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White: Toward indigenous independence

Americans recently celebrated the Fourth of July holiday, formally known as Independence Day. One op-ed I saw asked how many people actually have read the Declaration of Independence. Several editorials commented about what patriotism in America means now versus what it once meant. Admittedly, I have not contemplated the meaning of patriotism since grade school. To me, it was traditionally a day off school or work, followed by a barbecue and fireworks. Despite it being a time of war, with troops fighting and stationed in harm;s way, I suspect that it is still that for many Americans.

For the first time in a very long time, I read the Declaration of Independence, signed July 4, 1776. Everyone knows the part about ''taxation without representation,'' but the declaration was much more than that. It addressed tyranny, liberty and governance. It was about a struggle to define those ideas for future generations. Now, for many Americans, it is about hotdogs, fireworks and a long weekend.

While reading, I began to ponder what happened to the American Indian within this colonial quest for independence. I reflected on what would transpire within one century of this declaration of independence from the sovereign rule of England. It is neither a small question, nor a simple answer. It is complex, convoluted and built upon by myth. Sadly, too many Americans seem to only know the myth rather than the actual history, and I suspect the same holds true in many indigenous nations too. Surely, many do understand and follow; but what about the younger generations? Do indigenous youth know this full history? The decisions made by their ancestors are why we are still standing here fighting for our existence as sovereign Nations after 500 years of contact with Western civilization.

The following sections are directly from the Declaration of Independence:

''[King George III] has [held meetings] at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing legislators into compliance with their measures; Has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people; ... Has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their acts of pretended Legislation: ... Cutting off our trade with all parts of the world,

''Imposing taxes without our Consent; ... for taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally our Forms of our Governments;

''For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with the power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.''

Granted, this is between what became the United States and England; but the notions here can easily be applied to the U.S. and the American Indians. Often it seems meetings between the U.S. and indigenous nations are held in Washington, away from our own territories with easy access to our elders, leaders and records.

In the 1898 Curtis Act and the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, the U.S. abolished tribal governments first and then required elected forms of governance with constitutions modeled on the U.S. to be recognized in the latter act - this despite many objections of indigenous nations and forms of governance that have existed since long before contact with the West.

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As sovereign nations, we are ''not allowed'' to trade with ''domestic foreign citizens of the U.S.'' witnessed in the many complaints of New York state regarding Indian-owned tobacco shops and gas stations on sovereign tribal lands. In many cases, the U.S. has simply refused to acknowledge, let alone respect, our traditional forms of governance and our own laws in favor of telling us what we ought to be doing. The Haudenosaunee, as do many other nations, have sets of laws that are intricately and directly woven into the very fabric of our culture and worldview.

Several times, by acts of the U.S. Congress, our own governments have been disbanded; they remain unrecognized or disallowed under the ''domestic dependent nations'' interpretation of Cherokee v. Georgia in 1831. The U.S. Supreme Court dusted off the equally questionable ''Doctrine of Discovery'' in its ruling in City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York.

Even treaty making came to an abrupt and permanent end by an act of the U.S. Congress in 1871 without any thought to existing sovereign indigenous nations' positions, questions or consultation. I wonder what would happen if England suddenly and arbitrarily decided the 1776 Declaration of Independence no longer applied the way the U.S. did in 1871 regarding treaty making?

Yet interestingly, the American revolutionists declared to the tyrannical king of England: ''In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A nation-state [Prince] whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of free people.'' Have not the indigenous nations done the exact same thing? Is America the tyrant now?

We have come to the place where one has to ask: If this is what freed the colonists from the tyrannical rule of an English monarch, what would the different sovereign nations of North America have to declare in order to be free of the tyranny of the majority in the United States?

On the cusp of this new century, we must engage in a dialogue with each other as indigenous peoples and with those who now live alongside us in our homelands both past and present. Let all parties with a vested interest in the future of liberty, free traditional governance, and that are truly interested in throwing off the shackles of tyrannical rule unite, roll up our sleeves and help usher in an era of achievable freedom and equality for all humans.

Let our future generations know this was the moment that we stood up and declared our declaration of independence as sovereign indigenous peoples. Let us create just and equitable societies that take care of all by, building communities and thinking beyond ourselves as individuals. Let us begin to change our thinking so that what echoes into the future is that this was the moment when the freedoms we so cherish came with a deep and great responsibility to each other, our communities and societies, and allowed each culture to flourish to a greatness unimagined before.

Kevin J. White, Ph.D., Akwesasne Mohawk, is an instructor at SUNY Oswego in the Native American and American Studies programs and a columnist for Indian Country Today. He has been involved with the Iroquois White Corn Project since 1999 with John C. Mohawk. He can be reached at