On Independence Day, the stirring words of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, promising “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” set the tone. Buried a bit further down, however, is another passage that is somewhat less well-known:
“…the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
That line, and America’s subsequent history with Native Americans, goes a long way toward explaining why the holiday largely does not resonate with the United States’ roughly 5.2 million indigenous peoples.
“Any holiday that would refer to my people in such a repugnant, racist manner is certainly not worth celebrating,” Simon Moya-Smith, a culture editor at Indian Country Today told Mic. “[July Fourth] is a day we celebrate our resiliency, our culture, our languages, our children and we mourn the millions — literally millions — of indigenous people who have died as a consequence of American imperialism.”
For him, Independence Day is a celebration of genocide. A number of tribes and nations contacted for this story expressed various levels of discomfort with the holiday.
An overlooked history: Moya-Smith, who is half Oglala Lakota and half Chicano, grew up in Denver. Like most Native Americans today, Moya-Smith didn’t grow up on a reservation. His family relocated from the Pine Ridge “Rez” in South Dakota after the U.S. initiated programs in the 1950s to encourage Native Americans to assimilate into big cities.
Oglala Lakota like Moya-Smith have ample reason for anger towards America’s celebration of itself. The Lakota were among the last holdouts of Native Americans who resisted the westward expansion of the United States, which came to a crescendo at the Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890, where the U.S. Seventh Cavalry massacred more than 250 Lakota people.
“We are a minority in our own country,” Moya-Smith said. “How did that happen? It wasn’t just germs.”
While many Lakota people take a pass on the Fourth, they do share an equal respect for their own heritage. “This is the 125th year since the Wounded Knee Massacre,” Moya-Smith said, adding there would be a march to the site to remember the dead, which has occurred annually since 1973.
And on the Fourth itself? “I’ll go grocery shopping,” Moya-Smith said flatly. “The stores are empty.”
Moya-Smith’s tough words were not, however, shared by everyone. While few tribes appeared to engage in the full court celebration of America’s founding, some, like the Chickasaw and Navajo, took a more typical approach.
Malcolm Benally, a 43-year-old Navajo currently living on a reservation in Forest Lakes, Arizona, said his people were more willing to get into the spirit of the Fourth.
“Large numbers of [Navajo] people are very patriotic and love their country,” he told Mic. “You’ll see a lot of small flags flying not just for the Fourth of July but all times of the year.”
While the United States committed atrocities to the Navajo, including 1864’s forced resettlement known as the Long Walk, the tribe also has a proud history of cooperation with the U.S. Most famously, Benally cited the World War II Navajo code talkers, who helped transmit sensitive military information using their all but impenetrable local language.
On the Navajo reservation, Benally said, the strongest pockets of support for the holiday come from its older residents, who received a traditional U.S. education that, at the time, downplayed much of the history between the U.S. and native tribes.
“The generation right before me went through a lot of assimilation policies,” Benally said. “Younger people, benefiting from a more balanced education, native historians and the Internet, have a stronger sense of identity.”
For this year’s July Fourth, the reservation town of Kayenta is planning a carnival with fireworks and a rodeo. Thanks to Benally’s work, the festive atmosphere will also include an exhibit featuring native history and talking about new threats the tribe faces, including land contamination by uranium.
“There’s nothing wrong with getting cotton candy and going to the carnival and having fun,” Benally said. “We’re all in this boat together now, whether you’re black, or white, or Asian or Navajo. We have to work together now to get out of the problems we have in the world today.”
Like the nations of Europe or Asia, Native American tribes cannot simply be classified as a single bloc. “We’re very different people, and no one nation can speak for another,” Moya-Smith said.
While opinions were predictably diverse, there was general agreement the Fourth of July is more than just a simple celebration of the triumph of the United States. Today, Native American populations are still suffering the effects of their dislocations. A quarter of the United States’ indigenous populations live below the poverty line. Their high school drop-out rate is more than double that of whites, and almost 12% die from alcohol-related causes, which is more than triple the number for the U.S. population as a whole.
Like Thanksgiving or Columbus Day, there is another side to Independence Day, which — as the fireworks pierce the skies during this year’s festivities — deserves some serious consideration.