As a kid, to me the Fourth of July was all about one thing: fireworks. I grew up in the country in the Dakotas, where lighting off fireworks was pretty much a rite of passage for reservation kids. Roman candles, firecrackers, smoke bombs, artillery shells, and oft dreaded bottle rockets are still sold from make shift stands and big top tents on rural roadsides all across the prairie. Sure, in school we read about George Washington, Paul Revere and the Revolutionary War, but as Natives, we felt pretty disconnected from mainstream American history.
I would later discover that Natives aren’t the only ones who fail to grasp the significance of our indigenous ancestors in the history of the land that would later be called the United States of America. Those very textbooks are proof. In public schools, any mention of Natives is likely relegated to a few paragraphs about Thanksgiving, Pocahontas or Sacajawea. You might hear about The Battle of Little Big Horn in passing, but only as “Custer’s Last Stand.”
Natives aren’t given a lot of exposure in mainstream culture either. You’ll rarely, if ever, see a Native character on television or in the mainstream media. While we’ve made strides in representing ourselves positively on a national platform, we’ve got a ways to go to achieve accuracy in the depiction of us as a People. This is evidenced by false imagery that’s saturated pop culture, ala scantily clad white women in headdresses and war paint, and the tolerance of negative stereotypical mascots like the Cleveland Indians and the Washington Redskins.
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In reality, Natives have played a pivotal role in American history and will continue to do so. There’s no doubt that European immigrants would not have survived long enough to form the 13 colonies but for the assistance of Natives on the east coast. Besides providing the first handouts to the starving and diseased European aliens who landed, Natives taught them how to fish, hunt, and plant foods in North America, how to build watercraft, and maneuver along Native trails.
Today, around half of the globe’s food supply comes from crops like corn and potatoes- which were originally cultivated by Natives. Cotton, a key fabric source, was also first grown by Natives. Medicines derived from Native plants were used by Natives in the Americas long before the arrival of Europeans.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Most Americans are completely clueless to the fact that the U.S. Constitution has a Native foundation. Ben Franklin, one America’s ‘founding fathers,’ modeled much of the Constitution after the Iroquois Confederacy. Even today, the way the congressional House of Representatives works with the Senate is rooted in how the Iroquois Confederacy was run.
Natives affected the revolutionary social concepts of early Americans too. Europeans who immigrated here came from countries that were monarchies. Their countries of origin were very socially stratified, with castes. In other words, if someone were born into poverty, they were likely doomed to remain such for life. For such a person, the option of earning an education or pursuing a gainful means of employment was extremely remote. Natives and their vast lands introduced Europeans to the concept of individual dignity and a person’s right to be free. For example, if a Native man didn’t wish to hunt or fight in battle, he wasn’t forced to do so. There were also Native women who became warriors and who held leadership positions within their Tribe. The concept of individual freedom, in the European mind, became one’s right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Mixed with capitalistic greed, such liberty gave birth to the phenomena once known as ‘The American Dream.”
Natives are recognized for having enlisted and served in the military more than any other ethnic group in the United States. Even before they were granted citizenship, Natives fought on the side of the U.S. in military engagements. Guerilla warfare as learned by colonists from watching and fighting Natives who practiced it pre-Revolutionary War gave U.S. forces an edge against Britain when they fought for independence. Americans who carried out one of the first acts of rebellion against the British Crown, called The Boston Tea Party, did so dressed as Mohawk Tribesman. An act of cowardice? I think so. Yet it’s undeniable that such an event would not have happened without the presence of Natives, and our exemplary courage.
Young Americans are once again looking to Natives for inspiration. Occupy protestors cite key Native historical figures like Oglala Lakota Chief Tasunke Witko (Crazy Horse) as role models of defiance, strength, and bravery in the face of tyranny.
Environmentalists are also beginning to seek out Indigenous knowledge on how to develop a sustainable economy built around green energy and working with the land, rather than trying to conquer and destroy it.
As citizens shell out big bucks for Chinese explosives this Fourth of July, I hope they’ll take some time to think about the contributions of Natives to the growth and development of this country as it stands today. No people save African Americans have paid such a steep price for the American Empire as Natives have. Until the country as a whole comes to this realization, it will continue to decline and face tragic consequences. Without the First Americans, Natives, there would be no United States.
Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton-Wahpeton/Mdewakanton/Hunkpapa) is an administrator, ethnoscientist, tribal judge, speaker, and writer. She is a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network and the editor and a writer for LastRealIndians.com. Watch for the publication of her first book.
This story was originally published July 4, 2012.