The Declaration of Independence, Jefferson's "Merciless Indian Savages," and Getting Flamed on Huffington Post

Alison Owings

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."

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 own 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.

Fast forward.

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.

You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page




waggaze's picture
I would like to thank Alison for her unblemished and unbiasly pointing out historical references to our great founding fathers of this nation. Alison has hit a chord that the majority and many leading minorities of this country who would love to forget or justify in their minds the treatment and standing of American Indians in the past and present in this great country. If one would look to the federal repsository at those fortunate universities such as the University of Tulsa and pull those papers written by our other founding fathers you will read that it was unanimous of the standing and out and out elimination of a race of people who were not bent on evil acts against foreigners on their soil, but American Indians trying to survive an onslaught of genocide by every race and ethnic group that landed on these shores. The 8th Cavalry was used to eliminate and I would dare say allow these former slaves to displace their anger onto American Indians thus decreasing the odds of freed blacks striking back at their former masters. Even today American Indians in public service in federal agencies are not looked upon as equals and in many instances resented of holding positions in "their" agencies. Even this new administration that has made many promises to Indian Country has not made good on them. I can say from first hand knowledge the Obama administration has hired token Indians to fill very important positions that should have actually gone to seasoned American Indians in federal government that have not been assimilated but still remember where they came from and who they are their to represent and serve. I remember a young man in Indian Affairs who was given a position with the current Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs who did nothing to advance the cause of his own people. He did advance his monetary gains, but with a degree in history from Yale and no practical experience in government he proved to be but a token. Bringing tokens to this conversation spins a new line of thought in my response. In many instances tokens or red apples are chosen to fill positions in federal government so that they do not ask questions, take action to better their people's standing economically or challenge the decisions of other token leaders who have not spent a day living in Indian Country or sampled those wonderful commodities we received. Those of us who have been in this situation and decided to seek a higher education, by the way is not free unless you go to a school of higher education of no practical use, have put at the forefront to make life better in Indian Country. In many instances those who are managing these schools of less credibility go to no ends to prevent those of us who have earned degrees from mainstrean colleges and universities and who have held academic achievement shoulder to shoulder with their non-Native counterparts, are held back even by their own brothers and sisters, not to mention the non-Natives who most often run and manage NGO's for TCU's that act as lobbyists for them. We are often our own worst enemies when we should be embracing and promoting those tribal citizens as leaders in the federal government and tribal government and not try to hold them back from representing tribes with their high level credentials. After all these successful American Indians have learned to play the game as well or better than those who run the government which translates as a win for Indian Country. Food for thought. Mvto, Waggaze
iphone4 ケース's picture
iphone4 ケース