On Thanksgiving Day, 1970, Indians took Plymouth back from the Pilgrims.
It was the work of the American Indian Movement (AIM), which had been founded in 1968 by Dennis Banks and several other Anishinaabe men (more commonly known as “Ojibway” or “Chippewa”) living in Minneapolis. Banks and his partners originally formed AIM to help the local Indian population, which had grown substantially in many cities around the country since WWII. During the previous quarter-century, there had been two forces driving people away from reservations and towards urban centers. One was access to better paying jobs in the manufacturing sector, which had recuperated with the outbreak of war and grew during the heyday of America’s industrial might that followed. The other was a disingenuous federal program of the 1950s-60s called Relocation. The actual goal of federal policy makers had been to liquidate reservation populations by luring Indian people to distant cities with empty promises. The actual result had been the rise of Indian ghettos that cropped up in cities across America.
Inspired by the Civil Rights movement, the emerging Black Power movement, and a desire to re-connect with their Indian culture and heritage, early AIM efforts included openly monitoring the city police to prevent and report abuses against Indian people, fighting housing and job discrimination, and setting up Survival Schools: after school programs for Indian children where they could stay out of trouble, pick up tips on handling the city’s mean streets, and learn about Indian culture and history, topics that were still absent from most public school curricula.
Initial successes led to increased popularity and funding, and organizational expansion soon followed. In early 1970, a Cleveland chapter of AIM was founded by Russell Means, an Oglala Lakota Sioux from Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota who had mostly grown up in the Bay area of California after his father had taken a job at a defense plant during the war. As an adult, Means had gone back to South Dakota, briefly working as an accountant at the nearby Rosebud Reservation. By then, the failures of Relocation were obvious to all, and Indians were routinely using the program for their own purposes, not the government’s. In that vain, Means had used Relocation to move his family to Cleveland where he founded the Cleveland Indian Center in 1969.
Means had a forceful personality, tremendous charisma, and he was fearless in advocating for issues he believed in. He also brought to AIM an inspired appreciation for political theater. Though there would eventually develop a long history of tension and competition between them, Banks’ and Means’ talents, approaches, and interests dovetailed substantially, and the two of them would soon emerge as the Movement’s primary leaders and spokesmen. Thanksgiving Day, 1970 would provide them the opportunity to perform on a national stage for the first time.
Nineteen-seventy was the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock. To commemorate the occasion and drum up a little tourist money, the town of Plymouth built a reconstruction of the ship, which they named Mayflower II, and docked it at a wharf where they had brought out, planted, and roped off the famous stone. Event organizers and the local chamber of commerce hoped that the two objects would be the centerpiece of a joyous and profitible Thanksgiving Day celebration. Instead, they would turn into the props that helped propel AIM into the media spotlight.
Finding out about the event, AIM planned a surprise Thanksgiving Day protest. It began with Means leading a march through the town's streets. Singing, drumming, and carrying protest signs, the marchers stopped traffic as they walked for several miles towards Plimouth Plantation, where Banks and yet more protestors were waiting for them. A tourist destination that claims to be the site of the first Thanksgiving, historical re-enactors dressed as Pligrims were hosting a holiday feast.
Initially delighted at the unexpected arrival of actual Indians, the Plantation staff welcomed them to partake. But when the “Pligrim Fathers” began to make a welcoming speech in the spirit of Thanksgiving, Banks stood up, told them where they could shove their drumsticks, and all hell broke loose.
As the chaos erupted, the protestors began marching towards there harbor, where tourists and locals alike were gawking at Plymouth Rock and paying admission to board Mayflower II. The Rock was cordoned off and guarded by several police officers, but that didn’t stop the protestors. As they spit on Plymouth Rock and showered it in refuse, the protestors all but ignored the orders to desist and threats of arrest that the guards were shouting through bullhorns.
Next, Means, Banks and several others brushed aside the ticket-takers and boarded the Mayflower II. As more Indians followed, nervous tourists began to disembark. The takeover accelerated as some of the protestors threw off the gang plank while others climbed the masts, pulled down flags with which they draped themselves.
When more police arrived, Banks handled the negotiations. As energy rose and tensions escalated, some of the protestors called for burning down the ship, but Banks calmed them down. The police agreed not to press charges if they would all just leave and not cause any damage. Banks eventually agreed, and the affair began to wind down. But just as protestors were getting ready to leave, Means leaped onto the stone pedestal of a large statue of 17th century Wamapnoag leader Massasoit. Regally posing in the sculpture to welcome the Pilgrims, in reality Massasoit had first negotiated with the troublesome English in 1620 and continued in that role until his death in 1661, doing his best to represent Wampanoag intersts in a changing world and to mitigate his nation's decline in the face of epidemic diseases and rapacious European expansion.
Standing next to the statue, Means launched into an impromptu speech. He praised the Wampanoags for generously aiding the helpless foreigners who would have otherwise starved, and he castigated White culture for it’s willingness to sacrifice its own people and others in the name of progress. Momentarily, at least, the chaos was hushed as the crowd on both sides listened.
Later that night, as protestors partied at a local motel, another AIM leader named John Trudell went back down to the shore with some colleagues, and they painted Plymouth Rock red. All of it made the papers in the days to come, and the coverage helped catapult AIM into the national consciousness.
Over the last ten years, I’ve had several opportunities to meet and work with Russell Means. Let me be clear: I am not here to lionize him. He is by no means perfect, and AIM’s record during the 1970s was decidedly mixed. The organization’s members were victimized not only by government persecution, particularly in the form of an insidious and very illegal FBI Counter-Intelligence Program, but also by their own poor decision making, hubris, and ill-advised actions. Any honest assessment of Means, Banks, and AIM needs to acknowledge their mistakes as well as their successes.
But as we stand here on the cusp of another holiday season, preparing to gorge ourselves in the name of a noble ideal, let us do so honestly and earnestly. Let us give thanks for all of the fortunes in our lives. But let us also refrain from indulging in a mythology that serves to pervert history by whitewashing the past. We can do better than justifying European invasions with make believe parables that portray European colonizers as well-meaning innocents and reduce Indians to happy-go-lucky enablers. We can do better than inculcating children by having them ritually perform imperial creation stories. And we can do better than tarnishing poignant moments of reflection with the patina of shallow, insulting, and completely unnecessary fairy tales.
After all, The American Indian Movement didn’t ruin all of those nice people’s holiday because of what happened 350 years earlier. They did it because history is about how people use (or misuse) the past to explain the present.
So instead of fantasizing about yesteryear, let us simply give thanks for the blessings in our lives today.