Independence Hall in Philadelphia
Published July 3, 2016
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…”
Most Americans, and probably a good number of global citizens, can quote the above section of the Declaration of Independence. But I doubt many can recall much of what comes after that or the historical context from which it was written.
In 1763, King George of England issued the Proclamation of 1763. In this proclamation, he drew a line down the Appalachian Mountains and essentially told the colonies that they no longer had the right of discovery of the empty (Indian) lands west of the Appalachia. That right was now reserved solely for the crown. This upset the colonists, so a few years later they wrote a letter of protest. In their letter, they accused the king of “raising the conditions of new appropriations of land.” They went on in their letter to declare that “he (the King) has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages…”
They signed their letter July 4, 1776.
Yes, believe it or not, a mere 30 lines beneath the statement “All men are created equal,” the Declaration of Independence refers to Natives as “merciless Indian Savages.” Making it abundantly clear that the only reason the founding fathers used the inclusive language “all men” is because they had a very narrow definition of who was and who was not human.
According the Declaration of Independence, Natives are dehumanized as savages who stood in the way of westward expansion.
And our country has no idea what to do with that.
Last year, about this time, the United States was in the midst of a national dialogue regarding the Confederate Flag. It was being called out as the symbol of racism and bigotry that it is. And on June 27, 2015, the issue came to a head when Bree Newsome climbed the 30-foot flagpole and took down the Confederate Flag that flew over the South Carolina State Capitol. She was immediately arrested, but hailed on social media as a national hero. Funds were collected to pay her legal fees. National news organizations clamored for her interview. And on July 9th, the South Carolina state legislators passed a bill to remove the Confederate flag from flying over their capitol.
I watched these events with particular interest. It was good that our nation was having this dialogue and grappling with our racist past. It was good that public opinion was turning and there was some agreement that the Confederate Flag, while undeniably a part of US history, was not an acceptable symbol for our nation or our states to use.
But, as a Native man, I was both amused and disappointed, as right in the middle of these historic events our entire country took the day off, cranked up their barbecue grills, gathered with family and friends, and celebrated another symbol of racism and bigotry from our colonial past.
The Declaration of Independence.
For the past 200 years, the United States has struggled with its history of slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation, sexism, internment camps, immigration reform, and mass incarceration. And while we still have a long way to go, we have made some progress. Our first African American President is completing his second term in office. A female candidate for President is now the presumptive nominee of a major political party. The Confederate flag is no longer being flown over the South Carolina state capitol.
But there is one part of our history that we have no idea what to do with.
Statue near US Capitol in Washington, DC
“To the memory of Christopher Columbus
Whose high faith and indomitable courage
gave to mankind a New World.”
The United States of America is a colonial nation. The “new world” was not discovered by Europeans in 1492. This continent had been inhabited by millions of people for centuries, even millennia. And you cannot discover lands that are already occupied. That action is better known as conquering, stealing or colonizing. The fact that history books refer to what Columbus did as discovery reveals our racial bias. The ‘manifest destiny’ of the United States of America was achieved through a violent history of systematic ethnic cleansing (Indian Removal Act of 1830, Trail of Tears, the Long Walk, massacre at Sand Creek, Indian Boarding schools the massacre at Wounded Knee, etc., etc., etc.). The notion that America was discovered, is a racist colonial concept that assumes the dehumanization of indigenous peoples.
And the Declaration of Independence both codifies that racial bias and justifies the violent history that resulted.
Photo of Mark Charles by Kris J Eden
But as the nation has grown more diverse and somewhat more tolerant, instead of dealing with our racist foundations, our country just stopped teaching its history or reading its founding documents in their entirety. In the past 5 years, I have traveled the country and spoken to thousands of people about the Doctrine of Discovery and its dehumanizing influence on the foundations of our nations, including the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, and the United States Supreme Court. Over these years, I have been told by an embarrassingly large percentage of US citizens that they had no idea the Declaration of Independence referred to natives as “savages.”
It is this ignorance that allowed the hypocritical events of 2015 to take place. At the end of June and in early July, we celebrated the removal of the Confederate Flag because of the racism and bigotry it represented. But in the middle of those events, we paused and held a national party, complete with parades, concerts, and fireworks as we commemorated our violent colonial past and the dehumanizing Declaration of Independence that justified it.
Americans love the Fourth of July. It celebrates one of the documents that we, and even much of the globe, believe makes our nation exceptional. The Declaration of Independence has been lauded by historic figures and global icons such as Fredrick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, and Pope Francis as a foundation of equality and human rights.
But as a Native man I would have encouraged each of them, as well as every citizen of our country and the rest of the world, to please, read the entire document. It’s not what you think.
Mark Charles (Navajo) serves as the Washington DC correspondent for Native News Online and is the author of the popular blog “Reflections from the Hogan.” His writings are regularly published by Native News Online in a column titled “A Native Perspective” which addresses news directly affecting Indian Country as well as offering a Native perspective on national and global news stories. Mark is active on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram under the username: wirelesshoga