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The Declaration of Independence—Except for 'Indian Savages'

Adrian Jawort
5/13/14

The most sacred document wherein the U.S. celebrates its Fourth of July holiday, the Declaration of Independence, is known for having some of the most revolutionary words in history in regards to the equality of men who at the time had been forever accustomed to having caste-like systems whether it be Empires, noblemen and serfs, or a monarchy rule the American colonialists lived under.

After a brief introduction, the DOI states in the eloquent prose of the Thomas Jefferson,“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.”

Powerful words, indeed, and ones we should hold dear no matter where we are from or live. But if one reads through the document completely – as it's done annually and publicly in countless U.S. locations – it lists “repeated injuries and usurpations” and “tyranny” acts against the colonialists on behalf of King George III of Great Britain.The second paragraph concludes, “To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world,” before a list of 27 sentences listing various trangressions from tax complaints to forced military conscription.

The last of these complaints, however, is one that reads: He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

Pause right there. Does the most famous document in American history really state “all Men are created equal,” then hypocritically proclaim right afterward its first inhabitants are “merciless Indian savages”?

Yes, it really does, and this founding document was more than just a document written in the context of a bitter conflict. Consider, although Jefferson is most credited for penning this famous document, it was written by a committee of 5 people – including Benjamin Franklin and John Adams – and ratified 86 times by the Continental Congress before becoming official and signed. So this was a carefully mulled over phrase in that Natives would forever be considered “savages” in regards to their future relations with the U.S.

Go figure, in Jefferson's rough draft was a statement he was adamant in having “against King George III for creating and sustaining the slave trade, describing it as 'a cruel war against human nature.'” He was eventually overruled.

So undoubtedly, the future of Natives and their potential role in the U.S. was discussed at length, and the sentiments of them being “Indian savages” not equal with Americans would immediately be put to use in the war's aftermath. Tribes that had fought with the British were naturally assumed as having forfeited all rights of the newly formed country, but even those allied with the U.S. would ultimately receive the same fate in spite of their loyalty.

The Stockbridge Natives of Massachusetts and other New England tribes like the Oneida spoke the same language of rights and freedom as the colonialists on the onset of the war and bled the same red blood for the cause. Stockbridge Sachem (Chief) Solomon Unhaunawwaunnett said, “If we are conquered our Lands go with yours, but if we are victorious we hope you will offer us our just Rights.”

All eastern tribes were leery of being caught in the middle of another white man's war after the horrific atrocities committed during the French and Indian War (1754-1763) that had concluded just a dozen years prior to the onset of Revolutionary War. But they knew this war would affect them again nonetheless, and placed loyalties based on which side they thought would be fairest and able to garner them the most lands lost back.

In spite of most New England area tribes' sincerest efforts to aid Americans, “Indian patriotism did not earn Indian people a place in the nation they helped create,” writes British American and Dartmouth Professor Colin G. Calloway in his book, The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities. “For Native Americans, it seemed the American Revolution was truly a no-win situation.”

He continued, “...The Stockbridge and their Oneida friends who had adopted the patriot cause found that republican blessings were reserved for white Americans.”

Before and after the war most Stockbridge Natives sincerely tried to adopt the white man's ways—including adopting Christianity. They were allowed to be assemblymen in their namesake Stockbridge town, but as soon as the war concluded the representative Stockbridge Native “selectmen” numbers declined rapidly until whites took over all aspects of the land and government. Most of the Stockbridge Natives were finally forced out to Wisconsin – along with many Oneida – in 1822.

Thereafter in 1824 all Natives were to be considered wards of the state under the U.S.'s newly formed BIA operating under the Department of War. And war would continue to be as even peaceful tribes like the Cherokee who also adopted the white ways would be forcibly removed from their homelands, while others were simply eradicated under the cloud of the U.S.'s Manifest Destiny mindstate.

The Oneida Indian Nation in New York was the first proclaimed ally of the U.S., fighting in various pivotal battles while selflessly providing corn to George Washington's starving troops at Valley Forge. Current Oneida Nation Representative Ray Halbritter (whose tribe also owns www.ictmn.com) has actively been involved in the fight for garnering respect for his and other tribes via getting rid of the Washington Redskins mascot that's deemed a racial epithet.

It's tough to take the opinions of those deemed a lesser “merciless Indian savage” serious, apparently—much less honor their treaty rights. When the brutal history and unfair treatment of Natives is brought up in the Redskins controversy, it seemingly elevates patronizing attitudes toward American Indians' arguments. “Just get over it,” is a dismissive phrase frequently said. But how can American Indians simply “get over it” when the primary founding document of the U.S. still condescendingly refers to them as a “savage” to this day?

Adrian Jawort is a proud Northern Cheyenne writer living in Montana. He's been a freelance journalist for various newspapers and several nationally distributed publications, including Cowboys & Indians and Native People magazines. He's compiled a newly released fiction anthology titled, Off the Path, An Anthology of Montana 21st Century American Indian Writers, Vol. 1, available at OffThePassPressLLC.com.

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hesutu's picture
Amazing article, thanks so much. Will never view the Declaration of Independence the same way. At that time, and going back starting shortly after Columbus, there was a philosophical debate in the minds of europeans as to whether we were human beings, or savages, or a form of talking wild animal, or perhaps even monsters. In the 1550 Valladolid debate against de Las Casas, Sepúlveda argued that we were comparable to birds or insects which could make nests and craftwork, but which were considered not to have the capability of reason, and thus were clearly not human. This position was agreed with by all but one of the selected judges at the time. This position was widely held as justification for genocide by settlers and colonialists for centuries afterwards. All men are created equal, but savages are not men. Thus in the minds of the founding fathers and their world view this document is not a contradiction. I would argue that their world view was not sincerely held though, and these ongoing arguments that we have no reason, are savages, and barbarians, are all a whitewash to justify genocide, land theft, and atrocities and still feel good about oneself while singing in church about their salvation. This goes on to this day, but the new indians are whoever's grandmother this government has targeted this morning for assassination by drones.
hesutu
m8lsem's picture
Kwai nid8bak, The context of the particular obnoxious phrase is that the Brits had incited the Iroquois, known to us as Magwak, to attack Euro settlements so as to distract the colonists from their eastern problems. Dividing us from us in the process.
m8lsem
choctawgirl's picture
Exactly brother! Hesutu right but about your last statement whites want to be included in everything and they will feel like they are a victim too and claim they are Native just like us to play the victim card and use it as an excuse to be here. They will reach at anything and twist it in every way they can to make themselves seem superior and at the same time victims. They always want to be superior to everyone but they also want sympathy ;) They always want to jump on the your a racist bandwagon but lack the introspection to see their own racist ways.
choctawgirl
Jesse Herold Wiens's picture
Thanks Adrian for bringing this fact to light - not something I was aware of, but I'm grateful to know it now, for shared awareness of the history which we inherit.
Jesse Herold Wiens
Michael Madrid's picture
Small wonder it only took 103 years for us to be declared human in a federal court.
Michael Madrid
hesutu's picture
"it only took 103 years for us to be declared human in a federal court' Good point, Michael Madrid. I recognize your reference to the Standing Bear case of 1879 where Standing Bear requested a Writ of Habeus Corpus and was denied it on the basis he was "not a person or citizen" under the US Constitution. This particular issue has been somewhat resolved since then by our forced assimilation into US Citizenship by the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, which says we are US citizens whether we wish it or not. Whether we are "persons" in their thinking though has not been resolved to my knowledge! Note that with Standing Bear, the court only ruled that he was legally a person because he was able to prove that he had both fully and completely assimilated into white ways, and he was also fully economically independent and was not receiving any assistance at all from US taxpayers or government. These issues were keys to the decision. Were those of us Indians who were not fully assimilated to white ways persons as well in the views of the court? It is also worth reflecting that we are still considered wards of the state, unable to fully make decisions for ourselves, and thus presumed in need of government stewardship, guidance and control over our lands, persons and traditions. This position has been held in Supreme Court cases since then.
hesutu