What exactly does “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” mean to a Native American?
As a teacher of high school tribal government, I am tasked with guiding students to think critically about this question, among many other provocative questions.
A typical high school government class is designed, in many ways, to accomplish two overarching objectives: 1.) to inform students about the overall United States governmental system (which should encourage them participate in American politics), and 2.) instill a sense of national pride. For Native students of U.S. government, accomplishing either objective is rife with complexity and contradiction, especially when it comes time to study the Declaration of Independence, the founding document of this “Great Nation.”
Here is the most celebrated line of America’s founding document:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
However seemingly profound the sentiment in this expression, it is impossible for a Native person studying the Declaration of Independence to overlook a phrase that comes later, referring to Native people as “merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
Loose translation: “Indians are savages who kill everyone in their path, and they do not stop,” or at least this is what the founding fathers wanted you to believe.
The fact that this anti-Indian sentiment was and still is published and circulated en masse, has sanctioned a collective disdain for the original people of this land, thereby justifying the destruction of the Indian race, the theft of Indian lands, and meanwhile, Americans pursue their own American dream.
For any student of colonial history and federal Indian policy, as my high school government students are, this statement alone of the “merciless Indian savage,” is among the greatest falsehoods ever told. But Americans bought it, and the political poison went down with ease.
Far too many Americans today still buy this prejudicial lie, because the most quoted and highly touted American document encourages them to. This racist lie is permeated by everything from white-washed American history books, to Hollywood Western films, Halloween costumes of the wild savage, racist Americana on store shelves today, and Indian mascots like the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux. This lie justified centuries of oppressive federal Indian policy, forced removal, reservations, Indian boarding schools, the involuntary sterilization of Indian women until the 1970s … the list goes on.
It becomes clear, then, that “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness,” was absolutely not intended for Native people. There is no way to gloss over this glaring truth, yet acknowledging this historical fact is immediately offensive to many Americans. But acknowledging this truth is necessary.
So, back to the objectives of a typical government class. How are native students expected to value, or at minimum, participate in, a political system that was built upon the continuous dehumanization and disenfranchisement of our ancestors? How is any truth-seeking human being expected to take pride in such a contradiction?
Clearly, it is much easier to take pride in one’s nation if the shameful truths are ignored and swept under the rug. Out of sight, out of mind. But what also gets swept under the rug with the glaring truths of American colonial racism, is the prospect of native communities healing from centuries of historical trauma. There is no healing without first acknowledging the abuse. For America, this must happen collectively. Collectively acknowledging the racism of the Declaration of Independence is just the beginning.
Such shameless acknowledgement is a vital baby step toward not only a reconciliation of a strained and oppressive relationship between the United States government and tribal nations, but it is also a crucial step toward rightly living up to the lofty idealism that this nation boasts.
As an educator, I have the responsibility to purvey knowledge as accurately and objectively as possible. But aside from a strong understanding of factual information, I must also endeavor daily to instill my beloved students with an even stronger sense of hope. Fortunately, our ancestors have left behind the most compelling legacies of resilience to draw upon.
Past and present stories of strength inspire native students to look beyond the injustices of a nation built on their oppression, still with hopeful eyes set on the future. Native people have risen to the ranks of virtually every profession in America, infiltrating American systems in order to have their own influence upon them. Grass roots community efforts have maintained many treasured life ways and cultural teachings, even despite numerous efforts to erase them.
Native students who courageously face the bitter truths of this country’s past are moved to create a better future for their children, as they have a firm footing grounded in truth, and an understanding of our present realities as a colonized but extremely resilient people. Armed with this compelling truth, they are all the more prepared to heal themselves, their families, and their nations. This is the power of courageous education, and all Americans should be able to enjoy the benefits of our collective American truth.
Sarah Sunshine Manning (Shoshone-Paiute, Chippewa-Cree) is a mother, educator, activist, and an advocate for youth.