By T Smith, Free Press Contributor
Although it only became a federal holiday in 1941, the celebration of the Fourth of July, formally known as Independence Day, dates back to the American Revolution. This day is a celebration of the fact that on July 4th, 1776, “delegates from 13 colonies adopted the Declaration of Independence,” according to the History Channel. The Fourth of July has since become known as a celebration of American Independence from Great Britain. However, it does beg the question, who gets to claim this independence?
Liliana Sapiel, a member of the USM Student Alliance of Indigenous People, shares “as a person born into the Penobscot Nation who identifies as an Indigenous person, I do not consider myself American.” She asks, “how can I celebrate independence and pledge allegiance to a country that has always threatened my people’s independence, sovereignty, and even our existence.” So, when we are celebrating our independence, do we consider who we are leaving out?
While engrossed in the festivities of backyard BBQ parties, cracking beers, sizzling burgers, and hotdogs over an open flame, or lighting the pink paper tip of a kid’s morning glory sparkler, do we ever take the time on this holiday to reflect upon what it took, what “WE” took, to have it? Sapiel shares some of what has been taken from her people, “the Fourth of July represents the declaration of genocide for my people, it continues to spread a false narrative, painting America as the ‘land of the free and home of the brave’ but it was already the land of the free and home to the brave before it was colonized. While typical Americans light off their fireworks and start up their grills there are Indigenous people who are still fighting for their freedom.” What Sapiel is describing is not only what was taken in the late 1700s but also what continues to be taken.
Indigenous people in the U.S. are still fighting for land rights promised to them in treaties that were initiated the year after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Even with minimal mainstream coverage the Standing Rock protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline have demonstrated the quintessential display of the brutally savage nature in which the U.S. government handles our First Nations people and the lack of respect for sacred land and our treaties. Standing Rock is an Indian Reservation that straddles the border of the Dakotas, “home to the Lakota and Dakota nations, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe,” according to the Standing Rock dot org website.
Just last week, on July 14th, Amnesty International posted on their website that, “Indigenous communities fought back after the federal government allowed an oil company to build a pipeline near the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota.” They added, “The Sioux Tribe was not properly consulted, and the impact on their water and culture was not fully studied.” Amnesty International declared, “the pipeline project is a violation of Indigenous people’s human rights – and so is the excessive police response to protests against the project.”
The Dakota Access Pipeline began construction in June of 2017 which indigenous “Water Protectors” protested. The headline of an article published on ACLU dot org reads, “Police at Standing Rock Are Using Life Threatening Crowd Control Weapons To Crack Down On Water Protectors.” In freezing temperatures, police shot water cannons at the Water Protectors exposing them to “hypothermia” and “frost-bite.” The ACLU stated, “The use of water cannons can induce facial, skull, and rib fractures; brain trauma; bruises; prolonged nausea; and even blindness. Water cannons have been attributed to deaths in Indonesia, Zimbabwe, Turkey, South Korea, and Ukraine.” This is a situation where big oil companies have succeeded in bullying and bulldozing their way across sacred lands which were promised to the Nation’s First People since the creation of this nation.
There’s also an epidemic that dates back to 1492 of missing indigenous women and girls which the federal government has perpetually ignored. The Sicangu CDC writes, “The history of violence against Indigenous women can be traced back to the arrival of Christopher Columbus who treated Native peoples as a problem to be extinguished and engaged in the murder, sex trade and rape of indigenous men and women.” Certainly, this is not the stuff the average American is reflecting upon when pumping that little plastic flag pole in their fists up and down, plump on patriotism, to the rhythm of “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” or are they?
Has our flag come to represent something other than “Freedom for all” Nate Twombley, from USM Veterans Affairs points out how our flag has become representative of a particular stereotype, he asserts, “a certain group of people has done a good job of co-opting it and incorporating it into their messaging,” he claims, and this has him concerned. As a history major Twombley studied WWI, WWII, and 20th Century History. One thing each of these epic times in history has in common is fervent nationalism and this worries Nate Twombley because he feels “incorporating the flag in the messaging was a really easy way of being like, “This is Us” and “This is Them.” What Nate Twombly makes clear is that the flag means something different to each citizen. To some it is an emblem of freedom, a banner waved proudly, signaling blood, bullets, and boots. To others it’s a segregation tool, a government-funded wall, a rebel call, especially paired with the confederate flag, a second-amendment warning promise of violence, “Don’t Tread on Me,” a pride-filled salute. To Yankees, its tradition, with rituals, from parades-to-Memorial Taps.
Concerned with stereotypes of how he is seen as a veteran and as someone who takes honor in his star-spangled, red, white, and blue, Nate Twombley mentions how he “doesn’t fit the stereotype” and suggests if, “we all rally around the flag,” then we can subdue not only its oppressive history but especially its current oppressive nature. For some, this holiday is highly political and personal yet Twombley feels the fourth is one of “those holidays, at least you should set aside all the political bullshit,” says Twombley, “regardless of your party, your race, your sexual orientation, whatever,” this veteran believes the flag belongs to everyone and under it, we are united.
USM Student Alliance of Indigenous People board member, Christopher Brown says, “I find that the appeal of the holiday is also its distaste.” For Brown, “It is a day for the average American to celebrate freedom from tyranny and the exaltation of Enlightenment ideals such as equal liberty and justice which is something every being ought to celebrate. However, the problem rests in the current and historical condition of this country’s failure to dedicate itself to those very principles.” Where is the liberty and justice rate in the U.S.? A small poll in the U.S. claims 45 % of Americans “do not think America is a nation with liberty and justice for all,” according to The Evening Tribune.
What about justice? There’s a disparity among incarcerated Native people in the U.S. criminal justice system. Since 2000, there’s been “an explosion” in the native jail population of 85 %, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. What about liberty? What exactly is liberty? Oxford Dictionary defines liberty as the state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s way of life, behavior, or political views. It’s easy to recognize how our Nation’s First People have not been privy to the same liberties; colonialism stole their homes, families, culture, identities, children, traditions, sacred lands, waterways, food supplies, dignity and current U.S. systems perpetuate those abductions. Even before looking upon those realities, Brown’s sentiment resonates with those awake to perspectives beyond the white settlers’ history; an alternate history of glorified heroics which omits a campaign of literal attempted genocide and eugenics.
Brown posed his own questions, “how can a country support liberty on the bones of our Indigenous mass-slaughtered people? How can a country be free when this country was established with the belief that one person can own another? How can a society be just when to this day, these egregious and barbaric crimes against not only humanity but against nature have yet to be properly rectified? How can a people celebrate that which they do not have?” The answers to these questions are varied through perspective. Twombley and Sapiel would likely have different responses and that is due to perspective. Who we are, where we come from, and who raised us. The community is a contributing factor that shapes one’s understanding and relationship with the flag and the holidays around it.
Twombley, reflecting on how even got here in the first place explained how “if we go back and think about the history of the founding fathers and why we actually came here, why we declared our independence from authoritarianism.” The irony is not lost on Twombley or Brown.
When considering what he wishes everyone understood about the holiday, Brown shares, “Independence Day is rooted in deception and hypocrisy. The United States were founded on heinous beliefs and built on the foundation of hundreds of years of the genocide of our peoples” or as the Declaration of Independence describes us, “…the merciless Indian savages, whose warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.” This was written by a man who claimed that “all men are created equal” yet claimed the right to own another human being. Ultimately, Brown argues, “more people should understand their ignorance and embrace the dark and bitter truth of this nation’s founding and continued crimes.” The Fourth of July represents different things to different people. Twombley says, “for me, it’s just being able to come together with people who are also from your country or who aren’t and just sort of celebrating that unity.” Twombley is concerned that community is what has been lost but did we lose it, or was it stolen? That’s a question for another story but one thing is clear to Sapiel, “The Fourth of July is merely a facade blinding people from the true history of America behind shiny fireworks and over-the-top patriotism.” So should we keep celebrating this holiday or should we change it to reflect what we’ve learned since 1776? Brown offers a suggestion, “I think at this point in time, it is appropriate to recognize the truths regarding the messaging of this holiday and perhaps switch to a different intent of the holiday, focusing on self-reflection and evaluating the short-comings of this society and government and using that to do better and attempt to rectify the wrongs that this country has wrought.”
- “History of the Fourth of July – Brief History, Early Celebrations & Traditions.” History.Com, www.history.com/topics/holidays/july-4th. Accessed 14 July 2023.
- “#MMIW: Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.” Sicangu CDC, sicangucdc.org/blog/f/mmiw-missing-and-murdered-indigenous-women?gclid=CjwKCAjw5MOlBhBTEiwAAJ8e1kF3E3so13ECcg69DmK0PEs7HVCFHQz6ogzUYfwlOAhp72vChrs7SxoCJlsQAvD_BwE. Accessed 14 July 2023.
- Noel, Temple, L. W., & Ltakenalive. (2023, May 5). Homepage. Standing Rock. https://standingrock.org/
- Police at standing rock are using life-threatening crowd-control weapons to crack down on water protectors: ACLU. American Civil Liberties Union. (2023, February 27). https://www.aclu.org/news/racial-justice/police-standing-rock-are-using-life-threatening-crowd
- The U.S. criminal justice system disproportionately hurts native people: The data, visualized. Prison Policy Initiative. https://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2021/10/08/indigenouspeoplesday/
- Survey: 46 percent say U.S. Nation with liberty and Justice for all. Hornell Evening Tribune. https://www.eveningtribune.com/story/news/nation-world/2014/07/07/survey-46-percent-say-u/36888888007/