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.Read Rich’s Post →
I’ve written before about how Indians, and especially the Nez Perce exiles on the Colville Reservation, used the holiday as a day to bring out drums, regalia, and songs that had been suppressed in the 1880s rush to assimilation. In an exhibit two years ago on “Nez Perce Music,” we used images from a 1903 Fourth of July Celebration on the Coville Reservation in Washington. There were photos of drummers and dancers, but when I asked elder Albert Andrews Redstar to comment on the event, he focused on the photo of a horse procession. It seems to me that this photo and his words are an appropriate way to remember that “Independence Day” does not celebrate or remember “independence” for all of us.Read Rich’s Post →
I turn over this blogpost to Nez Perce elder and friend Albert Andrews Redstar. Albert is a descendent of the walwama band of Nez Perce who were not allowed to return to their Wallowa Homeland, and have been in exile on the Colville Reservation since their 1885 return from the “hot country” –Oklahoma Indian Territory. We now know that Joseph was not a war chief, but a brilliant and eloquent leader of his people. Here we learn how he turned the Fourth of July celebration in 1903 to Nez Perce purposes.
|Nez. Perce Memorial procession, 1903, Nespelem, WA, Photo Edward Latham, courtesy, Museum of the Rockies
It is Fourth of July. This picture was taken near the town of Nespelem, on the Colville Indian Reservation in North Central Washington State. You are looking at a Nez Perce encampment just outside the city limits of Nespelem. In this picture you can make out a procession of riders making their way around the inside of the ring of teepees. The mounted riders, all in their finest, are making a solemn procession relieving, and releasing, themselves of the pain of losses they’ve all suffered over the years since the Nez Perce War began in 1877.
The procession also signals an end to a long, long journey and the loss of home and lives of loved ones somewhere out there on a trail begun when they were forced from their homeland in the Wallowa Valley.
For they are the people of the Joseph Band of Nez Perce. Their Homeland in the “Land of the Winding Waters” of Northeast Oregon, a land to which they shall never return, is now in a growing distant past only existing in memory and dreams. Many, still, are longing for a return “home”… Many are feeling this is but a temporary stop before being allowed to return to Wallowa once again. That is a move that will never come.
Amidst the group of riders, towards the front, are speakers calling out the why of this gathering and calling out some of the many names of those now gone or deceased, never to be seen or visited with again. The cantering pace allows the speakers’ voices to carry well and the camper’s responses can be heard as the keening begins while the procession passes by them. Grieving has begun.
In “normal times” this procession could occur anytime. But large gatherings of Native peoples still trigger suspicion and fear by white people and “peaceful Indians” of another uprising, during this time. Chief Joseph had brought his headmen together to take care of themselves, to help the people of the Band come to terms with what they had just experienced. With the Nation’s celebration of its birth coming, it would be a time to carry this out. In this way, it would lessen the chance that the military would be called in bearing the arms and weaponry of war. The Soyapos may think the Band is joining in on this “birthday” celebration.
Chief Joseph made it clear that this was a time for a collective mourning. They needed to grieve their losses of friends, of relatives, of family…of all lost since 1877. They must carry out this mourning service to grieve and “let go” of all those now gone from their midst. They must let go and move on together, having survived the conflict inflicted under Manifest Destiny.
The mourning begun, the second round proceeded at a faster pace. As the third round began, the horses were prompted into a faster-paced gallop. On this round, rejoicing began.
Pasapalloynin!!! “to make them rejoice, to make them happy! “Look around you!” they shouted. “See and remember all whom you see here today and rejoice that we are all together, and that we are here! Today, we live to carry on, for all that are here with us, for all our children! Today we rejoice! Today!”
Many my age have witnessed such a procession as this. It had always preceded other activities at the start of the Fourth of July Celebration, here in Nespelem. Its significance seems to fade with each generation, but some of us still remember. We remember how names were called out of those lost in the past year, just as they had done in that first gathering for those lost in the 1877 War. We’d felt that grieving loss, just as our ancestry herein depicted by this picture had, during that first procession. Some of us still know why it was done before it became the “Horse Parade” it is called today. We are descendants of the Joseph Band of Nez Perce! We still carry on the traditions and customs in the old ways. We are still able to speak in that uncolonized language of our Longhouses. Yes! We are still here!
Albert Andrews Redstar
Thinking about this national holiday…
This article was published in the July 3, 1904, edition of the Lewiston Tribune—and reprinted in today’s edition of the same paper.
“Sub-Chief Philip McFarland of the Nez Perce tribe, was in the city yesterday accompanied by his interpreter, Peter Malick. Chief McFarland was here on matters relative to the big celebration to be held at Lapwai and Spalding July 4th and states that extensive preparations are now being completed for the celebration.
“Through his interpreter yesterday Chief McFarland said: ‘The annual celebration of our tribe has been observed on July 4th since the first visit of the explorers to the Weippe plains nearly a hundred years ago. Previous to that time our war dance and parade was celebrated just before[we were] to engage in battle and during times of peace the celebrations were held several times during the year in memory of the battles of the tribe.
“’With the coming of the white people the tribe was taught the meaning of the Fourth of July and it soon became the custom to hold but one celebration each year and that was on July 4…
“’It is with the spirit of peace that the Indian enters the celebrations of the present time. All of the visitors are invited to eat at the campfire of the Indians after the parade.’”
The Nez Perce, and Indians across the country, were, in 1904, laboring under the demands of the “Indian Religious Crimes Code,” which had been enacted in 1883. The Code banned Indian ceremonies, disrupted religious practices, and destroyed or confiscated sacred objects. It was aimed at plural marriages and other practices deemed “un-Christian.” Consequences were imprisonment and/or the withholding of treaty rations. Indian superintendents and agents implemented the code until the mid-1930s.
But, the Fourth of July was a national holiday, with fireworks, dancing and celebration occurring across the nation. Some Indians saw in the holiday and its commemoration of American independence a small opening through which they could publicly continue their own important ceremonies—and maybe, in a subtle way, express a sense of loss and desire for their own independence.
On the other side, Indian reservation superintendents and agents justified allowing reservations to conduct ceremonies on the 4th of July as a way for Indians to learn patriotism and celebrate American ideals. Indians could take their regalia out of hiding, pound their drums—and dance.
One can imagine the Fourth of July emotions in 1904–and even today in Indian Country, where many tribes across the country still observe this national holiday with drumming and dancing. Indian dancing.
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