Saturday, July 03, 2010

Also Born on the Fourth of July: License to Kill?

Oh those immortal words of the American Declaration of Independence, every school child learns them by heart: "He [The King of Great Britain] 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." Yes that's from that long part at the end. The part you never really read, the long list of grievances against King George.

While it's true that the Declaration of Independence contains some inspiring and fiery anti-authoritarian language and some really finely wrought righteous indignation, it's pretty clear that this document's appellation of "merciless Indian Savages" on the residents just across the potential new nation's frontier is the beginning rationalization to treat said "merciless savages" savagely without mercy.

It's been said that the three main colonizers of the Americas all had different attitudes toward the native population: The Spanish wanted to enslave them and convert them to Catholicism, the French wanted to trade with them, and the English wanted to pretend that they weren't there, or if need be push them out of the way. These are oversimplified of course. But one can see in the history of the 18th-century a hardening of colonial attitudes toward Native Americans, especially in the Northeast. The defeat of the French and their Indian allies in the American theater of the Seven Years War (the "French and Indian War") in the 1760s by the English seems to have pushed settler America to greater hostility toward the Indian nations; nations that were it should be said, unifying and modernizing living side by side with the English. Disastrously, the Indian nations wound up generally allied to the English in the American Revolution, and huge numbers emigrated to English-held Canada upon Washington's victory.

I'm not sure of the specific historical reference point that this portion of the Declaration of Independence is referring to, but it's clear that the nascent Americans saw English attempts to build alliances with Native nations as a threat to settler expansion.

Joseph Brant, whose Mohawk name was Thayandanagea, and who looked nothing like this "Indian chewing gum" trading card from the 1930s, was a prosperous landowner in New York State who as the military leader of the Iroquois League allied with the English against the new Americans. ('Brant dressed in "the English mode" wearing "a suit of blue broad cloth.' points out Wikipedia.) While obviously his military alliance against the Americans post-dates the declaration of independence, it's clear that everybody in 1776 knew there was a collision coming between the western frontier of the colonies and the Indian nations abutted against it. While some of the Indian nations remained technologically behind the settlers, in many places north and south, nations like the Cherokee and Iroquois were growing into, pardon the phrase, "civilized" nations that were in direct competition with white settlers for land and resources. While there were nomadic hunter-gatherer Indian societies, along the frontier of the time this was really not the case. Remember that the wild west of the time was western New York State and Ohio.

The English and the French and the Indian nations tried numerous different strategies of alliance and conflict to subvert the others and gain or defend territorial advantage. Clearly the Americans wanted none of that: they wanted one thing, sovereignty. And so in its first, most important document, the Declaration of Independence, signed so long ago on the 4th of July 1776, the United States of America built right in the dehumanization of native peoples, and the implied right to do something about the threat posed by these "merciless savages." Because everybody also knows that when the colonists labelled untold thousands of people "merciless savages" who don't respect human life, they were pretty much preparing themselves for the coming genocide.

Between the victory of the Americans in 1783 and period after the end of the war of 1812, the borders of white settlement were pushed from the East coast states clear to the Mississippi, with the Indian nations in between defeated. The Americans had made good on their founding words.

History is, well, history. It can't be changed (unless you're the Texas schoolboard), and I don't actually believe that we as modern people are responsible for the mistakes and betrayals of our ancestors. July 4, 1776 brought a lot of good into the world also: anti-colonialism and radical republicanism were historically progressive achievements. But I think confronting our national mythology is a good thing, because if we as American individuals living today are hopefully not committing genocide against Native Americans, the surviving institutions we hold dear--and sometimes abhor--are all built on questionable foundations that do color modern American policy and judgment. It should also be pointed out that the "we" of the Declaration didn't even include the hundreds of thousands of African-ancestored Americans who were, at the time, living out back in slave quarters and not even considered in polite discussions of citizens and their inalienable rights.

So I think it's good to ponder exactly who were the "merciless savages" back in 1776 and the years that followed. Enjoy the fireworks, and the grilled processed tubes of mystery meat, I know I will. But say a prayer that one day those inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness endowed by our Creator will apply equally to all the women and men clinging to this pretty boulder spinning through space.

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