Jul 4, 2023 - Politics & Policy

A "merciless" reminder of Indigenous history on July 4

Stony Brook University Hispanic and Literature associate professor Joseph M. Pierce, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, poses with "Merciless Indian Savages" t-shirt.

Stony Brook University associate professor Joseph M. Pierce, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, poses with "Merciless Indian Savages" T-shirt. Photo courtesy of Pierce

As the nation celebrates its 247th birthday, some Native Americans will use social media posts, T-shirts and other messaging to draw attention to three words written in the Declaration of Independence to describe their ancestors: "merciless Indian savages."

Why it matters: Indigenous activists and scholars say the phrase — which Thomas Jefferson used in airing a grievance against King George III — shows how racism and Indigenous removal were baked into the nation's founding document.

Zoom in: The phrase has become popular among Indigenous activists in recent years. It's often used with a mix of humor and irony to remind others of the conflicting feelings that Indigenous Americans can feel around Independence Day.

  • "It's making people think about how we're seen in this country today," Rhonda LeValdo, host of the "Native Spirit" radio show on KKFI-FM in Kansas City, Mo., tells Axios. "We're still not seen as human beings."
  • The phrase is memorialized on a shirt designed by Kiowa-Choctaw artist Steven Paul Judd and sold on the Native American-owned clothing website NTVS. It's often seen at powwows and around July Fourth.
  • The dark shirt has "Merciless Indian Savages" in white type, with "Declaration of Independence" in smaller type below — a play on shirts with inspirational quotes.
  • Native Americans also have used the phrase in social media memes, comedy shows and art to draw attention to Indigenous history in the U.S.

Catch up quick: Jefferson's reference to Indigenous people as "merciless Indian Savages" was in his 27th grievance against King George, in which he accused the king of encouraging "domestic insurrection" by Native Americans against white colonists.

  • Jefferson also faulted the king for refusing to allow colonists to seize more land from Indigenous people farther west.

What they're saying: LeValdo notes that the Declaration of Independence is widely known for the phrase "all men are created equal." But most Americans dismiss — or are unaware of — what it says about Indigenous people. The shirt is supposed to make you pause and think, she said.

  • "There's this moment of shocking people to the realization of how racist the Declaration of Independence was toward Indigenous peoples," Joseph M. Pierce, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, tells Axios. He takes a selfie with the shirt every July Fourth.
  • "Most Native people see it as a moment of solidarity," said Pierce, an associate professor of Hispanic languages and literature at Stony Brook University in New York.
  • He said many people laugh at the shirt, while others tell him Native Americans should be grateful to the U.S.: "Taking that phrase, that's literally in the Declaration of Independence, forces us to reckon with it."

Zoom out: In recent years, Native American scholars and lawyers have stepped up their challenges to the traditional, often romantic narrative of how the U.S. spread westward — a story that often ignores Indigenous voices.

  • Yale historian Ned Blackhawk's newly released book, "The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of U.S. History," is part of that trend in recent scholarship.
  • "I think that there's a realization that this country is built on something that was bad for Native Americans," Tulsa attorney Brett Chapman, a member of the Pawnee tribe, tells Axios.

Yes, but: Many Indigenous tribes use July Fourth to hold powwows to pay homage to Native American veterans.

  • Lake Traverse Indian Reservation holds an annual powwow on July Fourth to honor veterans.
  • Other tribes sell fireworks leading up to the holiday on tribal lands, free from local and state ordinances governing what they can offer.

Chapman, a descendant of Standing Bear, a Ponca chief and civil rights leader, said tribes are defining the holiday on their own terms:

  • "It's honoring the sacrifices of our warriors."
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