A July 4 Reflection

It should go without saying that Independence Day is anything but for this country’s Native American peoples.

I am white, not Native. But the following are the things I hear from Native friends and read in Native publications around July 4. The critiques make sense to me.

This country’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence, casts Native peoples as brutal savages. One of the justifications given for breaking away from England and King George is that: ” 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.”

Since July 4, 1776, Native nations have gone from being sovereign independent nations to being “domestic dependent” nations. Tribes are confined to small reservations, typically on unproductive land. They do not have complete control of their laws or courts. This is not independence.

The boarding schools and other assimilation policies that existed and continue to exist in this country to convert Native peoples to European customs, cultures and religions reflect anything but independence.

The U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights guarantees freedom of religion, but it wasn’t until 1978 that the U.S. government passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. Up until that point, many Native religious practices were banned. Further, Native religious practices are tied to sacred places, many of which are privately owned, or are parts of state of national parks (and regulated). Native American access to those places to conduct ceremonies is a problem.

A portion of the sculpture in the Minnesota House of Representatives
A portion of the sculpture in the Minnesota House of Representatives.

Even the art in the Minnesota State Capitol continues the mythology of the independence narrative for all people. A sculpture in the Minnesota House of Representative’s Chamber shows a Native man and Native woman on one side and two explorers on the other side, a perfectly balanced harmonious image. The inscription below reads: “The Trail of the Pioneer Bore the Footprints of Liberty”

Liberty for whom? The notion that pioneers brought liberty and independence for Native Americans is false. At one point after the Dakota-U.S. War, the state put a bounty on Dakota scalps.

For additional thoughts on Independence Day, read last week’s MPR story: Waziyatawin: Take down Fort Snelling. Waziyatawin, who is Dakota, wrote the book “What Does Justice Look Like? The Struggle for Liberation in Dakota Homeland.” She argues strongly for tearing down Fort Snelling, which she told MPR is a symbol of the “ongoing celebration colonialism in Minnesota.”

The Fort is a symbol of the loss of Dakota independence. The Fort was built right on top of  sacred Dakota land, the site of the Dakota origin story, Waziyatwin said.

“It’s a sacred spot in that way, but it’s also a site where we have this horrendous, violent history: It’s not just that the fort was built there, it’s also that the fort was a concentration camp. It was a prison. Through the 19th century, you had Dakota people imprisoned there for various crimes. It was always a place of incarceration.”

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