Indians and the Fourth of July

Maybe every holiday has its double. Christmas falls on or near the Winter Solstice, when Scandinavian pagans burned a yule log to symbolize the return of the sun, and pre-Christian Romans celebrated the sun’s return with a holiday honoring the God Saturn. That festival took place sometime between December 17th and 24th. Christians, who often had a hard time talking new converts into dropping old customs, appropriated the date of December 25 to celebrate the Nativity—the appropriation coming over 300 years after the birth of Jesus.

According to the History Channel, the Halloween holiday has its roots in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, a pagan religious celebration to welcome the harvest at the end of summer. It was, for the Celts, a new year, and they believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred, so they lit bonfires and wore costumes to ward off ghosts. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III appropriated the date for Christendom, designating November 1 as a time to honor all saints.

Our Fourth of July originated in the early days of the Republic to celebrate the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. In fact, during that first 1776 summer of Independence, there were funereal celebrations for George III. But, gradually, with speeches and fireworks, the Fourth gained holiday status with states, and in 1871 was declared a federal holiday. The Fourth of July today is many things to many people. There are still occasional political and/or patriotic historical speeches, but mostly it is a paid holiday, fireworks, barbecues, and family get-togethers.

There is an interesting Indian “double” to this holiday. The 1870s, when the Fourth became federally official, also saw the end of what the government called the “Indian Wars,” and the beginning of an intense effort at Assimilation of tribal peoples. The Indian Boarding schools began at Carlisle in 1879. Indian children were recruited and sometimes kidnapped away from parents, and sent to “industrial” schools where their hair was cut and their languages, clothing, and cultures were forbidden. In 1883, the “Code of Indian Offenses” restricted the religious and cultural ceremonies of Native American tribes. Courts of Indian Offenses enlisted Indians to help police against practices of religious dancing, plural marriage, communal property, and other “non-Christian” values. As a last assault on Indianness, The Dawes Allotment Act of 1887 sought to allot acreages to individual Indians, to make them yeoman farmers—and it allowed for the sale of non-allotted “surplus” lands to non-Indian neighbors. Tribes lost over 90 million acres in the process!

Not surprisingly, the Native population in the US reached its nadir—of fewer than 250,000—in 1890. (Although some Indians might have decided or been forced to pass as non-Indian in order to survive.) But clever Indians across the country seized on an opportunity with the Fourth of July. As their white neighbors celebrated with food, drink, and ceremony, Indians brought out hidden drums and regalia, and sang and danced what was forbidden. White government agents saw Indians as joining in “their” celebration of the national holiday—and let the Natives celebrate. To this day, Indian powwows are held across the country in the first week of July.

Powwows at any time of the year honor veterans. And Native Americans traditionally serve in the highest percentages of all groups of military volunteers for any armed conflict. I have listened to long lines of veterans—Native and non-Native—recite their service affiliations, dates and places of service and conflicts—at the opening of powwows.

Today, the connection between Independence Day and Native Powwow is largely lost. The tradition of powwows and competitive dancing have grown a powwow circuit, and as non-Indians have once again expressed interest in Natives and the science and culture of indigenous peoples, there is a wider audience for the dancing and drumming that were at one time illegal.

In Philip Deloria’s brilliant book, Playing Indian, he reminds us that the Boston Tea Party revelers masking as Indians were not disguised; everyone knew who they were. They were using “Indianness” to assert their independence from old England. “Whereas Euro-Americans had imprisoned themselves in the logical mind and the social order, Indians represented instinct and freedom. They spoke for the ‘spirit of the continent.’”

One can’t help but think that we non-Indian sympathizers of today see in tribal cultures the notions of “instinct and freedom” that have been lost to technology and industrialization, to dams and freeways, monocultured fields and farmed fish. At the powwow, these modern problems are lost to the dress and movements of dancers and the sounds of drums and song.

# # #

Photo: Eastern Band Cherokee Fourth of July Powwow

Leave a Reply