It seemed like a simple point to make, and the right time to make it.
After spending nearly 10 years in Indian country researching and writing my new book, Indian Voices: Listening to Native Americans, I thought that I, a non-Native, was in as good a position as anyone to make mention of three distressing words in the Declaration of Independence.
The three words are “merciless Indian savages.” The criticism that arrived shortly after my essay on the Declaration of Independence hit Huff Po how much ignorance and enmity there is in this country about and toward Native people, then and now.
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It was my feeling that relatively few people realize those words are there, amid the glories of Thomas Jefferson’s often quoted prose. I thought, Okay, my fellow Americans, let’s acknowledge. Here’s the link to the essay: “The Damaging Three Words of the Declaration of Independence”.
I have to say that post is not my best prose and the last sentences I would have edited had I let them simmer a while, but I wanted to get the whole thing to a waiting editor at Huffington Post before the 4th of July weekend started.
I mean really fast. When did I realize my post wouldn’t be lost in the Huff Post slog? When I saw it featured on page one, with a photo of the Declaration. When did I realize people were reading it? When I kept getting messages that various people were following me on Twitter. (@alisonowings, if you care to join them). And when the number of messages went from hundreds to, yes, thousands.
Mention of “merciless Indian savage” kicked up such a huge and ferocious storm that I have not read all the comments: 3,187 of them when I last checked.
Of the many I did read, a majority were wagging finger-ish. “Didn’t I realize that the Declaration reflected thinking in the 18th century, not the 21st?” “Didn’t I know that the passage I quoted is part of a long list of grievances against King George III?” “Please be aware that Jefferson owned slaves…” To which I say, “Duh, duh, and duh.”
Some comments were shocking by perspective alone. Common themes: Look what Indians did to settlers, savagely and mercilessly, wrote several people. Jefferson was right! Or, “Jefferson was referring only to Indians in western settlements”—(“Nothing in that statement shows a belief that ALL Indians were merciless or even savage,” wrote nullcodes). Or, “Now Indians can go to college for free.” A person with the handle of jdjay comments, “There were some pretty evil tribes but focusing on the bad ones as being representative of the whole is obviously not an objectively Christian or spiritual approach.”
Here sunshine14 steps in: “Does not matter if their [sic] were evil tribes or good tribes, not our land was it, regardless?” This rankles Syllogizer. “You are ignoring the facts that even Tocqueville pointed out: the Indians did not even HAVE a concept of land ownership when the Europeans arrived. So no, the land was not ‘stolen’, since it wasn’t ‘owned’ in the first place.”
Oh, Lordy. That one drew a lot of heat.
Thankfully, a number of people, including many self-identified as Native, challenged the challengers, and the challengers’ challengers. One gentleman (as I think of him) took on a creep who wrote that my essay, meant for the 4th of July of all days, was “treasonous.” Eek.
There were also many, many, many people in the waaaay-off-the-subject crowd who posted comments about the Constitution, about Nazis, about the Gaza flotilla, about black soldiers, about God, about human flaws, Jefferson’s and others, about…
Amid the onslaught, out of curiosity I checked the Amazon ranking of my book, Indian Voices. It was way up in general, and up to #14 in books about Native Americans. Okay, that is a nice if unintentional side effect, assuming post and sales are related. But what lingers more is knowing, up cyber-close and personal, how much ignorance and enmity there is in this country about and toward Native people, then and now. Maybe my post alleviated some ignorance (a few people actually commented, Thanks for telling me about those three words!). Surely, though, there are less stressful ways to get such points across.
Or are there?
Alison Owings is the author of the recently published and highly praised work, Indian Voices: Listening to Native Americans (Rutgers), her third “anti-stereotype” book written from the perspective of an outsider. She may be reached via alisonowings.com or followed @alisonowings on Twitter.