Monday, July 3, 2017

The Fourth of July—a difficult dance for Indians

Thinking about this national holiday...

This article was published in the July 3, 1904, edition of the Lewiston Tribune—and reprinted in today’s edition of the same paper.

“Sub-Chief Philip McFarland of the Nez Perce tribe, was in the city yesterday accompanied by his interpreter, Peter Malick. Chief McFarland was here on matters relative to the big celebration to be held at Lapwai and Spalding July 4th and states that extensive preparations are now being completed for the celebration.

“Through his interpreter yesterday Chief McFarland said: ‘The annual celebration of our tribe has been observed on July 4th since the first visit of the explorers to the Weippe plains nearly a hundred years ago. Previous to that time our war dance and parade was celebrated just before[we were] to engage in battle and during times of peace the celebrations were held several times during the year in memory of the battles of the tribe.

"’With the coming of the white people the tribe was taught the meaning of the Fourth of July and it soon became the custom to hold but one celebration each year and that was on July 4…

"’It is with the spirit of peace that the Indian enters the celebrations of the present time. All of the visitors are invited to eat at the campfire of the Indians after the parade.’"

The Nez Perce, and Indians across the country, were, in 1904, laboring under the demands of the “Indian Religious Crimes Code,” which had been enacted in 1883. The Code banned Indian ceremonies, disrupted religious practices, and destroyed or confiscated sacred objects. It was aimed at plural marriages and other practices deemed “un-Christian.” Consequences were imprisonment and/or the withholding of treaty rations. Indian superintendents and agents implemented the code until the mid-1930s.

But, the Fourth of July was a national holiday, with fireworks, dancing and celebration occurring across the nation. Some Indians saw in the holiday and its commemoration of American independence a small opening through which they could publicly continue their own important ceremonies—and maybe, in a subtle way, express a sense of loss and desire for their own independence.

On the other side, Indian reservation superintendents and agents justified allowing reservations to conduct ceremonies on the 4th of July as a way for Indians to learn patriotism and celebrate American ideals. Indians could take their regalia out of hiding, pound their drums—and dance.

One can imagine the Fourth of July emotions in 1904--and even today in Indian Country, where many tribes across the country still observe this national holiday with drumming and dancing. Indian dancing.

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