July 4th: Whose Independence Day is it?
This April 14, 2009 photo shows a tipi under construction at Mount Rushmore National Memorial, S.D. It's part of a display under the granite carving of George Washington intended to educate visitors about American Indian history. | Carson Walker / AP

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article represents the views of its author.

The Fourth of July always brings to mind a line from the much acclaimed independent Indigenous movie, Smoke Signals, when one of the characters commenting on the holiday refers to it as the “White People’s Independence Day.” Indeed, when the Euro-American colonists on July 4, 1776 declared their independence from Great Britain, the Indigenous of what was to become the United States were already independent and had been so for thousands upon thousands of years. In the Declaration of Independence, Indigenous people are referred to as “merciless Indian savages.”

In 1784, Native leaders in the Midwest said that the American Revolution was “the greatest blow that could have been dealt us.” When the Revolution arose, colonists opposed to British rule called it a “war for liberty,” but Native people knew that it was also largely a continuation of the relentless aggression to possess Indian land. As a result of the July 4th Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution unleashed a flood of rapacious white settlers onto Indigenous lands. Patrick Henry, the famous or infamous American politician (depending on one’s perspective) known for declaring “Give me liberty or give me death,” could just as well have said, “Give me Indian land or give me death.” The colonists were obsessed with expansion and the dispossession of Indigenous nations of their homelands.

As for Black people, on July 4, 1776, they were still enslaved, in the most savage system of bondage in the history of humanity. Many of the so-called “founding fathers” who sat down and signed the Declaration of Independence were slaveholders. The cruel irony of the 4th was not lost on the renowned Black abolitionist and former slave, Frederick Douglass, when, in July 1852, to a mostly white audience in Rochester, N.Y., he posed this question: “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?

Douglass answered that it is “a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is a victim. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! This Fourth of July is yours, not mine.”

Presently, society is in a time of deep reflection in light of all the uprisings and thoughts given to the non-stop police killings of Black, Brown, and Red people, the eradication of Confederate monuments and statues of racist presidents (such as Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt , the renaming of colleges, educational halls, and municipal buildings named after slaveholders and Indian killers, and other perpetrators of genocide.

A flyer that reads “African Slaves Died To Build This” is seen in the grass near the base of the Washington Monument on the National Mall in Washington, May 31, 2020, after protests over the death of George Floyd. | Carolyn Kaster / AP

Last but by no means least, even the White House itself may not escape the erasure of possible racism from its title. This residence of U.S. presidents was so named by that arch racist, President Theodore Roosevelt in 1901. Prior to his taking office, it was called the “President’s House” and the “Executive Mansion.” This writer, finding the current designation racist and very offensive, has long felt that the presidential residence needed another name, as this is not a white country and never has been.

But back to July 4, 1776. Of course, not all whites benefited from the Declaration of Independence promulgated on that date. Only white men with property could vote. All women were denied the vote based on gender. The Declaration was a flawed document for this and many other reasons.

Moreover, as for Indigenous people, the Declaration was a green light initiating a war of genocide against the Indigenous nations of this land. In the Southeast, the long and bloody Cherokee-American War started on July 20, 1776—just 16 days later—because of colonist aggression. The military genocide, generated by a merciless, cutthroat capitalism, that began with July 4th roared well into the end of the 19th century.

As for this writer, not celebrating the Fourth has never been a problem, having been raised to have no regard for the so-called holiday. For others, the situation is more complicated. But I would conclude with the suggestion that everyone needs to reflect on the origins of the Fourth and the reality of their ancestors at that time in history and the legacy we live with today.


Albert Bender
Albert Bender

Albert Bender is a Cherokee activist, historian, political columnist, and freelance reporter for Native and Non-Native publications. He is currently writing a legal treatise on Native American sovereignty and working on a book on the war crimes committed by the U.S. against the Maya people in the Guatemalan civil war He is a consulting attorney on Indigenous sovereignty, land restoration, and Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) issues and a former staff attorney with Legal Services of Eastern Oklahoma (LSEO) in Muskogee, Okla.