It’s been 400 years since the meal known as the first Thanksgiving took place in Patuxet, the area now known as Plymouth, Massachusetts. Two prominent figures in the Plymouth Colony described it as a three-day feast and celebration of the harvest, attended by the colonists and a group of Wampanoag Native Americans and their leader Massasoit.
“I personally think that it’s just another reminder of all the horrible things that this nation has done to not only us, but all native people,” the Chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, 29 year-old Brian Weeden tells TIME of that “first” Thanksgiving, adding that he and his tribe feel largely forgotten.
But the Wampanoag were likely not in so much of a celebratory mood. They had been reeling from an epidemic of a still-mysterious disease that had almost wiped them out; outbreaks would continue to roil the tribe for the next 30 years.
“I personally think that it’s just another reminder of all the horrible things that this nation has done to not only us, but all native people,” the Chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, 29 year-old Brian Weeden, tells TIME of that “first” Thanksgiving, adding that he and his tribe still feel largely forgotten. “For this nation to right a lot of their wrongs, they’re gonna have to own up to their racism, which they don’t want to do.”
On May 16, Weeden became the youngest person elected chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag, which boasts about 2,600 enrolled citizens and is headquartered in Mashpee, Massachusetts. TIME talked to Weeden about Native American Thanksgivings, the biggest issues the tribe faces today—and why it is still struggling to hold onto its land 400 years later.
How does it feel to be the chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag on Thanksgiving?
The fact that we’re still here is a blessing. And the fact that I have the honor of representing the tribe—one that a lot of people think is extinct—is a blessing in itself. It shows the resilience of our ancestors, and that we will keep on being here for generations to come.
Do you have any memories of learning about the ‘Americanized’ Thanksgiving that still stand out today?
In third grade at elementary school in Hyannis, Massachusetts, [the teachers] made us dress up and dance to “Colors of the Wind” from Pocahontas. They would have one class in potato burlap sacks and colorful feathers, and then the other class dressed as pilgrims. I went home and told my parents what was going on, and my father went into the school and reamed them out. After that, they stopped doing it.
What’s the biggest issue the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe is currently facing?
The biggest issues facing the Mashpee tribe right now are with our land, the health and general welfare of our tribal citizens, and climate change and environmental impacts. We were fine living off the land; we were smart people to the point where we knew how to navigate this world. Had people listened to us, I don’t think we’d be in the situation that we are in with global warming and everything else. But I think the biggest [singular] struggle right now for our tribe is our struggle with the federal government, which has been a battle for over 400 years.