primarily through ceremony and prayer.
The truth is that the intention of this piece is not to change how you spend your holiday, but to think critically about the power of narrative. To take a moment and reflect on the stories we internalize and commercialize as truth.
As public health professionals, community members, and citizens, I charge you to reflect on the narratives that you will share and teach in your classrooms, in your conference rooms, and around your dinner tables.
The truth is, nutus8ees Ryann wanah nuwôpanâm. Nuwtômâs âhqunahanut wanah nukees, âs nutayuneân.
Translation: I am called Ryann and I am Wampanog (People of the First Light). My blood and my land is of Aquinnah, the place where the island stops. And yes, we still live here.