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A Native American Take on Independence

Krissy Clark

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Michelle Singer and Bruce Babbitt, July 4, 1998
(Courtesy Michelle Singer)
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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)

Comments

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  • By Sidney Smith

    From Neah Bay, WA, 04/14/2014

    Indian Nation's Independence reclaim dominion unalienable right's, delegation of authority, power, jurisdiction, right to contract, right to work, liberty,life the pursuit of happiness grant of rights from the creator as sovereign's in God's kingdom,love, truth and everything else is illusion since 1492 as fiction, therefore, Native American's still "OWN" America.

    By alfredo lopez

    From Mccamey, TX, 07/05/2013

    independence day, another irony in first nations peoples tragic lives. over 200 plus years cannot change thousands of years in our souls, we wait and listen and try to get along with the "program" of the time. religion, politics, policies, some have learned as did our ancestors during those days of domination, to fight the quiet fight and still retain what little dignity was left, no more war dos not mean no more hard feelings. we wait and hold in our hearts the day of reconing that hopefully our grandchildren will win for our peoples day of inependance.

    By Tracy Beachnau

    From Lansing, MI, 07/04/2013

    To this person :c.a. jasperson
    From MN, 05/10/2012
    Seriously, dude first of all its never a pity party if you Caucasian people would stop with the nonsense and follow is what is ours than maybe we can let go...do realize there is land that still has not fully been given to the ones that deserve...and stupid people like you say ignorant things as such...I can't stand when there people that feel that say that about my people...one thing I learned a long time ago...never let your guard done to you because of the damage of people like you!!!! I have the utmost respect for good people, but people that think like you is why we are where we at, but we are getting better...so watch out here come the Anishnabek's LOL

    By Tracy Beachnau

    From Lansing, MI, 07/04/2013

    To this person :c.a. jasperson
    From MN, 05/10/2012
    Seriously, dude first of all its never a pity party if you Caucasian people would stop with the nonsense and follow is what is ours than maybe we can let go...do realize there is land that still has not fully been given to the ones that deserve...and stupid people like you say ignorant things as such...I can't stand when there people that feel that say that about my people...one thing I learned a long time ago...never let your guard done to you because of the damage of people like you!!!! I have the utmost respect for good people, but people that think like you is why we are where we at, but we are getting better...so watch out here come the Anishnabek's LOL

    By Alford Henderson

    From Westerose,AB, AB, 07/04/2012

    The comments by C A Jasperson are proof of the poor education the native is getting. Poor writing and grammar throughout.Let us continue go grow in the grace and power of the Lord Jesus Christ and also continue to get better education for ourselves and our children.

    By c.a. jasperson

    From MN, 05/10/2012

    Are we talking about an opressed people here? Natives, Blacks, Hispanic... lets talk of the Jews. We got over it... enslaved to build paramids, holocost... lets think should the native people be victims for the rest of time or learn and grow like other races? Stop playing the pitty card already! I work for the government for Natibve people and let me tell you there are more who feel they are OWED then work for it. white man this and white man that who pays for your reservation the white opeople you so hate? There are better benefits simply because you are native american than anuy other american catagory - use them get educated help your own not steal from them! Tribal politics is corrupt and it is known through out the nation yet... you want to run your own yet you can not seem to get your kids to even get through the 8th grade! The local native school here do not even teach reading or writing yet they are supposed to survie in this world? Help comes to those who seeks it as well as forgiveness and letting go. Everyother race has done it when to the native - yes I am native too!

    By Megan Hamilton

    From Pleasant Hill, CA, 07/07/2011

    May our Mother Nature grant us the wisdom to be kind to our fellow humans and all other creatures. We are all Nature's children.

    By Lionel Gambill

    From Petaluma, CA, 07/05/2011

    In China every woman's song is a sad song. In America every Indian story is a tragedy. Cultural genocide is almost as vicious as physical genocide, and both were government policy. Interesting that one child had the pleasure of playing with Indian and Amish children, two cultures spiritually connected to the land. To separate Indians from their land was to separate them from their hearts. I admire their resilience and ability to forgive and to respect all religions when no one respected theirs. Worse than the irony of "Independence" Day is celebrating Columbus Day. Why honor a mass murderer, which he was by his own admission in his logs? I also admire the Indian sense of humor. I once heard a Nimiipuu say, "We didn't steal horses. We discovered them."

    By Bob McCoy

    07/05/2011

    History is written by the winners. The truth is told by the survivors.

    By surjit kaila

    07/05/2011

    leslie."..we are all under a tyrannical Govt with all this ' terrorist ' garbage.." What planet are you living on? see www.blip.tv/file/1382254 and www.thereligionofpeace.com

    By surjit kaila

    07/05/2011

    leslie."..we are all under a tyrannical Govt with all this ' terrorist ' garbage.." What planet are you living on? see www.blip.tv/file/1382254 and www.thereligionofpeace.com

    By leslie crofford

    From corpus christi, TX, 07/05/2011

    It was interesting to learn about Washington wiped out Indian villages. In school they didn't teach us about the atrocities that people like Washington did to the Indians. The Spanish killed like 40 million Indians in Central and South America. I feel for your people to have been treated like garbage like not being able to become citizens until 1924. One thing Indians and non Indians citizens are under,we are all under a tyrannical govt with all this "terrorist" garbage. Our govt has been the terrorists to the Indian people and to the rest of us. Organized efforts by groups of people to voice their disapproval to the govt is all I can think of. Good luck to all of us.

    By Richard Zane Smith

    From Wyandotte, OK, 07/04/2011

    I'll bet 99% of Native America watching fireworks and having family picnics here aren't thinking about their independence from Britain. If asked, we might even wonder....quietly, (heretically) How different would it have been under Britain's thumb? Six Nations Reserve under the British Crown was HUGE. However once Canada became independent, Native treaties made with The Crown were declared invalid and the Six Nations reserve was mostly chopped to pieces and sold off. We may not be celebrating freedom from Britain because most of us know that the ones who wrote "...We the People, of the People, by the People..."had no intention that "WE" would ever include First Nations People. If we feel emotion reading "We the People..." we are probably reading it out of the context from which it was written. the 4th has just become a "Fun Fireworks Day"

    By John Martin

    From Santa fe springs, CA, 07/04/2011

    Native Americans join the military to escape the impoverished conditions and pervasive sense of hopelessness that plagues many reservations. The Pine Ridge rez in South Dakota for example, where the Oglala, Sioux tribe "lives", suffer from a myriad of socio-economic conditions i.e. Chronic unemployment as high as 80 %, teen pregnancy, teen suicide, severe alcoholism, domestic violence etc. etc; This is why young Native people join the military. Compared to the third world conditions on the rez, the military is like a loving father, one they can depend on.

    HAPPY 4TH OF JULY!

    By John Martin

    From Santa fe springs, CA, 07/04/2011

    Native Americans join the military to escape the impoverished conditions and pervasive sense of hopelessness that plagues many reservations. The Pine Ridge rez in South Dakota for example, where the Oglala, Sioux tribe "lives", suffer from a myriad of socio-economic conditions i.e. Chronic unemployment as high as 80 %, teen pregnancy, teen suicide, severe alcoholism, domestic violence etc. etc; This is why young Native people join the military. Compared to the third world conditions on the rez, the military is like a loving father, one they can depend on.

    HAPPY 4TH OF JULY!

    By Bruce Hestley

    From Cuyahoga Falls, OH, 07/04/2011

    This is even more interesting having had the privilege to sit with elders and hear their wisdom. In truth, it sounded much like my father's. I grew up near the Seneca Reservation and played with those kids. I played with some Amish people who lived near us and continue to live close to the land. I weep for our Mother and all her people including the non humans who taught us so much in the long ago time. We need to come back to that and it seems our First Nations are the only ones who remember.

    By Yam Erez

    From Israel, 04/07/2011

    Quite interesting. Thanks.

    By david barr

    From northport, WA, 07/06/2009

    very interesting, send more

    By Lou Stone

    From Inchelium, WA, 07/06/2009

    A real story behind this "A Native American Take on Independence" IS Aboriginal enlistment in the Amerikkkan Military, evidently many HAVE FORGOTTEN: Thus, conformity and complicity within the world's largest state-terrorist, religous extremist organization whose greatest foreign and domestic aid continues to be global ethnic cleansing.

    Remorseful weeping with heads hung in grave shame is what the 4th Of July in Amerikkka should be about.

    It's never too late for the truth. But, the mainstream media doesn't want that.

    By Lily Whitehawk

    From Kihei, HI, 07/04/2009

    Beautiful post. Many thanks!

    By Anoka Standingbear Del Rio

    From Morgan Hill, CA, 07/04/2008

    Thank you for your post.

    By Richard Spirtitfeather Gibson

    From birmingham, AL, 07/04/2008

    May we never forget.

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