Celebrations on the 4th of July take place for many different reason. For many it is simply a holiday, a day off from work. Many people are simply going along with the flow of the cultural tide, fireworks, picnics, and the festivities of summer.
Some people are celebrating the declaration of independence from Britian and the birth of the United States of America. Some celebrate the concept of freedom, and all manner of other wonderful beginnings. Among the divergent populations of this country, there are various meanings associated to these celebrations.
Do Native Americans honor the holiday when the colonies declared their independence? In fact, some Native Americans fought for the Brittish (hoping a British victory would mean protection of their own lands and sovereignty) and some fought for the colonies with essentially the same hope.
The result of the 'war for independence' led to the United States government claiming Native American lands and dictating policy. The Interior Department created the Religious Crimes Code—regulations that prohibited American Indian ceremonial life. The general guidelines issued to all Indian agents were to end tribal dances and feasts and to ban Indian ceremonies. This disrupted religious practices, and caused the destruction of sacred objects. Indian ceremonial activities were prohibited and violations led to imprisonment and the withholding of treaty rations. Indian agents enforced these rules until well into the 1930s.
During the time these 'codes' were maintained, Indian spiritual ceremonies were either held in secret or became extinct. Due to these laws of cultural and religious suppression, some tribes saw celebrating the 4th of July and American independence a chance to continue their own important ceremonies. The interior department allowed reservations to conduct ceremonies on the 4th of July with the attitude that Indians were adopting patriotism and were celebrating the ideals of this great nation.
"Kill the Indian to save the man" became a motto of the interior department where the goal was to eliminate a tribe's native language and native customs. The United States government forced Indian children to go to churches and boarding schools where they were 'properly' educated and stripped of their cultural traditions.
Therefore, the Fourth of July means summertime, family get-togethers and fireworks on the reservation. This burtal history merged together with older indigenous traditions has created a time of great celebration. This explains why a great number of American Indian tribal gatherings take place on the 4th of July. Often this is the social highlights of the year.
Not all tribes nor all Indian people have accepted the 4th in the same way. The Onondaga in New York, for example, decided to stop observing the Fourth of July. They remember that George Washington ordered the destruction of all Onondaga villages and have decided not to celebrate on that date.
As with Native Americans, some fighting with the Colonists and some fighting against, so it was with African Americans. Some fought with the Colonies and some fought against. The story of Crispus Attucks dying at the hands of the British is well known. That African Americans have fought and died for this country from the very beginning and in numerical greater proportions in more recent wars is well documented.
Most people are not aware that Frederick Douglas was asked to speak at a 4th of July ceromony in 1852, well before the civil war began. His words have great relevancy even today. Even the people to whom he spoke were at least 'surprised' by the honesty of his remarks, one section of which is included herein:
"...Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?
Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions! Then would my task be light, and my burden easy and delightful. For who is there so cold, that a nation's sympathy could not warm him? Who so obdurate and dead to the claims of gratitude, that would not thankfully acknowledge such priceless benefits? Who so stolid and selfish, that would not give his voice to swell the hallelujahs of a nation's jubilee, when the chains of servitude had been torn from his limbs? I am not that man. In a case like that, the dumb might eloquently speak, and the "lame man leap as an hart."
But such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common.-The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fa thers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, towering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrevocable ruin! I can to-day take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!
"By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! we wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song; and they who wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth."
Fellow-citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, "may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!" To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world. My subject, then, fellow-citizens, is American slavery. I shall see this day and its popular characteristics from the slave's point of view. Standing there identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery-the great sin and shame of America! "I will not equivocate; I will not excuse"; I will use the severest language I can command; and yet not one word shall escape me that any man, whose judgment is not blinded by prejudice, or who is not at heart a slaveholder, shall not confess to be right and just..." (source)