Do American Indians Celebrate the 4th of July?Breaking News
tags: Smithsonian, Native American history, National Museum of the American Indian, Independence Day
Every few years, the museum updates this story to add more Native voices. The story first appeared on July 3, 2013.
How do Native Americans observe the 4th of July? This year, many people’s plans reflect their concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. But the answer has always been as complicated as America’s history.
Perhaps the most quoted language in the Declaration of Independence is the statement that all men are created equal. Many Native Americans, however, also remember the signers’ final grievance against the king:
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
With the emergence of a nation interested in expanding its territory came the issue of what to do with American Indians, who were already living all across the land. As the American non-Indian population increased, the Indigenous population greatly decreased, along with tribal homelands and cultural freedoms. From the beginning, U.S. government policy contributed to the loss of culture and land.
Keeping our focus on the 4th of July, let’s jump ahead to the 1880s, when the U.S. government developed what has come to be called the Religious Crimes Code—regulations at the heart of the federal Office of Indian Affairs’ Code of Indian Offenses that prohibited American Indian ceremonial life. Enforced on reservations, the code banned Indian dances and feasts, disrupted religious practices, and destroyed or confiscated sacred objects, under threat of imprisonment and the withholding of treaty rations. The Secretary of the Interior issued the regulations in 1884, 1894, and 1904, and Indian superintendents and agents implemented them until the mid-1930s. For 50 years, Indian spiritual ceremonies were held in secret or ceased to exist.
In response to this policy of cultural and religious suppression, some tribes saw in the 4th of July and the commemoration of American independence a chance to continue their own important ceremonies. Indian superintendents and agents justified allowing reservations to conduct ceremonies on the 4th as a way for Indians to learn patriotism to the United States and to celebrate the country's ideals.
That history is why a disproportionate number of American Indian tribal gatherings take place on or near the 4th of July and are often the social highlights of the year.
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