Taking Back Our Identity at '4th of July' Pow Wow Celebrations

Indigenous celebrations on the 4th of July weekend have been rooted in over a century of history as a time to strengthen Native identities and communities.
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The 4th of July weekend for many tribal communities is a nuanced topic, rich with a unique history of cultural resilience. While many mainstream Americans celebrate American Independence on the 4th of July, the weekend has a much different meaning for many tribal communities throughout Indian country.

On this very weekend, a number of reservation communities host powwows and cultural celebrations rooted in over a century of history. Yet for some proponents of decolonization, and even those less-informed on the variations in our many tribal histories, at first glance it may appear as though Native Americans are actually celebrating their own colonization at these celebrations. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Colonized,” and “Tomfoolery,” are just a couple of unenlightened terms I have heard from a handful of individuals who misconstrue what takes place in tribal communities on this very weekend.

Yet to misconstrue the past and present by summing up indigenous 4th of July Pow wows and gatherings as "colonized," is egregiously short-sighted, and inaccurate. As a matter of fact, there are specific tribal and cultural histories tied to that day, which, yes, do have roots stemming from the early reservation era when, for many reservations, that was the only day our ancestors were permitted by Indian agents to gather and dance; But were we celebrating American independence back then? Absolutely not. We were being ourselves, as communal, dancing, and gathering people.

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We took back the day, and the assimilative plan of the Indian agent backfired. We danced, we spoke our language, we shared songs, and spoke of our histories. We strengthened our identities and our connection to community in that historic time of cultural resilience.

Despite the meanings of the American national holiday, today, the celebrations in Indian country mean so much more to the many tribal communities who reconvene on this weekend, year after year. Expecting indigenous communities to abandon their histories tied to celebrating on this weekend, in the name of decolonization, is lacking in substantive understanding of what this weekend really means, and further distorts who we truly are.

Decolonize, hell yes. Learn history, thoroughly, and have the important conversations, including the conversation on what the 4th of July entails for our many different communities.

I think we all should know that the Declaration of Independence, signed on the 4th of July, branded indigenous people as "merciless Indian savages," and this government sanctioned slander and defamation of Indigenous Peoples brought us tremendous harm that we still struggle to dismantle today. This is true, and important to discuss, and something we should continue to push back against as human beings fighting for human rights still today.

As an indigenous person, I personally loathe the patriotism that comes on this day that celebrates colonizers claiming what was always a part of us- our beloved homelands. And even with all this knowledge, I would never expect that our communities should abandon their historic cultural celebrations on this weekend.

I grew up on my reservation of Duck Valley in Idaho and Nevada always looking forward to this weekend, not because my family was patriotic or because we wanted to celebrate America, but because we were going to see family and friends, to enjoy the rodeo, and dance, and hear our songs. For over a hundred years on this weekend, our elders would come to sing, dance, and play handgames late into the night. This weekend was always a favorite, even for our grandmothers and grandfathers.

To us, and so many more tribal communities, the 4th of July weekend means togetherness, health, and cultural resilience.

So while we’re moving forward as indigenous communities in our discussions of decolonization, and in our efforts to return to a pre-colonial condition of our healthiest selves, we cannot oversimplify what the 4th of July weekend signifies to so many of our communities.

We must hold space for the nuance that is who we are today. We must recognize that all of our cultural celebrations, and especially those held on this weekend, are rooted in such rich nuanced histories. Year after year, those very celebrations stand as powerful testaments of our collective resilience, and our ability to assert our rightful place in our homelands, as ourselves, as indigenous people with thriving and vibrant cultures.

Sarah Sunshine Manning (Shoshone-Paiute, Chippewa-Cree) is a mother, educator, activist, and an advocate for youth. Follow her at @SarahSunshineM.