Happy Fourth of July

American Indians’ patriotism and Indian celebrations of America’s favorite patriotic holiday are as complex and convoluted as is the overall dance of American History—although Indians, as Alvin Josephy said only half jokingly, don’t have history—or biography; they have anthropology, or archeology, or ethnography. (Look, as Alvin always did, for books on Indian cultures and heroes on bookstore shelves. See where they are shelved.)

The real early history of the people and places in the new world, the on-the-ground complexities of interrelationships between Indians and white Europeans (and later Black Africans and various groups of immigrants from Asia), is the push and pull of new relationships in a strange land. The pull was “help”—Early European immigrants needed help with food, clothing, and shelter to stay alive; the “push” was for Indian lands the newcomers needed to realize their visions of freedom and prosperity.

Indians tried valiantly to deal with the relentless colonization of the continent. They fought and they negotiated. And intermarried. There are many examples of that (which is not paid much mind in our standard histories), and only in Canada, with the Metis, does this intermarriage result in a new broad cultural melding. Most intermarriage was “local”—although the products of those unique pairings were sometimes historically important, from Tecumseh to the Western wagon guides for missionaries and settlers.

Josephy again: “from the beginning, Indians had three choices: assimilate, become white; move—west until the country filled; or die.” Assimilation was the first choice of government bureaucrats and religious do-gooders. Policy—from boarding schools to Dawes Act allotments to Eisenhower’s Termination, put as kind a face as possible on assimilation, and although men hungry for land seemed always in the wings, there were serious assimilationists who truly believed that Indians were doomed to die if they did not become white. Alice Fletcher of Dawes Act note and General Pratt and the Carlisle Indian School are two committed and sympathetic assimilationists. They believed their Indian friends’ alternative was death. It’s easy to criticize their assimilationist views now, but probably unfair to their circumstances.

I don’t know the background of Henry Teller, Secretary of the Interior in the 1880s, don’t know the roots of his assimilationist beliefs. But it was during his tenure that what has come to be called the Religious Crimes Code was enacted. These were regulations at the heart of the Department of Interior, Office of Indian Affairs, and they prohibited American Indian ceremonial life. Teller’s general guidelines to Indian agents were to end tribal dances and feasts. The “code” banned Indian ceremonies, disrupted religious practices, and destroyed or confiscated sacred objects. Consequences were imprisonment and/or the withholding of treaty rations. Indian superintendents and agents implemented the code until the mid-1930s.

Some Indians saw in the 4th of July and its commemoration of American independence a small opening through which they could publically continue their own important ceremonies. There were 4th of July fireworks, dancing and celebrating across the nation; 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. They could take their regalia out of hiding.

And then, after WW I Indian vets—there were 12,000 of them—could be honored in patriotic parades that crossed the culture barrier.  With a nod to American patriotism, they marched under American flags. At this point it is interesting to note that Alvin’s first Indian book, Patriot Chiefs, was loved by Indians for naming them patriots. “No one has ever called us patriots,” they would tell Alvin, “but this is ‘our land’ that were fighting for.”  To this day American flags fly alongside eagle feathers at reservation powwows and dances. And many of them fly on or near the Fourth of July.

As in so many ways, Indians had to be very creative to keep traditions and culture alive. Here’s more in a piece on 4th of July from Indian Country Today: http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2014/07/04/do-american-indians-celebrate-4th-july-155660

See also “Code of Indian Offenses”: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Code_of_Indian_Offenses

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