I have a colleague who celebrates Independence Day by reading out loud the Declaration of Independence with her neighbors, friends and family. I asked her, “When you get to the part of this sacred document that says, “merciless Indian savages,” what do you do?” She replied, “We just sort of gloss over it.”
The 3 most racist words in the Declaration of Independence came from the lips of the most silver tongued member of our white Founding Fathers and benevolent slave holder Thomas Jefferson. He went on to be part of a prestigious group of Presidents from George Washington to Andrew Jackson who felt American Indians should be vanquished from the country they discovered.
Jefferson’s War Department in 1807 had explicit instructions that any Indian resistance should be met with “the hatchet.” Jefferson further opined, “And…if ever we are constrained to lift the hatchet against any tribe, we will never lay it down till that tribe is exterminated, or is driven beyond the Mississippi, we shall destroy all of them.”
What makes the phrase “merciless Indian savages” so difficult to swallow is its comparison to Jefferson’s earlier contribution to the most revolutionary words in our nation’s history: “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.” Maybe this sentence should be revised to include the caveat, “with exception of Indian savages.”
What amazes me is how a document created in the context of conflict, ratified 85 times by the Continental Congress, reviewed and revised multiple times would have kept in such a racist moniker against the original citizens without someone calling attention to it.
Lost in all the controversy of how the people who welcomed the ancestors of the writers of the Declaration of Independence to their shores, is how this document set the stage for an ongoing war against American Indian people despite the fact that the 5 Civilized Tribes, the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole, adopted the ways of Thomas Jefferson.
Despite these overtures, the Cherokees were forcibly removed from their homeland along the Trail of Tears while other tribes were simply wiped out by manifest destiny.
Lost on the associates of Thomas Jefferson is the fact that the Oneida Tribe during the Revolutionary War joined forces with patriots against the British occupation and oppression.
Why is this important to the federal government family? As public servants, we all took a pledge on our first day of work by holding up our right hand and promising to bear truth, faith and allegiance to the USA which was founded on the principles espoused by historical icons like Thomas Jefferson within the Declaration of Independence.
How about adding a new phrase to the Declaration of Independence? Do justice, love, kindness and walk humbly on the face of the earth. It is hard to gloss over that important lesson-a lasting contribution from the so-called merciless Indian savages.
There are some documents whose power, and compelling quality, comes from their seeming timelessness. The timelessness, in turn, comes from them being (or at least seeming to be) unchanged since….forever. Sacred scriptures have the power they do because we feel they have always been as we read them, thus their truths must somehow be eternal.
The trouble with that is that such documents are written by humans, and are of whatever time they were written in (or translated in). And even when time and experience may lead one to think “Well THAT was kind of ambiguous, or mean-spirited, or bigoted.”, there is resistance to changing the document and correcting those earlier mistakes, because then the document loses the timelessness feel. I remember that the high school version of one of Shakespeare’s plays we were given to read had lines concerning sex being better when you’re drunk lifted from the text. I do not, however, expect to ever see the genocide of the Amalekites ever removed from the Old Testament; the assumption being that the Bible is the Bible, no matter how much it makes you wince.
The city of Halifax, Nova Scotia has recently been having tough debates over the many place names honoring the city’s founder, General Cornwallis. Over time, Cornwallis’ own “merciless” actions against the local Mi’kmaq First Nation became uncovered by historians, and city council was placed in the position of having to decide whether one continues to honour someone who was instrumental in establishing a terrific city, but whose crimes warrant scrubbing him from the record ( http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/cornwallis-name-debate-1.3360725 ). I suspect similar debates have occurred in many other cities.
It’s a tough call, Richard. Everybody, non-Native and Native American alike, wants to feel proud of their country, their region, their identity. And they turn to “timeless” symbols to help them do that. The symbols can be rituals, languages, documents, buildings, etc. That pride can not be false, or based on illusion, though. Sins of the past have to be acknowledged and never forgotten, lest they be committed again. Our own Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada has told us some very hard truths about ourselves. I hope they are never lost or forgotten.
So, alter the Declaration of Independence? Frankly, I don’t see it happening. It is a record of who we were, warts and all. It shows our moral weaknesses, but also shows we aim higher than that. The reconciliation, and higher aim, comes not from rewriting or concealing the truth, but from acknowledging it. And that comes from the manner in which the truths of the document are conveyed; the good and the bad.
First I want to say that I am shocked that you have posted this essay with a picture representing Jane McCay. She became famous when she was scalped by the MERCILESS INDIAN SAVAGES!
Keeping this in mind, Thomas Jefferson was referencing the Native Indians of those times. His description is very accurate.
Unfortunately what really has been glossed over, is the true nature of those savages. We didn’t learn this is school and now all we see is the docile Native Americans.
The Indians practiced horrifying torture, rape, murder and cannibalism, of their prey. The Iroquois annihilated many Indian tribes, in order to take their lands, and take over the fur trade with Europeans.
Found on the internet:
The 10 myths of Iroquois Nations (Google it). — The THIRD MYTH is that the Six Nations are the peaceable, innocent victims of exploitation by European colonizers. The reality is that the Confederacy perpetrated many wars against other Indian tribes (who were not in their confederacy). The Mohawk were particularly savage in war. The word “Mohawk” means “man-eater”; they practiced ritual cannibalism for centuries, as did others in the Confederacy. Their wars were motivated by a desire to exploit the resources of neighboring lands, to steal, plunder, to take captives who would be incorporated into the Confederacy to enhance their numbers, and to monopolize commerce with European traders who offered guns, ammunition, axes, cloth and other manufactured goods, in exchange for the furs of trapped animals, mainly beaver. The list of Iroquois conquests is lengthy, they fought and displaced the Algonquin Indians on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River between Montreal and Quebec City, in the early 1600s. In the 1620s, the Mohawk attacked the Mahican Indians in New York State, to gain control of their trade with the Dutch at Albany. In the 1640s, the 5 Nations attacked the Huron Indians near Georgian Bay, to gain control of their trade with the French. The Jesuit priests Gabriel Lalemont and Jean de Brebeuf were tortured and killed during this raid by the Confederacy. Also conquered and displaced were the Tionontatehronon Indians in 1649, the Attawandaron Indians in 1651, the Erie Nation by 1657, the Susquehannock in the 1670s, and the Illinois and Miami Indians in 1680. They continued their wars into the 18th century, fighting in Georgia and South Carolina against the Catawha and Cherokee Indians, FOR 50 YEARS!
END RACE BASED LAW:
As for the Confederacy’s “exploitation” by European colonizers, the loss of their New York state homeland was justified, given their participation in the Revolutionary War against the Americans. The loss of their other lands in America and in Canada was justified, given that the Confederacy had stolen these lands from other tribes by conquest and kill. This list goes on, go to original source to read more. Source: END RACE BASED LAW, inc. (Canadian group fighting for equal rights with Native Indians, relating to land use and ownership).
Website: endracebasedlaw.wordpress.com (or Google it) See the map which shows the lands (and year) conquered by the Iroquois during the Beaver Wars, wiping out the tribes that were living there, at that time.