For many Indians, fireworks seasons is about freedom.
I know that this is time for many to puff poetic about the political significance of Fourth of July, both positive and negative. Still, as kids we really didn't think like that. We just knew that the Fourth was about freedom. On the Suquamish Rez, like most of the reservations in Western Washington, the Fourth of July was a special day. We blew off fireworks at a place called "The Slab," occasionally catching houses, dogs or people on fire—playing basketball through volleys of flaming gunpowder. It was about freedom. No… the vast majority of the Skins on the rez didn't care about "Freedom is Not Free" bumper stickers or fiery and explosive shows of patriotism. Some did get into that patriotic mind frame, I'm sure, but that certainly wasn't the main sentiment.
Still, the Fourth of July was about freedom.
It was freedom of a different kind. Many of the families who had fireworks stands were poor; we celebrated our freedom from poverty for a little while. After all, fireworks were a great source of economic development on the rez. There were a not a whole lot of other opportunities there; we knew that we could count on the two "F" words to stabilize the family income: fishing and fireworks. The way it went is that the families with fireworks stands would typically struggle to find a way to pay their fireworks tax to the Tribe, and then go get a thousand dollars or so worth of fireworks from a wholesaler on consignment. Drug-dealer style. There was interest involved, and a certain amount of fear because "What if we don’t sell as much as we borrow?" Still, it was rez-style capitalism, and was a huge part of the tribal economy at the time.
Fireworks paid for many Indian kids’ school clothes—taking back America one white customer at a time.
Also, we celebrated our freedom from quiet reservation nights, welcoming the surplus of artillery shells, multi-shooters, non-Native customers and pheromones in the air. We were reservation kids accustomed to the same routine, the same people and the same scenarios day-in and day-out; generally it was fun, and we loved our neighbors, blah, blah, blah. Still, fireworks season brought a glut of loud, scary noises and new people—new adventures, fights, new romance (Grease's "Summer Nights" informed our attempts at "making out under the dock"). It’s an empirically proven statistic—snagging goes up 200% during fireworks season.
Indian kids running around free, a few bucks in their pockets, full of hormones and bar-b-q from some of the amazing rez culinary-types—the world better watch out.
Now? At least as regards the Suquamish Tribe, that free-wheeling rez-style capitalism is mainly gone. Thanks to many wise decisions by the Tribe and a certain amount of serendipity, there are now other economic structures that employ the majority of tribal members. The economic cycle is no longer feast or famine—"better save up during fireworks and fishing because you will not be have other income circulating during the winter." Some other tribes still have very active fireworks seasons—yet, because of the economic downturn/lack of discretionary income, sales just aren’t the same. I understand that some folks have more politicized thoughts about the Fourth of July and will be scowling and practicing a speech while most of us are eating barbeque—I get that. Still, it's hard for me not to have a certain amount of nostalgia about the days when we were free, and friendship, trouble and romance were just a few steps away on the Fourth of July.
Photo used for this story is of the Bomb Shelter fireworks stand on the Chehalis Indian Reservation.
Gyasi Ross is a member of the Blackfeet Nation and his family also belongs to the Suquamish Nation. He wrote a book called Don’t Know Much About Indians (but i wrote a book about us anyways) which you can get at DKMAI.com. He is also co-authoring a new book with Robert Chanate coming out in the Summer of 2012 appropriately called The Thing About Skins, and the website and publishing company for that handy-dandy book is CutBankCreekPress.com (coming soon). He also semi-does the twitter thing at twitter.com/BigIndianGyasi