July 04, 2012

Why Indians celebrate July 4th

A Native American Take on Independence

By Krissy Clark"Kill the Indian to save the man"--that oppressive motto led to restrictions on his tribe's native language and native customs. The federal government forced Indian children to go to churches and boarding schools where they were re-educated and stripped of their cultural traditions.

So it makes sense that, growing up, the Fourth of July would be a dark day for Hudson, a sad tribute to the country that tried and tried again to exterminate its native people and their culture. But it wasn't--for Hudson, the Fourth meant "summertime, family, fireworks. You can't wait for the fireworks. As a kid you look forward to that celebration."

Hudson was not alone. Across the Fort Berthold Reservation--what was left of it--people partied on the Fourth of July. Sno Cones and barbecues, weaved together with older, indigenous traditions like powwows that would last deep into the night.

At the center of the festivities was the drum. "The beat of the drum means everything in the powwow," Hudson says. "It signifies the heart beat of a people. There are different types of dances, ceremonies, give-aways, acknowledgements."

So why were they celebrating?

"You know, this is the classic case of making something positive out of really desperate situations," says Matthew Dennis, a professor of U.S. history who studies the way Americans celebrate national holidays. He says we can learn a lot about ourselves as a country by looking at how the Fourth is celebrated on reservations like Fort Berthold.

"It is those who have struggled the most, and who've been forced to be the most creative, that have the most to teach us," Dennis says. "Forgiveness without forgetting, incredible creativity and resilience."

To understand what Dennis means, we need to go back to the late 19th and early 20th century, when reservations like Fort Berthold were under severe federal rule. At one point, the reservation's white superintendent issued a declaration that read like this: "Dancing, exchanging of presents, traveling from one dance to another, and dancing feasts are not to be carried to excess."

The superintendent decreed that permission for all traditional dances must be obtained in writing--but, Dennis says, there was a kicker: He didn't object to gatherings that were on the Fourth of July.

The Fourth of July, after all, was the time to teach Indians how to become good Americans. Some Indian children were even reassigned new birthdays to coincide with the Fourth.

So the Mandan and Hidatsa people who lived at Fort Berthold decided that if the Fourth of July was one of the few occasions when they could celebrate their native customs, then why not celebrate the Fourth of July? By the early 1900s, the Fourth had become a big day on the reservation, Dennis says, starting at dawn and lasting well in to the evening with traditional dances and ceremonies.

"All kinds of singing and dancing, exchanging of gifts," he says. "They would visit friends, initiate people into societies and do all the sorts of things that they were ordinarily prevented from doing, under the cover of this patriotic celebration."
Reason There Are a Lot of 4th of July Powwows

By Dennis ZotighIn 1883 the Indian Religious Crimes Code (Prucha, 'Documents' p. 160-161) was developed by Secretary of the Interior Henry Teller as a means to prohibit Native American ceremonial activity under pain of imprisonment. Teller's general guidelines to all Indian agents ordered them to discontinue dances and feasts. Enforced in reservations as Department of Interior, Office of Indian Affairs policy, Indian ceremonies were banned, religious practices disrupted, and sacred objects destroyed or confiscated.

Indian ceremonial activities were prohibited under threats of imprisonment and/or withholding of rations. The Secretary of the Interior issued this Code of Regulations in 1884, 1894 and 1904 through Indian Affairs Commissioner's circulars and Indian agent directives. In turn, Indian superintendents and agents implemented the code until 1936. In this 50 year period, Indian spiritual ceremonies such as the Sun Dance and Ghost Dance were held in secret or ceased to exist.

Some tribes continued their ceremonials during the 4th of July under the disguise of telling their agents they were celebrating American Independence Day. Usually the American flag was displayed in a prominent position to support this claim. Otherwise many of these tribal ceremonies would have also ceased to exist.

Sad, huh?
Comment:  For another reason Indians celebrate July 4th, see July 4th Means Fireworks. For more on the subject, see Tribes Celebrate July 4th.


Anonymous said...

I think it important to understand what Americans deem independence on the 4th of July as opposed to buying into the wholesale historical myth that ALL Americans were born free of oppression and racial equality, which to date, has yet to be fulfilled. Even the ability to vote in national, state and sometimes tribal elections, is met with resistance and outright denial, so where people celebrate America as being the greatest nation on earth rings shallow and false as a politicians campaign speech. Fireworks is the lamest, juvenile reasoning for holding a holiday up on the 4th when other cultures, such as the Chinese (whom helped invent fireworks), have celebrations year round.

In the actual document, the Declaration of Independence, the phrase:

"He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions."

should be held into account for where Indians stood on this declaration of oppression against the King of England. Obviously us "Indian savages" did not master the art of destruction as our foreign masters have, so we can conclude whom the real savages are?

Interesting facts like the words UNITED STATES is not in the document and Jefferson was not happy with slavery being edited out by request of the delegates from South Carolina and Georgia. Jefferson (himself a slave owner!) remained upset about this removal of the condemnation of slavery until his death.

Americans should accept that their freedoms and independence were/are soley dependent upon the slavery, genocide and oppression of others before they truly believe just how free they are with current issues such as the US support for dictators in third world nations for political and economic gains; wars and military actions for corporate profits and energy companies powers here and abroad. These realities still exists here on Indian lands and on foreign soils, its just interesting to see which tribal, state and foreign leaders profit from these sacred cows and dogs of war! Happy Independence Day America!

dmarks said...

Good points other than the paranoid conspiracy theory "such as the US support for dictators in third world nations for political and economic gains; wars and military actions for corporate profits and energy companies powers here and abroad." which has little resemblance to reality and actual history of the past 70 or so years.

Anonymous said...


How many murderous dictatorships has the US installed or supported?

Let's count my paranoid conspiracy theory "such as the US support for dictators"

Chile Gen. Augusto Pinochet 1973-1990 3000 murdered. 400,000 tortured.

Argentina Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla 1976-1981 30,000 murdered.

Indonesia Suharto 1965 coup against left-leaning Sukarno,
1975 support of East Timor genocide
500,000 dead after 1965 coup; 100,000-230,000 dead in East Timor;

Guatemala Armas, Fuentes, Montt 1954-

Iran The Shah of Iran
Ayatollah Khomeini was on the CIA payroll in the 1970s in Paris
Egypt Sadat, Mubarak

Iraq Saddam Hussein
Nicaragua Anastasio Somoza & sons 1937-1979
Paraguay Stroessner. US supported throughout (state.gov says US has supported Paraguayan development since 1942) ($142M between 1962 and 1975) 1954-1989
Bolivia Col. Hugo Banzer overthrew elected leftist president Juan Jose Torres 1970-
Angola Jonas Savimbi/UNITA (didn't actually win his revolution, but killed or displaced millions) 1975-1989
Zaire Mobutu
Saudi Arabia Saud family
Kuwait a monarchy
Panama Noriega was US-supported for years
Haiti Papa Doc, Baby Doc
Dominican Republic Trujillo, a military dictator for 32 years with US support for most of that time; Belaguer, Trujillo's protege, installed after US Marines intervened to put down an attempt to restore the democratically elected government of Juan Bosch 1930-61, 1965-78
El Salvador 1980s
Nepal monarchy since 1948
Cuba Fulgencio Batista pre-Castro
Brazil Gen. Branco overthrew elected president Goulart with US support 1965-67
Uzbekistan Kamirov "The Boiler", $150M from the Bush administration for an air base. 1965-67