Do American Indians celebrate the 4th of July?
How do Native Americans observe the 4th of July? The answer is as complicated as America’s history. Perhaps the best-known passage of the the Declaration of Independence is the statement that all men are created equal. But many Native Americans also remember the signers’ grievance against the King of England:
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
With the emergence of a nation interested in expanding its territory came the issue of what to do with American Indians, who were already living all across the land. As the American non-Indian population increased, the Indigenous population greatly decreased, along with tribal homelands and cultural freedoms. From the beginning, U.S. government policy contributed to the loss of culture and land.
Keeping our focus on the 4th of July, let’s jump ahead to the 1880s, when the U.S. government developed what has come to be called the Religious Crimes Code—regulations at the heart of the federal Office of Indian Affairs’ Code of Indian Offenses that prohibited American Indian ceremonial life. Enforced on reservations, the code banned Indian dances and feasts, disrupted religious practices, and destroyed or confiscated sacred objects, under threat of imprisonment and the withholding of treaty rations. The Secretary of the Interior issued the regulations in 1884, 1894, and 1904, and Indian superintendents and agents implemented them until the mid-1930s. For 50 years, Indian spiritual ceremonies 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. Indian superintendents and agents justified allowing reservations to conduct ceremonies on the 4th as a way for Indians to learn patriotism to the United States and to celebrate the country's 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. Over time these cultural ceremonies became tribal homecomings. American Indian veterans in particular were welcomed home as modern-day followers of warrior traditions. The Navajo Tribe of Arizona and Pawnee of Oklahoma are two examples of tribes that use the 4th of July to honor their tribal veterans. Tribal veterans’ songs and flag songs are sung. Before the Reservation Era, when most Indians saw the American flag coming toward their villages and camps, it symbolized conflict, death, and destruction. But more than 12,000 American Indians served during World War I, and after the war, the American flag began to be given a prominent position at American Indian gatherings, especially those held on the 4th of July. This symbol of patriotism and national unity is carried into powwow and rodeo arenas today.
The Lumbee of North Carolina and Mattaponi of Virginia use the 4th of July as time for tribal members to renew cultural and family ties. The Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma holds Gourd Clan ceremonies, because the holiday coincides with their Sun Dance, which once took place during the hottest part of the year. The Lakota of South Dakota and Cheyenne of Oklahoma continue to have some of their annual Sun Dances on the weekends closest to the 4th of July to coincide with the celebration of their New Year.
To find out how individual American Indians across the country feel about celebrating the 4th of July, or how they’ll spend the day, we asked people on Facebook. Here are some of the answers we received this year:
Kansas City, Missouri: Some important tribes helped both the colonies and the British fight the Revolutionary War, and others gave aid. And some tribes continued fighting for the United States after the country was established, right through the Civil War. So it does not bother me to celebrate the 4th of July. . . . The government formed by that 1776 revolution, even though it nearly exterminated us, still rules this land today, and has changed enough now to give those of us left a chance for survival. We are all changed, but Indians have always supported the U.S. government in one way or another.
Anadarko, Oklahoma: On July 4, 1967, I was in Vietnam, a short-timer waiting to come home. I didn't celebrate Independence Day, because the meaning is different for most Native Americans. I just wanted to be in Oklahoma. That time of the year is like a homecoming for Kiowa people around Carnegie. Or like the Summer Solstice—the beginning of a new year, a renewal of traditions, friendships, and a happy time. No matter where I was stationed or lived, I tried to be in Carnegie at the Annual Kiowa Gourd Clan Dance. One of those times I was at a Sun Dance on the last day. It was Sunday, July 4. Everything was over, and the last meal had been consumed. The sun had just set to the west, and the whole camp was at rest, when a fireworks display erupted to the east and we were treated to a spectacular show of beauty and color to end a great year. My roots are deeply embedded in home, family, and traditions.
Hogansburg, New York: It doesn’t make sense to celebrate one group of foreigners’ independence from another at the expense of our own people and land. When we Mohawks and others fought in the U.S. War of Independence, it was for our own survival, and even that was controversial at the time.
Fort Hall, Idaho: I force my way into the office—break in to work and not celebrate! I’m kidding. Since it’s a federal holiday and we have it off, we use the day off to practice our off-reservation hunting and fishing rights and go salmon spearing. Or we go to a powwow.
Mt. Rainier, Maryland: As a veteran, I take the family to celebrate the freedom we have, but also teach what the costs were and still are to Native people.
Bartlesville, Oklahoma: We don’t celebrate the 4th. Native people did not become free from anything on that day. We do, however, attend my wife’s tribes’ dance. We look forward to the Quapaw Powwow each year as a family time, an opportunity to sing and dance and practice our social traditions.
Wilmington, Delaware: My family acknowledges the sacrifices the military has made for this country, even though the country has been built on unsavory deeds. We are going to the Veterans Hospital to talk about local Native culture with the vets who live there. I’ll also include some information about Native people in the military.
Chicago, Illinois: No, I never celebrated. I just liked watching the fireworks when my crew were kids. It used to be while I was working at the American Indian Center, we were always asked to walk in parades and do dance performances.
Caribou, Maine: Cookouts and family mostly. . . . As far as independence, fireworks are legal here, but you’re not allowed to set them off after 10 p.m. on July 4th.
South Padre Island, Texas: I do, but in another way. I celebrate by honoring the war chiefs in my tribes for getting us through such troubled times. . . . Independence still lives with us and in us.
Sitka, Alaska: As far as the 4th of July, my Tlingit dance group has a fry bread booth. We sell it as a fundraiser to make it to the biennial event known as Celebration, which is held in Juneau. Usually around 40 dance groups attend, predominantly Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian, which are the three tribes most prevalent in Southeast Alaska. There are also sometimes guest dance groups from other parts of Alaska or even the world. Our town celebrates with booths, sometimes an organized collection of them and sometimes a hodgepodge around town; fireworks on the night of the 3rd, which the fuel company sponsors; and a parade on the 4th.
Pueblo, Colorado: My village celebrates July 7th. That’s our traditional chief’s wedding anniversary.
Lawrence, Kansas: I personally do not celebrate the history of the 4th of July. My celebration is to honor all the Native men and women who have served and are serving this nation. . . . They were and still are defending the only homelands our people have ever known. We cannot run back to any other country or lands, because this is our country and our lands. Mvto for allowing me to share a little of my thought on the 4th of July! Pah-bee [brother], until the words of the Declaration of Independence are changed, I’m still a merciless Indian Savage. And I can live with that, because that’s what my people before were called!
Lancaster, Pennsylvania: Having family in the military and now our son, it has always been about the sacrifices made. We clean the graves, plant or put up new flowers, and pray.
Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin: The Ho-Chunk Nation recognizes July 4th as Cpl. Mitchell RedCloud Jr. Day. Cpl. RedCloud was killed in action while serving in the Army during the Korean War. He posthumously received the Medal of Honor for “dauntless courage and gallant self-sacrifice” in battle near Chonghyon, North Korea, on 5 November 1950.
Omak, Washington: The Nespelem celebration was originally a defiant ruse by Chief Joseph. He had returned from Oklahoma, where he saw the first powwows. The Army banned any tribal meetings and gatherings at Colville. So the people came up with the idea of fooling the United States into thinking we were celebrating America’s holiday. It worked. Indians came. It’s been held ever since. Now it’s the week after the 4th of July, so we don’t have to compete with all the casino-sponsored powwows.
Winterhaven, California: I don't celebrate the 4th of July. It’s another day. I will be working. All tribal employees work that day.
Norman, Oklahoma: Independence Day has a different meaning for us as Native people. We exercise our freedom carrying on the traditions of our people in whatever that form that may be. For me, it is in Carnegie, Oklahoma, in Kiowa country, at the Kiowa Tia-Piah (Gourd Clan) Society Celebration.
Tulsa, Oklahoma: I am headed to Quapaw Powwow, arguably the longest running annual powwow—145 years. Our family and tribal nation have always played host to friends and visitors from all over the world.
Laguna, New Mexico: As much turmoil the United States government has given our people in the past and present, my father has instilled in my family a sense of loyalty, liberty, and responsibility for our country. He is a Vietnam Veteran and could easily have forsaken this country due to the treatment he and other Vietnam veterans received upon their return. Instead, he chose to defend the country and the land of Indigenous Americans. He then raised his children and grandchildren to respect the country. So we will spend the day probably watching a parade in the morning and then have a BBQ with friends and family. We will honor and remember the veterans on this day.
Akwesasne Mohawk territory, Haudenosaunee territory: We don't celebrate the independence of our colonizer, especially considering that George Washington ordered the Sullivan–Clinton Campaign of burnings, displacement, and murder against the Haudenosaunee villages during their war for Independence. This while so many of our people were helping the Americans at Valley Forge, while decisive battles were won due to Iroquois allies.
Shawnee, Oklahoma: The flag of the United States is not exclusively the flag of the immigrants who came here and created a government, it is also the flag that our own warriors defended many times in the last century and currently today. Yes, it was once flown by our enemy, but it now represents those warriors who fought under it and all those who work toward fulfillment of tribal sovereignty and treaty rights and an inclusive country where immigrants and indigenous people live together equally protected under the Constitution. It is a symbol of the treaty agreements that we as indigenous people still have our inherent rights. Okay, that’s not a celebration but that’s what I think when I celebrate.
Prewitt, New Mexico, and the Navajo Nation: No, I do not celebrate. Because I as a Diné will never relinquish my belief or understanding that we as a people and a nation have the right to be loyal to the Holy Ones before all others, including the United States. We as a people existed long before there ever was a United States.
Taos, New Mexico: Taos is a very close-knit community, and even more so at Taos Pueblo nearby. Both have had many citizens serve in America’s military in the heartfelt belief that they are protecting our nation. One of our honored tribal elders is Tony Reyna, 97, who survived the Bataan Death March during World War II. I have been told many times that, for us, the idea of protection goes deeper than for most Americans. This land is where our people emerged, and any threat to it is met from a place of deep, deep meaning. People here celebrate Independence Day pretty much as they do everywhere. It’s a day off, and there are parades and fireworks displays. But for many we remember World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, and the sacrifices our people made. I wish all people could remember that.
Parshall, North Dakota, and the Three Affiliated Tribes: The 4th is the celebration of independence, which Native people have practiced as sovereign nations for generations.
Shawnee, Oklahoma: No, I do not celebrate Independence Day, simply because the Declaration of Independence labels my people “our enemies, the merciless savages of our frontiers.” You notice the colonists were already calling the frontiers “ours” when the land was not theirs. Because I do not celebrate Independence Day does not mean I am not proud of our Native American veterans and soldiers. I am very proud of them and of the fact almost all Native American families have a family member who is a veteran or an active member in the Armed Forces.
Wichita, Kansas: My people, Kiowas, have always held this time of the year as a gathering of all our bands. They would celebrate for a week, indulging in each society’s dances, renewing friendships, visiting relatives, and so on. As we progressed into this modern society we are a part of, we recognized the importance of this celebration even more so. To honor our freedoms and the men and women who sacrificed for us today is truly a reason to celebrate the 4th of July. Does it mean we are to forget our struggles and the plight of our people? NO, but it commemorates the beauty of our land and the resolve of this nation we call America.
Waikoloa, Hawai'i, via the Red Cloud Indian School, Pine Ridge, South Dakota: It is a sad time, . . . thinking of all the treaties never honored. I try to hold my children and grandcubs near and invite others who are alone or ill or elderly to eat lots of food that I cook until I am very tired and thank the Creator for another wonderful day.
As Americans everywhere celebrate the 4th of July, I think about how many American Indians are taking their vacations back to their reservations and home communities. All across Indian Country, tribes hold modern celebrations—including powwows, rodeos, and homecomings—that coincide with the United States’ Independence Day celebrations.