Painting by John Trumbell, 1817
This Fourth of July, as in years past, the broadcasters at National Public Radio celebrated with an on-air reading of the Declaration of Independence. My ears perked up, and then my heart sank, when I heard a specific passage.
In a list of grievances against England’s King George III, the Declaration states, “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.”
As a Native American, I was reminded of how little many people in this country know about what’s actually in the Declaration of Independence, other than the part about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” In fact, this document was signed by founding fathers who had a limited vision of unalienable rights.
Obviously, this white male club did not extend those unalienable rights to women and African slaves. And when it came to American Indians, the aforementioned passage was an outright call to war against the first people of this continent. It was a fight that continued throughout this nation’s history, often led by U.S. presidents.
Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the first draft of the Declaration, charged Lewis and Clark to inform native people that he, Jefferson, was their “Great White Father.” Andrew Jackson ordered the forced removal of thousands of East Coast Cherokee on a 1,000-mile deadly winter march to present-day Oklahoma. And famed World War II military man, Dwight D. Eisenhower, sought to end the “Indian problem” by terminating American Indian nationhood.
Perhaps NPR, in its Fourth of July reading, hoped listeners would not think much about this particular display of hateful language.
But the passage remains relevant today. Tribes continue to fight in state legislatures and federal courts for the right to govern their people, manage their own affairs, and protect their lands against corporate development. The federal government continues to shirk its treaty-based duty to provide basic education, jobs and healthcare services to American Indian people.
This disparaging, dehumanizing language towards American Indians was put in the Declaration deliberately, and for a reason that still resounds. It serves as a powerful reminder of the challenges we as a nation face in seeking to extend full democratic rights to people of all colors, races, faiths, ethnicities and especially to the American Indian.
I wish the good folks at National Public Radio would have found the wisdom and courage to reflect on this challenge with their listeners.
Mark Anthony Rolo is an enrolled member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. He is the author of the memoir “My Mother Is Now Earth.”