1970 marked the 350th anniversary of the pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock and like usual the residents of Plymouth, Massachusetts were planning the annual Pilgrim’s Progress festival. The festival included a parade and feast, complete with residents in period clothes. The whole affair was a celebration of American progress. Empire, if you will.
Frank James, a Wampanoag Indian, decided to change the agenda for that year’s Thanksgiving. James and other Indians, including the Narragansets and Passamaquoddies, planned to demonstrate in a “dignified and responsible manner” about the repression and poverty endured by American Indians.1
Yet the protest wasn’t going to attract much attention without some theatrics. To help bring more attention to the protest, James invited the American Indian Movement (AIM)–a Minneapolis-based Native rights group that had protested on Mt. Rushmore the same year–to join the protest. By the time the protest started at the foot of Massasoit’s statue, over 200 Indians had assembled. James decried the pilgrims that “stole our corn,” and added, “all that love and brotherhood stuff between Indians and white settlers is a lie!”2 Russell Means, a charismatic leader of AIM, implored the white men to listen
Listen. Listen to us, white men. Plymouth Rock is red. Red with our blood. The white man came here for religious freedom and he has denied it to us. Today you will see the Indian reclaim the Mayflower in a symbolic gesture to reclaim our rights in this country.3
Sure enough the group retook the replica Mayflower II moored in the harbor. Once on the ship the group lowered the flag of St. George and symbolically raised an upside down American flag. In a “new kind of Boston Tea Party,” only with real Indians, the group dumped pilgrim mannequins into the harbor.4 After being cleared off the ship by local police officers, the group crashed the feast, overturning tables full of food, and dumped sand on Plymouth Rock. The protests concluded that night with another group sneaking back into the area and painting the Rock red.
One little boy, while watching the Pilgrim procession during the festivities that day, turned to his mother and asked, “Where did all the Indians go?” “They’re not part of this,” the mother replied.5
Celebrate Thanksgiving and count your blessings, but remember the cost at which your blessing came.
Dennis Banks and Richard Erdoes, Ojibwa Warrior: Dennis Banks and the Rise of the American Indian Movement (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004), 111. ↩
Ibid., 112. ↩
“Mourning Indians Dump Sand on Plymouth Rock,” New York Times, November, 27, 1970. ↩
Banks, 113. ↩
The New York Times, November 27, 1970. ↩