Shifting Comfort Zones to Face Realities of Colonization, American Genocide and Slavery

Clearing the FOG (CtF): This year was the 50th commemoration of the landing of the pilgrims in Plymouth Rock and all the ramifications that have extended from that. Can you talk about the National Day of Mourning?

Jean-Luc Pierite (JLP): The National Day of Mourning started in 1970. We’re going into the 400th year since the landing of the Mayflower. In 1970, there was an original speech that was supposed to be delivered to the descendants of those original settlers by the Wampanoag tribal member, Frank Wamsutta James. It spoke to the resiliency of our native peoples. From that idea, it was a milestone speech where basically Mr. James was saying that this was the beginning of American Indians and Wampanoag people, in particular, regaining their rightful place in this country.

We can certainly talk about what that means but for us specifically, it means that Indigenous Peoples, American Indians, have our own unique cultures and our own unique ways of knowing. We retain our self-determination and our sovereignty. Existence is our form of resistance.

A lot of those ideas came out of that National Day of Mourning and I want to indefinitely express my gratitude to United American Indians in New England for continuing that tradition, especially the co-leaders Mahtowin Munro, Moonanum James, and Keisha James.

CtF: What happened on the National Day of Mourning?

JLP: For the National Day of Mourning at Plymouth, we started off the day in prayer and ceremony bringing our ancestors into the whole observance. Following that, we had speeches from people from all sorts of different Indigenous Nations. We recognized the initial treaty by Massasoit in 1621 with the pilgrims to sort of formalize the government-to-government relationships, not between the United States but between European settlers and Indigenous Nations that are here.

We honor that we are on Wampanoag territory when we’re in Plymouth, but as far as the range of people that were speaking at National Day of Mourning, we had speakers from Peru, from the Taino of Boriken and the United Houma Nation of Louisiana. We also had the North American Mega-dam Resistance Alliance, the First Nations from Canada. Each of these speeches spoke to the extractive policies, natural disasters and infrastructure projects that are happening on our traditional indigenous territories without our free, prior and informed consent.

This is the day not only to talk about and reconcile the true history with the sort of mythology that American nationalism is based upon, confronting all of that, but this is also a time for Indigenous Peoples to actually speak about their own political will in terms of what it means to confront climate change. There were a lot of issues that were brought to the forefront. We’re basically speaking out not only about colonialism and imperialism, but also we’re talking about economic warfare. We’re talking about corporations abusing the sovereignty of Indigenous Nations all mixed into that one day. So it was a really dense observance.

CtF: Why do you call this the National Day of Mourning?

JLP: Having a feast day where the community comes together, expresses gratitude, and enjoys family is something that goes back in our own traditions prior to contact with European settlers. Specifically, in my tribe back home in Louisiana, we have our Green Corn Festival in the middle of Summer where we honor our ancestors. So, we definitely have thematically types of Thanksgiving.

In the past week, I’ve seen messaging coming out of the Hispanic Council saying Spain also has an observance of Thanksgiving in St. Augustine, the so-called oldest city here in the United States, or what we now know as the United States. And of course, there’s the stories that come out of Jamestown with Pocahontas as well.

As far as the Plymouth and pilgrims part of that story, part of that narrative that I grew up with certainly in my personal experience was that myth of the pilgrims coming over to the New World in search of a place for religious freedom, which ties in with the founding principles of the United States. What really needs to be brought to the forefront when we’re talking about our nations and our issues, even though religious freedom is sort of a founding principle here in the United States, citizenship wasn’t granted to our Indigenous Peoples until 1924. The Indian Civil Rights Act wasn’t passed until the late 60s and it wasn’t until 1978 that the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed in the United States.

While there is certainly a lot to be thankful for and we’re not strangers to expressing gratitude and feasting together as a community, we definitely want to make sure that this is a day when we are able to speak about our own issues and speak to it from our perspective.

CtF: You mentioned the initial treaty between the Pilgrims and the Indigenous Tribes. Can you talk about what that treaty was and what happened to it?

JLP: The Massasoit’s Treaty was basically an agreement between the two groups saying that if there was any need for protection for the Pilgrims, the Wampanoag would grant it and if the Wampanoag needed protection from other tribes, as well as perhaps other settler groups, the Pilgrims would provide that protection.

That original treaty has come up recently. The Mashpee Wampanoag right now have a legal challenge to the trust status of their reservation land. That has caused a ruling by the Department of the Interior under the Trump Administration referring back to a Supreme Court ruling in 2009 called Carcieri versus Salazar. Basically, any tribe that was recognized after 1934 wouldn’t be able to use the VITA Trust process in order to regain their tribal lands, but most recently the Department of Interior with the Trump Administration sent out a ruling saying that the Department of Interior was not under the authority to take the Mashpee on Wampanoag reservation land into trust. This needed a legislative remedy from Congress. So the Massachusetts delegation, both the representative side and the senate side, entered bills into Congress and hopefully through these bills the trust status of the Mashpee Wampanoag Reservation will be reaffirmed.

So talking about that treaty and about the pilgrims and about having government-to-government relations, how does that play into the solidarity both between the tribes that exist today in Mashpee, Massachusetts and the townspeople of Mashpee? The descendants of the pilgrims have said, yes, the Wampanoag have been here. This is their reservation land. This should be something that should be reaffirmed by Congress. So, we’re talking about things that happened 400 years ago but have real effects on what’s going on today.

CtF: Many people living in the United States who are non-indigenous look at the history of Native Americans as something that happened in the past. We don’t talk about the fact that all those ramifications of the settlers coming to the United States and the way that settlers treated Native Americans, took the land and the resources, the massacres, how that same mentality continues up until today. It manifests itself in different ways, but it’s ongoing.  On the National Day of Mourning, there were a lot of different issues that were touched upon. Are there any particular issues that you would like to inform our readers about?

JLP:  I think it needs to be said more and more that our communities as Indigenous Peoples, and we have different ways in which we are talking about government-to-government relationships, but we also have to be conscious of the different ways in which the United States government has regarded the Indigenous Nations. There are 570 tribes within the United States that are federally-recognized but there are many more that are state-recognized or not recognized at all but are still continuing to this day.

On the coast back home in Louisiana, I have my cousins at the Ile De Jean Charles band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw, they’ve lost 98% of their land since 1955. That community was part of a summit at MIT in October. We saw solidarity with our relations out in the Pacific Northwest. Things that are happening along the Gulf Coast are also happening in the Pacific Northwest.

I’m talking to you today from Boston and people here in Boston say look at the Gulf Coast, look at the Pacific Northwest, I’m glad that I don’t live in a place like that. And it’s like what do you mean? We are all on the coast. We are all by water and things that are happening to Indigenous Nations, that’s not something that’s happening to those people over there that are so unfortunate or so poor to just be living where they are. It can happen to any city that’s on the coast. We’re talking about places that are going to be underwater if we don’t act soon.

CtF: Wasn’t it the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw who were the first group of people in the United States to actually receive money to move their entire place where they live?

JLP: Correct. It took them 13 years in order to get 42 million dollars from HUD. Now most recently, they walked away from that grant because there was some back and forth with the state of Louisiana. As it was explained to me by Traditional Chief Albert Naquin, there was a scheme as far as the state of Louisiana applying mortgages either to the land that they were going to move onto or the land that they were moving from. Basically, they did not see eye to eye as far as like the relocation process with the state of Louisiana.

This is a state-recognized tribe. They were Indian enough in order to get the grant from HUD but once it got into the coffers of the state of Louisiana, then we get into this argument of now that the money’s here and now we have the power of the purse so to speak. It’s a game that’s being played. These are whole communities. The Ile de Jean Charles Biloxi-Chitimacha are the world’s first climate change refugee community. So they deserve a lot more respect than what they’ve been given as of late.

CtF: In recent years, it seems there is a rising up of Indigenous culture and language and protection of sacred sites. Is that something you can talk about? 

JLP: Everything is so interconnected. Talking about climate change, we’re also talking about the loss of indigenous languages. And once you lose a language, we’re talking about the disruption of the transmission of ancestral knowledge, traditional ecological knowledge, ways in which people have been living on lands sustainably for millennia. Language and culture, that perfect preservation, the revitalization of that, play into climate justice.

Right now in Massachusetts, we’re working with the Massachusetts Indigenous Legislative Agenda. This is a coalition of the North American Indian Center of Boston, United American Indians of New England, along with other different partner organizations, including Mass Peace Action. We’re looking at five different issues across a number of bills, one which is to establish Indigenous Peoples Day statewide here in Massachusetts. Another one is to take down native mascots in public schools. Another one is to change the Massachusetts state flag and seal, which currently shows a composite of a native figure and there’s a really ghoulish way in which that was devised. We’re also talking about protecting native heritage, specifically introducing state-level NAGPRA compliance for public institutions who may not be receiving federal funds but receive some kind of public funding. We want to make sure that if there are sacred objects within those collections, if those institutions move to deacquisition those objects, then those objects won’t end up in the auction houses. And finally, we’re also pushing for a commission on American Indian Alaskan Native education here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Currently, we are at a 79 percent graduation rate for our youth. And our youth also face suicide rates two times that of their white peers. So we’re trying to do everything that we can to keep our kids healthy, safe, make sure that they graduate from school, make sure they get four-year degrees, make sure they get full-time employment because all of these things lead to civic engagement. When we have more indigenous people getting involved with these systems, then we have much more of a voice when it comes to issues of climate justice, economic justice, and social justice.

CtF: Part of the process of colonization is to erase the colonized peoples’ culture and identity so they lose that and no longer believe they have something to fight for and to assimilate them into the colonizer’s way of being. It’s been great to see the students up at Syracuse University who are fighting back against racist and hate incidents on their campus. And that includes not just black and brown people but Native American students at Syracuse have also been speaking out about how they’ve been treated there and are pushing to change the curriculum. 

JLP: Solidarity is very important. We were talking about how issues from centuries ago come up today and one story that I put out there that people don’t really realize is that up until 2005 it was illegal for American Indians to walk the streets of Boston unescorted. This was because there was a law on the books called the Boston Indian Imprisonment Act. This was a remnant of a war that was fought starting in 1675 called King Philip’s War. That law just stayed on the books despite all of our community members, especially our elders, pushing to have this law taken off of the books.

That got us some progress, but what really brought it to reality was a conference of journalists of color that was supposed to come to Boston. When they found out that the Boston Indian imprisonment Act was still on the books, they said, “Wait a minute. We can’t have journalists of color coming to the city while this law is still on the books. We do have Native American journalists within our ranks, and if we pull our conference from your city, it’s going to be 45 million dollars of economic impact that Boston will miss out on.” Because of that, the city and state complied. They said, “Okay, we’ll go ahead and take this law off the books.” Money is definitely a motivator but I would credit those journalists of color and the solidarity that we have between black and brown people. We need solidarity in order to advocate for our issues.

CtF: We urge white solidarity with Indigenous Peoples as well. It’s critical we face up to the reality of our history. The settler reality and the impact on Indigenous Peoples really struck us this year because we had just been in Palestine prior to Thanksgiving or the Day of Mourning. We drove through and visited many parts of Occupied Palestine seeing ethnic cleansing, land theft, Jewish-only roads and areas where Israeli citizens are banned because the Palestinians control the areas. We were shown maps of villages that were destroyed when Israel was created. The indigenous struggle is a global struggle. What kind of relations do you see between Indigenous Peoples in the United States and people around the world?

JLP: One of the misconceptions is that when we talk about Indigenous, we’re not just talking about Indians here in the United States of America, we’re also talking about the Maori in New Zealand, the Sami in Norway. What we have done at the North American Indian Center of Boston is to open our doors. We have an international scope because of the Jay Treaty. We have First Nations that come from Canada and live and work in Boston. So we already have that type of international scope but we’re seeing our brothers and sisters from Central and South America in ICE detention who are not Spanish speakers, they’re speakers of Quechua. So what can we do to help our brothers and sisters in detention?

During the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, we had delegations from Colombia and New Zealand come to our center. They wanted to know exactly how we’re working with our local communities because even though we are different, we are similar because our nations are continuing despite the dominant nation-states that are imposed upon our traditional lands. When we’re talking about nation-states, here we’re talking about the United States and what does that relation look like with the tribes that are still continuing to this day? We’re talking about New Zealand and what does that relationship look like with the Maori? All of us are trying to figure out how to deal with all of these symptoms of suicide rates and addiction. But the core of it is what those relations look like, how those promises are being honored and how other entities like corporations and so forth are abusing our rights. And so we’re trying to get at some of those core issues.

You brought up Palestine and I just wanted to just throw in there at the last public testimony hearing of the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight in Massachusetts, there was a bill heard on a commission to change the state flag and seal. During that hearing, there was a bill being heard that was anti-BDS. We had people that were Palestinian, people that were allies and we each had our stickers. Some people had a Massachusetts Indigenous Legislative Agenda sticker along with “I want my right to boycott”. Seeing people with both of those stickers on their chest was a really evocative image of what solidarity looks like.

CtF: During the protest out at Standing Rock, hundreds and hundreds of tribes came together and that was incredibly powerful to see those connections being made.

JLP: Yes. Standing Rock was not and is not the only front. We’re talking about the Bayou Bridge Pipeline in Louisiana, about Trans Pecos in Texas, the Sable Trail in Florida, but we’re also talking about the mega-dams in Canada. We’re talking about the burning of the forests in South America.

We’re talking about a lot of things that are happening that are not in the control of Indigenous Peoples. We’re talking about things that are happening that are being imposed upon us. We’re not just talking about us being a factor of history, but actually colonialism. How is that actually ongoing? What does the warfare look like today? What does it mean when our children are being separated from our families either in ICE detention centers or even in boarding schools? That’s still continuing to this day as well for our American Indian communities here in the United States.

CtF: We look at the treatment of the Indigenous Peoples and the enslavement of African Americans forced here from Africa to be the property of large landowners as the twin founding evils. The first step toward dealing with this is understanding reality. Is there a potential for a Truth and Reconciliation process on indigenous issues in the United States. How could something like that work from an indigenous perspective?

JLP: That is something that is starting now. The North American Indian Center has partnered with the Upstander Project, which has produced a documentary, “Dawn Land,” which focuses on the separation of Indian children going into boarding schools particularly in Maine. In Maine, there was a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was put together to address that issue. So we do have a model for that here in the United States.

I do want to build off of the idea of black and Indigenous solidarity in that sort of shared history because most recently, being from New Orleans, I went back home and I participated in the Dread Scott Reenactment of the 1811 German Coast Uprising. Not only were there black slaves, but there were American Indian slaves as well. And so all of us were walking in the path of our ancestors. All of us were chanting as people did during that Uprising, “Freedom or death,” “On to New Orleans,” “We’re going to end slavery.” We’re saying all of this 200 years after our ancestors marched in a landscape of plantations, but now that landscape, not only are the plantations still there, but there are strip malls and oil refineries.

When we’re saying, “Freedom or death,” and when we’re saying, “Liberté,” we’re saying those things that our ancestors said but what are we really saying? I think what that speaks to is the power of what does it mean when black and Indigenous people are able to tell our own stories. Outside of having some sort of official entity of the federal government or of state government, what is the real power of centering the voices of black and Indigenous people? How can everybody come together to actually get that voice out there and change that narrative?

Right now we’re in a situation where American Indian genocide is an uncomfortable truth for people to grapple with in the establishment. To talk about African-American reparations is also uncomfortable for people. But the more that we talk about our own histories, the more that the actual lineal descendants talk about that, the histories of their ancestors, the more we’ll be able to shift people’s comfort zone so that we can actually get to the truth of the matter.

CtF: That awareness is the first step to changing these wrongs that have been going on for such a long time. Jean-Luc thank you so much for the work that you’re doing and thank you for taking time to join us today on Clearing the FOG.

JLP: Thank you and for your readers, if they can go to or, they can find out more information about all the stuff that we talked about. Thank you.