A Native American Take on IndependenceJULY 5, 2008
- Michelle Singer and Bruce Babbitt, July 4, 1998
- (Courtesy Michelle Singer)
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More From Krissy Clark
This weekend we celebrate our nation's 232nd birthday. But it's not a celebration for everybody, especially for many of the Indian tribes who lived on this land long before the Founding Fathers got here. So how is the Fourth of July handled on sovereign Indian lands? Weekend America's Krissy Clark visited some First Nations to find out:
Charles Hudson is a member of the Mandan-Hidatsa tribe, born on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota. But by the time he came along, in 1959, much of the reservation was under 300 feet of Missouri River water, thanks to a giant dam built by the federal government, which relocated most of the people in his tribe.
Tribal leadership fought the project for years, but failed. When the tribe's chairman finally went to Washington, D.C., to give up the land, he had to take off his glasses to weep. A picture of the moment made the front page of the Washington Post. Flooding of the reservation started soon after. "Both my mother and my father had to leave the town that they grew up in, where their families and ancestors had all lived," Hudson says.
This was not the first nor the last conflict Charles and his tribe had with American institutions. Sometimes it was little things, like when Charles was going to the local public high school.
"The length you could wear your hair was heavily regulated. Boys could not wear hair past their collar, and that was obviously a direct violation of their cultural norms," Hudson says. "But my goodness, that's nothing compared to the radical oppressions that my mother's generation and her father's generation were going through."
"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."
These turn-of-the-century festivities sound very familiar to Charles Hudson, the Mandan-Hidatsa Indian who grew up on Fort Berthold in the 1960s.
"That's very cool," he says, when he hears Dennis's description of these old Independence Day celebrations. "If a visitor was to go visit Fort Berthold today, a visitor would see something very similar to that."
And not just on the Fort Berthold Reservation. For more than a century, the Fourth of July has been a big day across Indian country. The Quapaw in Oklahoma, the Ojibwe in Minnesota and the Northern Cheyenne in Montana are just a few of the tribes that have established big rodeos and powwows on the Fourth -- celebrating the day, but making it their own.
Of course, not all tribes or all Indian people have embraced the holiday in the same way. The Onondaga of upstate New York decided a few years ago to stop observing the Fourth of July altogether. Right after America declared independence in 1776, George Washington ordered Onondaga villages to be destroyed -- they were in the way of the new country.
The film "Smoke Signals" by writer Sherman Alexie of the Spokane and Coeur D'Alene tribes captured the bitterness the day can bring in a scene between a father and son who are driving home on the Core D'Alene reservation one Fourth of July: "Happy Independence Day, Victor," the father says to his son with more than a hint of sarcasm. "Are you feeling independent?"
That line made Michelle Singer, a member of the Navajo tribe, laugh out loud when she saw it in the theater, but she has mixed feelings about Independence Day. One the one hand, when she is at Independence Day barbecues with her little brother, "he and I would certainly joke about the irony of this being Independence Day, and yet when you think about it's the beginning of the dominance of Euro culture, if you will."
On the other hand, her grandfather was a Navajo "code talker" during World War II, and she relishes the chance that the Fourth provides -- to honor him and his fellow veterans. Native Americans enlist in the military at far higher rates than any other group of Americans.
So it all felt a little surreal for Singer when she found herself, a few years ago, watching the fireworks gala at the nation's capital, from the top of the federal building that houses the Bureau of Indian Affairs -- the same agency that once handed down "kill the Indian to save the man" policies to her ancestors.
Singer was there because she had a job on the staff of a U.S. senator. But even after being in Washington for a few years, she says she was surprised by how moved she was by all the pomp and circumstance that night.
"I could hear the Washington Philharmonic play, and see this wonderful fireworks extravaganza going on in our nation's capital just above my head, with that beautiful panoramic view that you see down the Mall," she remembers. "It was very moving."
But was there any part of her that felt guilty? Like she was betraying herself or her culture by enjoying this Fourth of July spectacle?
"Yeah, there's a little of that self-imposed guilt," she laughs. "Like, 'I shouldn't really be enjoying this all too much. If anything, I should have some resentment.'"
But more than guilt, Singer says she felt humbled. Native Americans didn't even become citizens until 1924. And now, here she was.
"We came from homes where our parents didn't have a college education, and here we were in our nation's capital, working in some pretty influential positions, and yet we were just these Indian kids," she says.
The birth of this country came with caveats. But in the glow of those fireworks, it seemed to Singer that, somehow, both her countries -- her sovereign tribe and the place that issued her passport -- might one day figure things out.
- Music Bridge:
- Jeden Tag
- Artist: Hausmeister
- CD: Water-Wasser (Plop)