The most sacred document wherein the U.S. celebrates its Fourth of July holiday, the Declaration of Independence, is known for having some of the most revolutionary words in history in regards to the equality of men who at the time had been forever accustomed to having caste-like systems whether it be Empires, noblemen and serfs, or a monarchy rule the American colonialists lived under.
After a brief introduction, the Declaration of Independence states in the eloquent prose of the Thomas Jefferson,“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.”
Powerful words, indeed, and ones we should hold dear no matter where we are from or live. But if one reads through the document completely – as it's done annually and publicly in countless U.S. locations – it lists “repeated injuries and usurpations” and “tyranny” acts against the colonialists on behalf of King George III of Great Britain.The second paragraph concludes, “To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world,” before a list of 27 sentences listing various trangressions from tax complaints to forced military conscription.
The last of these complaints, however, is one that reads: He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
Pause right there. Does the most famous document in American history really state “all Men are created equal,” then hypocritically proclaim right afterward its first inhabitants are “merciless Indian savages”?
Yes, it really does, and this founding document was more than just a document written in the context of a bitter conflict. Consider, although Jefferson is most credited for penning this famous document, it was written by a committee of 5 people – including Benjamin Franklin and John Adams – and ratified 86 times by the Continental Congress before becoming official and signed. So this was a carefully mulled over phrase in that Natives would forever be considered “savages” in regards to their future relations with the U.S.
Go figure, in Jefferson's rough draft was a statement he was adamant in having “against King George III for creating and sustaining the slave trade, describing it as 'a cruel war against human nature.'” He was eventually overruled.
So undoubtedly, the future of Natives and their potential role in the U.S. was discussed at length, and the sentiments of them being “Indian savages” not equal with Americans would immediately be put to use in the war's aftermath. Tribes that had fought with the British were naturally assumed as having forfeited all rights of the newly formed country, but even those allied with the U.S. would ultimately receive the same fate in spite of their loyalty.
The Stockbridge Natives of Massachusetts and other New England tribes like the Oneida spoke the same language of rights and freedom as the colonialists on the onset of the war and bled the same red blood for the cause. Stockbridge Sachem (Chief) Solomon Unhaunawwaunnett said, “If we are conquered our Lands go with yours, but if we are victorious we hope you will offer us our just Rights.”
All eastern tribes were leery of being caught in the middle of another white man's war after the horrific atrocities committed during the French and Indian War (1754-1763) that had concluded just a dozen years prior to the onset of Revolutionary War. But they knew this war would affect them again nonetheless, and placed loyalties based on which side they thought would be fairest and able to garner them the most lands lost back.
In spite of most New England area tribes' sincerest efforts to aid Americans, “Indian patriotism did not earn Indian people a place in the nation they helped create,” writes British American and Dartmouth Professor Colin G. Calloway in his book, The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities. “For Native Americans, it seemed the American Revolution was truly a no-win situation.”
He continued, “...The Stockbridge and their Oneida friends who had adopted the patriot cause found that republican blessings were reserved for white Americans.”
Before and after the war most Stockbridge Natives sincerely tried to adopt the white man's ways—including adopting Christianity. They were allowed to be assemblymen in their namesake Stockbridge town, but as soon as the war concluded the representative Stockbridge Native “selectmen” numbers declined rapidly until whites took over all aspects of the land and government. Most of the Stockbridge Natives were finally forced out to Wisconsin – along with many Oneida – in 1822.
Thereafter in 1824 all Natives were to be considered wards of the state under the U.S.'s newly formed BIA operating under the Department of War. And war would continue to be as even peaceful tribes like the Cherokee who also adopted the white ways would be forcibly removed from their homelands, while others were simply eradicated under the cloud of the U.S.'s Manifest Destiny mindstate.
The Oneida Indian Nation in New York was the first proclaimed ally of the U.S., fighting in various pivotal battles while selflessly providing corn to George Washington's starving troops at Valley Forge. Current Oneida Nation Representative Ray Halbritter (whose tribe also owns www.ictmn.com) has actively been involved in the fight for garnering respect for his and other tribes via getting rid of the Washington Redskins mascot that's deemed a racial epithet.
It's tough to take the opinions of those deemed a lesser “merciless Indian savage” serious, apparently—much less honor their treaty rights. When the brutal history and unfair treatment of Natives is brought up in the Redskins controversy, it seemingly elevates patronizing attitudes toward American Indians' arguments. “Just get over it,” is a dismissive phrase frequently said. But how can American Indians simply “get over it” when the primary founding document of the U.S. still condescendingly refers to them as a “savage” to this day?
Adrian Jawort is a proud Northern Cheyenne writer living in Montana. He's been a freelance journalist for various newspapers and several nationally distributed publications, including Cowboys & Indians and Native People magazines. He's compiled a newly released fiction anthology titled, Off the Path, An Anthology of Montana 21st Century American Indian Writers, Vol. 1, available at OffThePassPressLLC.com.
This column was originally published on May 13, 2014.