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July 4: Who Is Celebrating What?

Why are do so many pow wows take place under the guise of July 4 celebrations? Perhaps our ancestors learned to use the opportunity to conduct forbidden ceremonies
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I had a good question asked to me about the American Revolution, since it is still our country and homeland that resides under the political entity called the United States of America. What if Native Nations, were offered admittance as States? That proposal came with keeping lands, congressional representation, and paying taxes and other obligations that came with joining the union.

I recall a historical reference in which the Oneidas and the Delawares (Lenni Lenape) were offered such propositions. Like some tribes on the frontier or essentially surrounded by the settlers, they were split in supporting the Americans or the British. The United States signed its first treaty with an Indian nation, the Lenni Lenape in 1778, and that’s where the proposal first came up. The Lenape allowed the movement of American troops, food and supplies and many warriors fought for them. Those Lenape who opposed the Americans moved west closer to the Wyandots who fought for the British. The offer to the Oneida was probably due to Chief Shenandoah’s support of the Americans and if not take accounting for the Oneida’s place in the Iroquois Confederacy, perhaps was an issue to divide them.


In New England, Passamaquoddy, Micmac, Maliseet and Stockbridge Indians were actively recruited while some resisted the call. Many Natives who fought for either side did so because of Christian missionaries. The 1778 treaty did not seem to help, as the Lenape were beset upon by both vengeful Americans and British forces.

These offers of statehood were obviously made when the Americans were worried about the outcome of the war. Also obviously, the offer was made by “U.S. Politicians,” who could and did renege as events unfolded posing the possibility that the new U.S. would soon be expanding west, and many of these U.S. Politicians were land speculators. The rights of Native Peoples and Nations were not considered due to the nationalistic fervor that masked the land-taking and money-making ventures.

U.S. settlers clamored for expansion into Native lands they assumed were theirs for the taking. An army was raised of undisciplined militia and with a drunk General Harmar lurched into the Northwest Territories to be defeated by Little Turtle and Blue Jacket. A larger second army headed by General St. Clair ended up in the same condition, with desertions, undisciplined militia and a surprise morning strike by Little Turtle. The British then considered backing a potential Native Nation Union to counter the U.S. in the region but events in Europe changed everything. These were bad defeats by the U.S. Army, causing political turmoil back in the new government, with the first congressional investigations, the first assembly of a presidential cabinet and the first example of presidential executive privilege.

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As for the pow wows across Turtle Island that tie into the July 4th holiday, we are reminded by several sources how and why these came about. Lisa Ellwood writes about July 4th and the Arlee Esyapqeyni Pow Wow on the Flathead reservation. The story they tell is that the Bureau of Indian Affairs sought to banish all tribal ceremonies but the tribes proposed having a July 4th “celebration” to honor the nation’s birthday, while they conducted ceremonies in secret. Now the debate is who takes credit for the July 4th pow wows and celebrations? Did the Natives trick the BIA and the Americans into holding their social pow wows, while conducting ceremonies in secret? Or was it the Indian Agents who came up with the plan to allow tribal ceremonies to induce a patriotic display among the confined Indians on their reservations? I say, bet on the red.

Dennis Zotigh, (Kiowa/San Juan Pueblo/Santee Dakota) a cultural specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., gathers statements and testimony from across Turtle Island about these Pow Wows for his July 4th NMAI Blog.

“In the early 1880s, Secretary of the Interior Henry Teller developed what has come to be called the Religious Crimes Code – regulations that prohibited American Indian ceremonial life, disrupted religious practices, and destroyed or confiscated sacred objects. Indian ceremonial activities were prohibited under threat of imprisonment or the withholding of treaty rations. Indian agents implemented the code until the mid-1930s. During this 50-year period, Indian spiritual ceremonies such as the Sun Dance and Ghost Dance 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. Superintendents and agents justified allowing reservations to conduct ceremonies on the 4th of July as a way for Indians to learn patriotism to the United States and to celebrate its 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.”

One of Zotigh’s correspondents said it would be nice to celebrate the Ideals of the America that could’ve been, the nation that made these promises to all its people and to itself in the Constitution. So we are left with the proposition: What if the Americans sought partnership in these territories rather than cling to European ideas of superiority and Christian domination? It would've been a different United States of America and a different and more meaningful celebration on July 4.

Alex Jacobs, Mohawk, is a visual artist and poet living in Santa Fe.