- By Dennis W Zotigh
Editor’s Note: This article was first published in the Smithsonian Magazine. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
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. Over time these cultural ceremonies became tribal homecomings. American Indian veterans in particular were welcomed home as modern-day followers of warrior traditions. The Navajo Tribe of Arizona and Pawnee of Oklahoma are two examples of tribes that use the 4th of July to honor their tribal veterans. Tribal veterans’ songs and flag songs are sung. Before the Reservation Era, when most Indians saw the American flag coming toward their villages and camps, it symbolized conflict, death, and destruction. But more than 12,000 American Indians served during World War I, and after the war, the American flag began to be given a prominent position at American Indian gatherings, especially those held on the 4th of July. This symbol of patriotism and national unity is carried into powwow and rodeo arenas today.
Everything is different this year, with families following public health guidance to reduce the transmission of Covid-19. But traditionally, the Lumbee of North Carolina and Mattaponi of Virginia use the 4th of July as a time for tribal members to renew cultural and family ties. The Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma holds Gourd Clan ceremonies, because the holiday coincides with their Sun Dance, which once took place during the hottest part of the year. The Lakota of South Dakota and Cheyenne of Oklahoma have some of their annual Sun Dances on the weekends closest to the 4th of July to coincide with the celebration of their New Year.
Another summer soon, tribes will resume holding ceremonies, as well as powwows, rodeos, homecomings, and other modern get-togethers, around Independence Day. And Native American families will set out on visits back to their reservations and home communities.
This year, my father and I will go to our fishing spot at a lake near our house. We’ll talk to family in Oklahoma, where my older daughter is about to begin studying toward her childhood dream of becoming a nurse. I have so much pride and hope for both my daughters. And I’ll think about our grandmothers’ and grandfathers’ perseverance and sense of community, which saw them through so much so that we could be here.
How will other Native Americans across the country spend the day this year? As before, the museum asked Native friends on Facebook to share their thoughts. Here are some of their answers:
Webster, Massachusetts: Independence Day carries many significant meanings to my family, but nothing most would think. During the time when Natives could be arrested or worse for practicing ceremonies and dances, the 4th of July was an opportunity do those things. Many Indigenous people were able to practice certain ceremonies under the guise of celebrating Independence Day.
Like many Native people, especially on the East Coast, I have three ancestors, and likely more, who fought in the Revolutionary War. Without the support of Indigenous people, America would have never come to be. . . . Independence Day is a bittersweet reminder of our sacrifice and loss, but also the bravery and tenacity that gave our ancestors the impetus to find a way to keep our culture alive.
Fort Hall, Idaho: We celebrate our Treaty Day on July 3. There will be smudging and prayer for our people at our arbor, with social distance at the arbor and online viewing for people at home.
Fort Cobb, Oklahoma: Normally, this would be a time of renewal and rejuvenation for our Kiowa people, celebrating in unity. At heart, this year is no exception: I’ll be with my family, praying for continued healing and a prosperous year for our Cáuigù (Kiowa) and Native peoples.
Carnegie, Oklahoma: We are usually in camp by now, but this year we have canceled our celebration. We have many in mourning, and Covid has everyone on lockdown, so I really don’t have any plans. Just staying home and safe! We’ll be taking time to be thankful for our blessings, and looking forward to the time that we can celebrate and dance together again. In the meantime, we’ll be beading and creating.
Arlee, Montana: Well, considering we won’t be at a powwow this year, me and my family will be floating the Blackfoot River that day and then getting together for some dinner afterwards. We are all purchasing fireworks this year—we all love fireworks—and just chilling and visiting with one another and enjoying family.
You can enjoy family, or the day, without making it about their independence. That’s what we do with powwows, some of the longest-running in Indian Country. Plus, it’s one of those times that family and friends have off together from work, and in our busy lives we don’t get a lot of opportunity to spend time with family and friends. I am from Montana—we are in Phase 2 of reopening and will be following all guidance that pertains to that. Be safe and enjoy the day off.
Alexandria, Virginia: My Lumbee Tribe cancelled our annual Lumbee Homecoming, which is always scheduled for the week of July 4. All my Virginia relatives usually attend. This year? My Native family will be gathering at my sister’s home for a barbeque. There will be drumming, and we’ll try to get some dancing going on. I like to bring old pictures of our Native ancestors to share with my nieces and nephews. They enjoy hearing how their 85-year-old-Tuscarora grandmother grew up attending a longhouse for ceremonies, and how her family received federal recognition in 1936, were terminated in 1970, and gained federal recognition again in 1973.
Mesa, Arizona: Stay home and be safe with my family. And make red chile posole with fry bread—yummy.
Tahlequah, Oklahoma: I will be celebrating our new year during our Greencorn Ceremony at Echota gatiyo [stomp or ceremonial grounds]. It’s a time of renewal and new beginnings. I personally do not observe Independence Day.
Dallas, Texas: I will be spending the day at home to be safe. I live in the Dallas rural area, and Covid-19 is still rising here. Now, being First Nations people, I have never celebrated the 4th. It is a reminder of what has happened to our people. White history portrays this land as nothing till they discovered it. I could go on, but don’t want to start the day off being irritated. I’m Chiricahua Apache.
White Swan, Washington: Light our fireworks at home instead of in streets and instead of going to other events, which have been canceled.
Apache Junction, Arizona: We have 13 wildfires right now in Arizona, some human-caused, the rest by lightning. It’s not a good idea for people to do fireworks here. We never do anyway.
Tomah, Wisconsin: I’m staying home. I’ve seen enough fireworks in the past. A nice quiet time at home, enjoying the evening in Ho-Chunk Cranberry Country in Wisconsin.
Cumberland, Virginia: I’m staying home. I don’t care for explosions, no matter how small. I always ask that people be mindful of the veterans who are nearby when setting off fireworks.
Duncannon, Pennsylvania: We’ll be at home. Our daughter . . . is extremely high risk. Both my husband and I work in public health. . . . The best thing we can all do right now is protect one another through good hygiene, social distancing, and wearing a mask.
Herod, Illinois: Generally, we observe none of the Colonial holidays, but I love fireworks. I won’t be in any crowds. Relatives may bring a bucket of fish to my door, I hope.
Albuquerque, New Mexico: Staying home. No firework displays considering Covid-19 and the fire restrictions due to extreme dry conditions.
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia: I will be staying home. Because of cancer treatment, I am high risk, and most of the public fireworks displays have been cancelled anyway, due to Covid. I am sure I will still see and hear fireworks, because they have had a lot of stands selling fireworks around here.
Simpsonville, South Carolina: Grilling in the backyard and watching Will Smith Independence Day. (Greenville, South Carolina, is a Covid hotspot!)
Durango, Colorado: Home away from large groups with me, myself, and I plus two doggies, 45 minutes from the hotspot in Farmington, New Mexico.
Orlando, Florida: I’m not celebrating, nor have I ever. This day meant nothing to my ancestors and therefore means nothing to me.
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma: I like to start the 4th like I do every year. I call friends and family, make sure everyone is doing fine. . . . [Later] I will paint, because Santa Fe Indian Market is still happening even though it’s on line I still need to finish up a painting and start another one. Once the sun goes down, I’ll jump into the car with my girlfriend and go watch fireworks somewhere. Did I mention I love being in Oklahoma City? Fireworks will be everywhere!
These are answers we highlighted in earlier years:
Kansas City, Missouri: Some important tribes helped both the colonies and the British fight the Revolutionary War, and others gave aid. And some tribes continued fighting for the United States after the country was established, right through the Civil War. So it does not bother me to celebrate the 4th of July. . . . The government formed by that 1776 revolution, even though it nearly exterminated us, still rules this land today, and has changed enough now to give those of us left a chance for survival. We are all changed, but Indians have always supported the U.S. government in one way or another.
Anadarko, Oklahoma: On July 4, 1967, I was in Vietnam, a short-timer waiting to come home. I didn’t celebrate Independence Day, because the meaning is different for most Native Americans. I just wanted to be in Oklahoma. That time of the year is like a homecoming for Kiowa people around Carnegie. Or like the Summer Solstice—the beginning of a new year, a renewal of traditions, friendships, and a happy time. No matter where I was stationed or lived, I tried to be in Carnegie at the Annual Kiowa Gourd Clan Dance. One of those times I was at a Sun Dance on the last day. It was Sunday, July 4. Everything was over, and the last meal had been consumed. The sun had just set to the west, and the whole camp was at rest, when a fireworks display erupted to the east and we were treated to a spectacular show of beauty and color to end a great year. My roots are deeply embedded in home, family, and traditions.
Hogansburg, New York: It doesn’t make sense to celebrate one group of foreigners’ independence from another at the expense of our own people and land. When we Mohawks and others fought in the U.S. War of Independence, it was for our own survival, and even that was controversial at the time.
Fort Hall, Idaho: I force my way into the office—break in to work and not celebrate! I’m kidding. Since it’s a federal holiday and we have it off, we use the day off to practice our off-reservation hunting and fishing rights and go salmon spearing. Or we go to a powwow.
Mt. Rainier, Maryland: As a veteran, I take the family to celebrate the freedom we have, but also teach what the costs were and still are to Native people.
Bartlesville, Oklahoma: We don’t celebrate the 4th. Native people did not become free from anything on that day. We do, however, attend my wife’s tribes’ dance. We look forward to the Quapaw Powwow each year as a family time, an opportunity to sing and dance and practice our social traditions.
Wilmington, Delaware: My family acknowledges the sacrifices the military has made for this country, even though the country has been built on unsavory deeds. We are going to the Veterans Hospital to talk about local Native culture with the vets who live there. I’ll also include some information about Native people in the military.
Chicago, Illinois: No, I never celebrated. I just liked watching the fireworks when my crew were kids. It used to be while I was working at the American Indian Center, we were always asked to walk in parades and do dance performances.
Caribou, Maine: Cookouts and family mostly. . . . As far as independence, fireworks are legal here, but you’re not allowed to set them off after 10 p.m. on July 4th.
South Padre Island, Texas: I do, but in another way. I celebrate by honoring the war chiefs in my tribes for getting us through such troubled times. . . . Independence still lives with us and in us.
Sitka, Alaska: As far as the 4th of July, my Tlingit dance group has a fry bread booth. We sell it as a fundraiser to make it to the biennial event known as Celebration, which is held in Juneau. Usually around 40 dance groups attend, predominantly Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian, which are the three tribes most prevalent in Southeast Alaska. There are also sometimes guest dance groups from other parts of Alaska or even the world. Our town celebrates with booths, sometimes an organized collection of them and sometimes a hodgepodge around town; fireworks on the night of the 3rd, which the fuel company sponsors; and a parade on the 4th.
Pueblo, Colorado: My village celebrates July 7th. That’s our traditional chief’s wedding anniversary.
Lawrence, Kansas: I personally do not celebrate the history of the 4th of July. My celebration is to honor all the Native men and women who have served and are serving this nation. . . . They were and still are defending the only homelands our people have ever known. We cannot run back to any other country or lands, because this is our country and our lands. Mvto for allowing me to share a little of my thought on the 4th of July! Pah-bee [brother], until the words of the Declaration of Independence are changed, I’m still a merciless Indian Savage. And I can live with that, because that’s what my people before were called!
Lancaster, Pennsylvania: Having family in the military and now our son, it has always been about the sacrifices made. We clean the graves, plant or put up new flowers, and pray.
Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin: The Ho-Chunk Nation recognizes July 4th as Cpl. Mitchell RedCloud Jr. Day. Cpl. RedCloud was killed in action while serving in the Army during the Korean War. He posthumously received the Medal of Honor for “dauntless courage and gallant self-sacrifice” in battle near Chonghyon, North Korea, on 5 November 1950.
Omak, Washington: The Nespelem celebration was originally a defiant ruse by Chief Joseph. He had returned from Oklahoma, where he saw the first powwows. The Army banned any tribal meetings and gatherings at Colville. So the people came up with the idea of fooling the United States into thinking we were celebrating America’s holiday. It worked. Indians came. It’s been held ever since. Now it’s the week after the 4th of July, so we don’t have to compete with all the casino-sponsored powwows.
Winterhaven, California: I don’t celebrate the 4th of July. It’s another day. I will be working. All tribal employees work that day.
Norman, Oklahoma: Independence Day has a different meaning for us as Native people. We exercise our freedom carrying on the traditions of our people in whatever that form that may be. For me, it is in Carnegie, Oklahoma, in Kiowa country, at the Kiowa Tia-Piah (Gourd Clan) Society Celebration.
Tulsa, Oklahoma: I am headed to Quapaw Powwow, arguably the longest running annual powwow—145 years. Our family and tribal nation have always played host to friends and visitors from all over the world.
Laguna, New Mexico: As much turmoil the United States government has given our people in the past and present, my father has instilled in my family a sense of loyalty, liberty, and responsibility for our country. He is a Vietnam Veteran and could easily have forsaken this country due to the treatment he and other Vietnam veterans received upon their return. Instead, he chose to defend the country and the land of Indigenous Americans. He then raised his children and grandchildren to respect the country. So we will spend the day probably watching a parade in the morning and then have a BBQ with friends and family. We will honor and remember the veterans on this day.
Akwesasne Mohawk territory, Haudenosaunee territory: We don’t celebrate the independence of our colonizer, especially considering that George Washington ordered the Sullivan–Clinton Campaign of burnings, displacement, and murder against the Haudenosaunee villages during their war for Independence. This while so many of our people were helping the Americans at Valley Forge, while decisive battles were won due to Iroquois allies.
Milwaukee, Wisconsin: We have a powwow in Oneida every 4th of July, because we fought with George Washington and the colonists to help them win their independence.
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan: In Canada First Nations people are faced with that dilemma this year more so than ever, because the federal government is promoting their 150th anniversary and reconciliation at the same time.
Tomah, Wisconsin: The 4th of July—my Ho-Chunk Nation made the day known as Cpl. Mitchell Redcloud Jr. Day, with a powwow at the Andrew Blackhawk Memorial Pow-Wow Grounds. My choka (grandfather) was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, killed in action during the Korean War. Mitchell Jr., was my maternal choka’s first cousin and was also a choka to me, Ho-Chunk relationship. I will volunteer on the 4th, if my relatives, the Redcloud family, need my assistance.
Arizona and the Diné (Navajo) Nation: Greet and end the day by thanking Creator for another blessed day. We don’t celebrate but use the day for family activities.
Pawnee, Oklahoma: I celebrate my two grandmothers who were born on the 4th of July. My mother’s mother, Lillie Carson (Otoe), and my dad’s grandmother, Sally Kaulaity (Kiowa). They were both good grandmothers. I miss them.
Santa Fe, New Mexico: We chose to get married on the 4th of July. Having our anniversary on that day makes the day about love and the continuity of my Cherokee family and the families of all the cultures we’ve married with over the generations. It adds nuance to a day that could just be about patriotism and blowing things up. Plus we always have the day off and get to spend the day with family and friends who believe in the importance of journeying together in peace and equality. And yes, we get fireworks, too.
Waldorf, Maryland: Yes. We have our homecoming then. It never feels like a 4th of July celebration even though it is. It feels more like what we call it, Lumbee Homecoming. We have thousands of people packed in one little town for nine days celebrating our people, our food and culture, their talent, or their coming back home to visit relatives, spending time together, and making new memories, and of course enjoying eating grape ice cream.
Shawnee, Oklahoma: The flag of the United States is not exclusively the flag of the immigrants who came here and created a government, it is also the flag that our own warriors defended many times in the last century and currently today. Yes, it was once flown by our enemy, but it now represents those warriors who fought under it and all those who work toward fulfillment of tribal sovereignty and treaty rights and an inclusive country where immigrants and indigenous people live together equally protected under the Constitution. It is a symbol of the treaty agreements that we as indigenous people still have our inherent rights. Okay, that’s not a celebration but that’s what I think when I celebrate.
Oklahoma City: Do as our people always have: Help feed and care for those who need it!
Carnegie, Oklahoma: We celebrate every 4th Gourd Dancing, camping, and visiting my Kiowa people while we’re here, listening to the beautiful Kiowa songs. For three days we are just in Kiowa heaven. Been doing this for years. Now my parents have gone on, but we will continue to attend the Kiowa Gourd Dance Celebration.
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma: Do American Indians celebrate the 4th of July? Yes, it represents freedom in the United States of America. Freedom to continue to worship Creator, freedom to dance my prayers, freedom to sweat, freedom to rise early and pray the day in and be up late to pray the day out. We, the Host People, celebrate the 4th of July every day!
Prewitt, New Mexico, and the Navajo Nation: No, I do not celebrate. Because I as a Diné will never relinquish my belief or understanding that we as a people and a nation have the right to be loyal to the Holy Ones before all others, including the United States. We as a people existed long before there ever was a United States.
Taos, New Mexico: Taos is a very close-knit community, and even more so at Taos Pueblo nearby. Both have had many citizens serve in America’s military in the heartfelt belief that they are protecting our nation. One of our honored tribal elders is Tony Reyna, 97, who survived the Bataan Death March during World War II. I have been told many times that, for us, the idea of protection goes deeper than for most Americans. This land is where our people emerged, and any threat to it is met from a place of deep, deep meaning. People here celebrate Independence Day pretty much as they do everywhere. It’s a day off, and there are parades and fireworks displays. But for many we remember World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, and the sacrifices our people made. I wish all people could remember that.
Parshall, North Dakota, and the Three Affiliated Tribes: The 4th is the celebration of independence, which Native people have practiced as sovereign nations for generations.
Shawnee, Oklahoma: No, I do not celebrate Independence Day, simply because the Declaration of Independence labels my people “our enemies, the merciless savages of our frontiers.” You notice the colonists were already calling the frontiers “ours” when the land was not theirs. Because I do not celebrate Independence Day does not mean I am not proud of our Native American veterans and soldiers. I am very proud of them and of the fact almost all Native American families have a family member who is a veteran or an active member in the Armed Forces.
Anadarko, Oklahoma: I am Kiowa/Delaware/Absentee Shawnee. My mom is a Kiowa/Comanche. My uncle is a vet, as many of my other relatives are, as well as my stepdad (Comanche/Caddo). My Delaware grandma always said, “This is not our holiday. Out of respect we will honor their day, because our people helped them.” She said, “I will mourn on this day.” She would wear a black dress that day.
Laguna, New Mexico, and the Pueblos of Acoma and Laguna: I celebrate the 4th of July and I do so proudly. . . . When you have been lucky enough to travel and see life in other places, you come to appreciate the home and land you live on. Maybe I’m not as bitter as some of my other Indigenous brothers and sisters because my tribes were not relocated and have been lucky to remain on ancestral lands. Our Pueblo people . . . fought against the Spanish in the Pueblo Revolt, but also learned to harmonize with the Catholic Church. Many years—even centuries—of healing have taken place to get us to this point. And I think by celebrating the 4th of July, I feel I am honoring that healing my Pueblo ancestors have prayed for. . . .
Sawmill, Arizona, and the Navajo Nation: I recognize Independence Day as a day off, as time with family. I recognize that the United States declared its independence on that day, but Native people weren’t a part of their envisioned emancipation. As Native people, we recognized our independence through our prayers and practicing our traditions. We didn’t need a special day to mark our freedom, we just were. So on the 4th of July, I will practice my American heritage and celebrate this country’s Independence Day. But my heart knows I don’t need a day to recognize my autonomy.
Oklahoma City and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma: I think of the 4th of July as American Ideals Day. If only America would live up to its own stated ideals, none of what happened to American Indian people would have happened. Today, if those ideals were finally acted upon, American Indian sovereignty would be fully recognized and the treaties would be kept intact. The fireworks celebrate the great ideals that could be America, if only greed were not allowed to pervert them.
Norman, Oklahoma: My 13-year-old son (Comanche/Cherokee) is currently reading the U.S. Constitution (just because). When I asked him about the 4th the other day, he kind of shook his head and said that most people just don’t get it. Reading the comment above on American Ideals Day made me think of how true it is—how little we know about America’s ideals of the past and where we hold them now.
Wichita, Kansas: My people, Kiowas, have always held this time of the year as a gathering of all our bands. They would celebrate for a week, indulging in each society’s dances, renewing friendships, visiting relatives, and so on. As we progressed into this modern society we are a part of, we recognized the importance of this celebration even more so. To honor our freedoms and the men and women who sacrificed for us today is truly a reason to celebrate the 4th of July. Does it mean we are to forget our struggles and the plight of our people? NO, but it commemorates the beauty of our land and the resolve of this nation we call America.
Pawnee, Oklahoma: [It’s a day] to celebrate all our Native men and women who served in the Armed Forces of the United States of America, our Native men [the Codetalkers] without whose tribal language [World War II] might have been lost. To honor our fallen ones, who sacrified their lives for us, and the veterans who are buried in our tribal cemeteries . . . and overseas. To honor my daughter . . . in the U.S. Army, a proud Native American woman who is serving our country.
Waikoloa, Hawai’i, via the Red Cloud Indian School, Pine Ridge, South Dakota: It is a sad time, . . . thinking of all the treaties never honored. I try to hold my children and grandcubs near and invite others who are alone or ill or elderly to eat lots of food that I cook until I am very tired and thank the Creator for another wonderful day.
To read more about Independence Day 2020, see A Curator’s Fourth of July Message on the Long, Shared Work of Creating a Better America, also on Smithsonian Voices.
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