Do American Indians celebrate the 4th of July?

Every year or two, the museum updates this short essay, originally posted on July 3, 2013, with a few more people's descriptions of how they spend the 4th of July. How do you, your family, or your community observe the day? Share your comments here, or look for the discussion on the museum's Facebook page.  

Pawnee Homecoming 07-03-2013
The Pawnee Indian Veterans Homecoming Pow Wow recognizes returning military servicemen and women. Pawnee, Oklahoma. The 71st annual Pawnee homecoming took place this year from June 29 to July 2. Photo courtesy of Pius Spottedhorsechief, vice president of the Pawnee Indian Veterans.

How do Indians observe the 4th of July? Do we celebrate? To answer, let’s turn back the pages of time. A reasonable chapter to begin in is July 1776, when the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence and 13 colonies became the United States of America. With the emergence of a nation interested in expanding its territory came the issue of what to do with American Indians. History tells us that as the American non-Indian population increased, the indigenous population greatly decreased, along with their homelands and cultural freedoms.

From the beginning, U.S. government policy contributed to loss of culture and land. Keeping our focus on the 4th of July, however, let’s jump to the early 1880s, when Secretary of the Interior Henry Teller developed what has come to be called the Religious Crimes Code—regulations at the heart of the Department of Interior, Office of Indian Affairs, Code of Indian Offenses that prohibited American Indian ceremonial life.

Teller's general guidelines to all Indian agents were to end tribal dances and feasts. Enforced on reservations, the code banned Indian ceremonies, disrupted religious practices, and destroyed or confiscated sacred objects. Indian ceremonial activities were prohibited under threat of imprisonment and the withholding of treaty rations.

The Secretary of the Interior issued this Code of Regulations in 1884, 1894, and 1904 through Indian Affairs Commissioner's circulars and Indian agent directives. Indian superintendents and agents implemented the code until the mid-1930s. During this 50-year period, Indian spiritual ceremonies such as the Sun Dance and Ghost Dance were held in secret or ceased to exist. Some have since been revived or reintroduced by Indian tribes.

In response to this policy of cultural and religious suppression, some tribes saw in the 4th of July and the commemoration of American independence a chance to continue their own important ceremonies. Superintendents and agents justified allowing reservations to conduct ceremonies on the 4th of July as a way for Indians to learn patriotism to the United States and to celebrate its ideals.

Nimi'ipuu 4 July 1906
Nimi'ipuu (Nez Perce) men and women on horseback dressed for the 4th of July celebration, 1906. Idaho. Photo by Major Lee Moorhouse. P07685

That history is why a disproportionate number of American Indian tribal gatherings take place on or near the 4th of July and are often the social highlights of the year. Over time these cultural ceremonies became tribal homecomings. American Indian veterans in particular were welcomed home as modern-day warriors. The Navajo Tribe of Arizona and Pawnee of Oklahoma are two examples of tribes that use the 4th of July as an occasion to honor their tribal veterans. During these celebrations, tribal flag songs and veterans’ songs are sung. More than 12,000 American Indians served during World War I, and after the war, the American flag began to be given a prominent position at American Indian gatherings, especially those held on the 4th of July. This symbol of patriotism and national unity is carried into powwow and rodeo arenas today. It is extremely important to note that before the Reservation Era, when most Indians saw the American flag coming toward their villages and camps, it symbolized conflict, death, and destruction.

Today tribes hold ceremonies and celebrations on or near Independence Day for different reasons. The Lumbee of North Carolina and Mattaponi of Virginia use this time as a homecoming for tribal members to renew cultural and family ties. The Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma holds Gourd Clan ceremonies on the 4th of July because the holiday coincides with their Sun Dance, which once took place during the hottest part of the year. The Lakota of South Dakota and Cheyenne of Oklahoma continue to have some of their annual Sun Dances on the weekends closest to the 4th of July to coincide with the celebration of their New Year. Some American Indians do not celebrate the 4th of July because of the negative consequences to Indian people throughout history, while others simply get together with family and have cookouts, like many non-Native American citizens.

Jumping ahead to the present: To find out how individual American Indians across the country spend their 4th of July, we asked on Facebook. Here are some of the answers we received in the last few days: 

Norman, Oklahoma: Independence Day has a different meaning for us as Native people. We exercise our freedom carrying on the traditions of our people in whatever that form that may be. For me, it is in Carnegie, Oklahoma, in Kiowa country, at the Kiowa Tia-Piah (Gourd Clan) Society Celebration.

Tulsa, Oklahoma: I am headed to Quapaw Powwow, arguably the longest running annual powwow—145 years. Our family and tribal nation have always played host to friends and visitors from all over the world.

Laguna, New Mexico: As much turmoil the United States government has given our people in the past and present, my father has instilled in my family a sense of loyalty, liberty, and responsibility for our country. He is a Vietnam Veteran and could easily have forsaken this country due to the treatment he and other Vietnam veterans received upon their return. Instead, he chose to defend a country and the land of Indigenous Americans. He then raised his children and grandchildren to respect the country. So we will spend the day probably watching a parade in the morning and then have a BBQ with friends and family. We will honor and remember the veterans on this day.

Akwesasne Mohawk territory, Haudenosaunee territory: We don't celebrate the independence of our colonizer, especially considering that George Washington ordered the Sullivan–Clinton Campaign of burnings, displacement, and murder against the Haudenosaunee villages during their war for Independence. This while so many of our people were helping the Americans at Valley Forge, while decisive battles were won due to Iroquois allies.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin: We have a powwow in Oneida every 4th of July, because we fought with George Washington and the colonists to help them win their independence.

Saskatoon, Saskatchewan: In Canada First Nations people are faced with that dilemma this year more so than ever, because the federal government is promoting their 150th anniversary and reconciliation at the same time.

Cpl Mitchell Redcloud Jr Day Powwow
Poster for the 4th of July powwow honoring Cpl. Mitchell Redcloud Jr. Courtesy of the Andrew Blackhawk Memorial Powwow Grounds.

Tomah, Wisconsin: The 4th of July—my Ho-Chunk Nation made the day known as Cpl. Mitchell Redcloud Jr. Day, with a powwow at the Andrew Blackhawk Memorial Pow-Wow Grounds. My choka (grandfather) was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, killed in action during the Korean War. Mitchell Jr., was my maternal choka's first cousin and was also a choka to me, Ho-Chunk relationship. I will volunteer on the 4th, if my relatives, the Redcloud family, need my assistance.

Arizona and the Diné (Navajo) Nation: Greet and end the day by thanking Creator for another blessed day. We don’t celebrate but use the day for family activities.

Pawnee, Oklahoma: I celebrate my two grandmothers who were born on the 4th of July. My mother’s mother, Lillie Carson (Otoe), and my dad’s grandmother, Sally Kaulaity (Kiowa). They were both good grandmothers. I miss them.

Santa Fe, New Mexico: We chose to get married on the 4th of July. Having our anniversary on that day makes the day about love and the continuity of my Cherokee family and the families of all the cultures we've married with over the generations. It adds nuance to a day that could just be about patriotism and blowing things up. Plus we always have the day off and get to spend the day with family and friends who believe in the importance of journeying together in peace and equality. And yes, we get fireworks, too.

Waldorf, Maryland: Yes. We have our homecoming then. It never feels like a 4th of July celebration even though it is. It feels more like what we call it, Lumbee Homecoming. We have thousands of people packed in one little town for nine days celebrating our people, our food and culture, their talent, or their coming back home to visit relatives, spending time together, and making new memories, and of course enjoying eating grape ice cream.

Shawnee, Oklahoma: The flag of the United States is not exclusively the flag of the immigrants who came here and created a government, it is also the flag that our own warriors defended many times in the last century and currently today. Yes, it was once flown by our enemy, but it now represents those warriors who fought under it and all those who work toward fulfillment of tribal sovereignty and treaty rights and an inclusive country where immigrants and indigenous people live together equally protected under the Constitution. It is a symbol of the treaty agreements that we as indigenous people still have our inherent rights. Okay, that’s not a celebration but that’s what I think when I celebrate.

Oklahoma City: Do as our people always have: Help feed and care for those who need it!

These are the answers we highlighted in earlier years:

Carnegie, Oklahoma: We celebrate every 4th Gourd Dancing, camping, and visiting my Kiowa people while we’re here, listening to the beautiful Kiowa songs. For three days we are just in Kiowa heaven. Been doing this for years. Now my parents have gone on, but we will continue to attend the Kiowa Gourd Dance Celebration.

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma: Do American Indians celebrate the 4th of July? Answer: Yes, it represents freedom in the United States of America. Freedom to continue to worship Creator, freedom to dance my prayers, freedom to sweat, freedom to rise early and pray the day in and be up late to pray the day out. We, the Host People, celebrate the 4th of July every day!

Prewitt, New Mexico, and the Navajo Nation: No, I do not celebrate. Because I as a Diné will never relinquish my belief or understanding that we as a people and a nation have the right to be loyal to the Holy Ones before all others, including the United States of America, since we as a people existed long before there was ever a United States.

Taos, New Mexico: Taos is a very close-knit community, and even more so at Taos Pueblo nearby. Both have had many citizens serve in America's military in the heartfelt belief that they are protecting our nation. One of our honored tribal elders is Tony Reyna, 97, who survived the Bataan Death March in World War II. I have been told many times that, for us, the idea of protection goes deeper than for most Americans, because this land is where our people emerged, and that any threat to it is met from a place of deep, deep meaning. People here celebrate Independence Day pretty much as they do everywhere. It's a day off, and there are parades and fireworks displays. But for many we remember WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, and the sacrifices our people made. I wish all people could remember that, especially those who allow blind bigotry and hate to cloud their judgment.

Parshall, North Dakota, and the Three Affiliated Tribes: The 4th is the celebration of independence, which Native people have practiced as sovereign nations for generations.

Shawnee, Oklahoma: No, I do not celebrate Independence Day, simply because the Declaration of Independence labels my people "our enemies, the merciless savages of our frontiers." You notice they were already calling the frontiers "ours" when the land was not theirs. Because I do not celebrate Independence Day does not mean I am not proud of our Native American veterans and soldiers. I am very proud of them and of the fact almost all Native American families have a family member who is a veteran and/or an active member in the Armed Forces.

Anadarko, Oklahoma: I am Kiowa/Delaware/Absentee Shawnee, my mom is a Kiowa/Comanche, my uncle is a vet, as many of my other relatives are, as well as my stepdad (Comanche/Caddo). My Delaware grandma always said, “This is not our holiday. Out of respect we will honor their day, because our people helped them.” She said, “I will mourn on this day.”  She would wear a black dress that day.

Laguna, New Mexico, and the Pueblos of Acoma and Laguna: I celebrate the 4th of July and I do so proudly. . . . When you have been lucky enough to travel and see life in other places, you come to appreciate the home and land you live on. Maybe I'm not as bitter as some of my other Indigenous brothers and sisters because my tribes were not relocated and have been lucky to remain on ancestral lands. Our Pueblo people . . . fought against the Spanish in the Pueblo Revolt, but also learned to harmonize with the Catholic Church. Many years—even centuries—of healing have taken place to get us to this point. And I think by celebrating the 4th of July, I feel I am honoring that healing my Pueblo ancestors have prayed for. . . .

Sawmill, Arizona, and the Navajo Nation: I recognize Independence Day as a day off, as time with family. I recognize that the United States declared its independence on that day, but Native people weren't a part of their envisioned emancipation. As Native people, we recognized our independence through our prayers and practicing our traditions. We didn't need a special day to mark our freedom, we just were. So on the 4th of July, I will practice my American heritage and celebrate this country's Independence Day. But my heart knows I don't need a day to recognize my autonomy.

Oklahoma City and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma: I think of the 4th of July as American Ideals Day. If only America would live up to its own stated ideals, none of what happened to American Indian people would have happened. Today, if those ideals were finally acted upon, American Indian sovereignty would be fully recognized and the treaties would be kept intact. The fireworks celebrate the great ideals that could be America, if only greed were not allowed to pervert them.

Norman, Oklahoma: My 13-year-old son (Comanche/Cherokee) is currently reading the U.S. Constitution (just because). When I asked him about the 4th the other day, he kind of shook his head and said that most people just don't get it. Reading the comment above on American Ideals Day made me think of how true it is—how little we know about America's ideals of the past and where we hold them now.

Wichita, Kansas: My people, Kiowas, have always held this time of the year as a gathering of all our bands. They would celebrate for a week, indulging in each society’s dances, renewing friendships, visiting relatives, and so on. As we progressed into this modern society we are a part of, we recognized the importance of this celebration even more so. To honor our freedoms and the men and women who sacrificed for us today is truly a reason to celebrate the 4th of July. Does it mean we are to forget our struggles and the plight of our people? NO, but it commemorates the beauty of our land and the resolve of this nation we call America.

Pawnee, Oklahoma: [It's a day] to celebrate all our Native men and women who served in the Armed Forces of the United States of America, our Native men [the Codetalkers] without whose tribal language, [World War II] might have been lost. To honor our fallen ones, who sacrified their lives for us, and the veterans who are buried in our tribal cemeteries . . . and overseas. To honor my daughter . . . in the U.S. Army, a proud Native American woman who is serving our country. 

Waikoloa, Hawai'i, via the Red Cloud Indian School, Pine Ridge, South Dakota: It is a sad time, . . . thinking of all the treaties never honored. I try to hold my children and grandcubs near and invite others who are alone or ill or elderly to eat lots of food that I cook until I am very tired and thank the Creator for another wonderful day.


As Americans everywhere celebrate the 4th of July, I think about how many American Indians are taking their yearly vacations back to their reservations and home communities. All across Indian Country, tribes hold modern celebrations— including powwows, rodeos, and homecomings—that coincide with the United States’ Independence Day celebrations.

As for me, I’ll be with my two daughters, and we'll watch a huge fireworks display! 

—Dennis Zotigh, NMAI

Dennis Zotigh (Kiowa/San Juan Pueblo/Santee Dakota Indian) is a writer and cultural specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

How do you, your family, or your community observe the 4th of July? Share your comments here, or look for the discussion on the museum's Facebook page.

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June 23, 2017

Bayonne Bridge Steel Rope, Making History in Lower Manhattan

By Neal Buccino, special to Portfolio, photographs by the Port Authority’s Mike Dombrowski

Bayonne Bridge cable imagiNATIONS
The museum’s exhibition designer Gerard Breen showing the Port Authority’s Roger Prince a model of the imagiNATIONS Activity Center, where the steel suspender rope will be displayed.

Six centuries ago, engineers in the Inka Empire designed cable bridges long enough to span Peru’s mountain gorges and durable enough to withstand earthquakes.

They wove these bridges out of grass and made them remarkably strong, using principles of physics that today support modern-day marvels such as the George Washington Bridge and Bayonne Bridge.

Next year, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York—located in the historic Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House in Lower Manhattan—will help students learn about these technological achievements, with a little help from the Port Authority. The agency recently donated to the museum a five-foot length of steel suspender rope from the Bayonne Bridge, one of the 152 original steel ropes that held up its 9,800-ton roadway for 85 years.

Made of more than 200 tightly wrapped steel wires, the suspender rope was removed as part of the Port Authority’s Raise the Roadway project, which will permit ultra-large container ships to navigate the Kill van Kull.

Bayonne Bridge cable 1
Roger Prince and the Smithsonian's Kevin Gover with the five-foot section of donated Bayonne Bridge suspender rope.

The cable will live on in the museum’s imagiNATIONS Activity Center, expected to debut next April. There, the steel rope (tensile strength: 950,000 pounds) will be displayed next to a grass rope with a tensile strength of 4,000 pounds, of the kind still used in Peru’s last remaining rope bridge, the Q’eswachaka.

Nearby, suspended from the ceiling, visitors will see a 26-foot section of an actual rope bridge built by the modern-day keepers of the Q’eswachaka Bridge. The 4,500-square-foot imagiNATIONS Activity Center will include interactive exhibits on Native American innovations across fields as varied as engineering and architecture, medicine, and nutrition. 

Bayonne Bridge cable 2 The Bayonne Bridge suspender rope had to be tested for lead and other contaminants before donation. This swab test was performed by Mike Hunt, Office of Safety Health & Environmental Management, Smithsonian.

The exhibit will help visiting students understand how, with flexible strands of any material twisted and braided together, a rope much stronger than its component parts can be created.

“Showcasing a section of Bayonne Bridge steel cable alongside an Inka bridge rope made of ichu grass highlights the continuity in engineering concepts the Inka and their descendants have used for millennia,” said Kevin Gover, director of the National Museum of the American Indian. “Native innovation is everywhere in modern life, and this is one instance where we can directly point to it and provide that a-ha moment.”

“This steel rope carries all the history of the Bayonne Bridge, which in its day was the longest steel arch bridge in the world,” said Roger Prince, the Port Authority’s deputy director of Tunnels, Bridges, and Terminals. “We hope it provides an educational experience for everyone who visits the imagiNATIONS Center.”

Q'eswachaka small

This story originally appeared on Portfolio, the official blog of the Port Authority of New York. Used with permission. The imagiNATIONS Activity Center at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York is scheduled to open in spring 2018.

To learn more about Inka technology, visit the exhibition "The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire" online or at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. You can see neighboring communities work together as they do every year to rebuild the rope bridge at Q’eswachaka—including making the grass cables that support it—in the exhibition video here.

Q'eswachaka suspension bridge, 2014. Q'eswachaka, Apurimac River, Canas Province, Cusco, Peru. Photo by NMAI Media Initiatives, Smithsonian

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June 16, 2017

Makers + Mentors: Hands-on with leaders of Native fashion

Makers + Mentors
Native artists sharing experiences and their thoughts on design and inspiration. From left: Fashion and textile historian Regan Loggans, fashion designer Patricia Michaels, fashion designer Niio Perkins, fashion designer and multimedia artist Loren Aragon, artist and apparel designer Jared Yazzie, fashion model Jade Willoughby, and editorial hair stylist Amy Farid.

As an intern at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York this summer, I had the pleasure of attending last week’s Makers + Mentors event, a series of workshops and conversations with Native designers, artists, and business owners who make their mark on the world of fashion. The day-long program, inspired by the exhibition Native Fashion Now, on view in New York through September 4, centered around providing guidance and support to young—ages 14 through 24—aspiring designers and artists interested in careers in fashion or design.

At the museum’s welcome and introduction of some of the makers and mentors, I spoke with a few of the young people taking part in the event, asking them what they were most excited to do that day and what inspired them as artists. Two high school students, who told me they are inspired the most by the show Project Runway and the street-wear they see on the sidewalks of the Bronx, are both planning to go to medical school. They emphasized, however, that they want to keep designing, either through a minor in fashion or by dedicating free time to art, even as they pursue careers in medicine. One college student who dreams of one day designing costumes for movies like Beauty and the Beast said that she is constantly assessing the historical accuracy of clothing she sees in films, and that historical fashion is one of her biggest inspirations. I even had a chance to speak quickly with one of the mentors, fashion model Jade Willoughby (Ojibwe). Gesturing to the two younger girls sitting with her at the table, she told me that she is inspired by “the passion of other people in this industry—the passion that drives designers’ dreams into reality.”

Courtney Leonard  Makers + Mentors
Courtney M. Leonard speaking during her Place + Identity materials lab.

Next, I attended Place + Identity, a materials lab led by Courtney M. Leonard (Shinnecock). The lab was located in the Coat Room, or “Camel Room,” of the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Customs house, and the room's ornate air (its ceiling is painted with camels) provided a dynamic contrast to Courtney’s down-to-earth approach to success.

Courtney, a multidisciplinary artist and filmmaker, gave us a peek into her creative process, showing us photos of the subway, skyscrapers, and sea creatures—all inspirations to her. I admire her apparent ability to find patterns and structures in nearly anything, and I wish I could be as creatively unafraid as she is with her work. She showed us how she used landscape and location to begin creating a piece of clothing or jewelry, saying that “the landscape that is around us is the culture, the being, and the essence.” She also spoke about her attachment to Long Island’s Shinnecock Nation, and how she used images like the thunderbird from Algonquin mythology to find fresh, unique patterns for her work.

We all then began designing and creating mock-ups of structural jewelry. Courtney encouraged us to start with simple shapes we see around us and find a pattern from there. Here is the set of earrings I created, inspired by the pointed toes of the businesswomen’s shoes I see on the subway every morning, as well as by ballet shoes, and suggesting the shape of a fish. 

Earrings design project
Designing from the shapes around us: A pair of earrings based, in part, on the shoes New York businesswomen wear.

During the lunch break, I spoke with a few girls who are students at a fashion high school in New York. Their style inspirations range from their parents to the clothes of the ‘70s, Ariana Grande, and flower gardens. When asked why she is passionate about design, one student replied that “from a piece of fabric you can create anything—it’s extremely expressive.” Another gave me her perspective on the importance of supporting Native artists, saying that non-Native designers can study Native cultures, but they do not have the same first-hand experience with those cultures that gives Native designers such a unique and powerful artistic perspective, and the authority and knowledge to use aspects of their cultures in a way that does not take advantage of Native communities.

At my next lab, textile designer and performance artist Maria Hupfield (Wasauksing First Nation) taught our group how to sketch and carve out our own rubber stamps, which could be transferred onto fabric to create an ink pattern. I was amazed by the creativity of the people around me—no one in the group had made stamps before, yet most of the students seemed right at home, experimenting with blank space and different materials to stamp on. Maria had a very calm approach to her work and spent most of her time visiting people who seemed to be struggling and reminding them that perfection was not the goal.

I think the lab was so exciting because we were able to create something completely our own that we could transfer onto almost any surface. One girl carved out her name in the rubber and begged her friends to let her stamp it onto their backs. Here’s the moon-shaped stamp I created, and a few patterns I did on leather. I tried to create the effect of a shadow over part of the moon, but I didn’t really achieve this. (Maria very kindly told me it was great.)

Stamps
My stamps, including the moon. Perfection, Maria reminded us, was not the goal.
Patricia Michaels
Patricia Michaels conducting a tour of the exhibition Native Fashion Now.

I was lucky to attend the tour of Native Fashion Now guided by fashion designer Patricia Michaels (Taos Pueblo). It’s hard to write briefly about the fascinating collection of pieces she spoke about, but I will say that I was amazed that she knew more than half of the featured designers personally. Patricia stressed that the Native design community is a tight one, and that many of the artists are in constant communication, creating a vital web of support and collaboration that drives their success.

To wrap up the day, fashion and textile historian Regan Loggans moderated a conversational panel discussion. Patricia Michaels, Niio Perkins (Haudenosaunee), Loren Aragon (Acoma Pueblo), Jared Yazzie (Diné [Navajo]), Jade Willoughby (Whitesand First Nation), and editorial hair stylist Amy Farid (Osage) shared their thoughts on Native design, inspiration, and personal responses to struggle. I know it’s a cliché to say that their stories were inspiring, but they truly were. As an English student who sees fashion simply as a side hobby, I found myself considering what impact I might be able to make on the fashion world in the future, and how I could help support the compelling work of Native designers and artists. The panelists especially emphasized that they had to fight to find a place for themselves in an industry that is not kind to newcomers, or outsiders. I wrote down a few of my favorite quotes, and I’ll share them here to wind up this post:

“I think my authentic self is still trying to figure out where I sit in the world.” —Jared Yazzie (Diné [Navajo]), on his personal relationship with the struggle to self-define his work

“Don’t tell me how to be Native. I am Native American. That’s what makes it Native.” —Patricia Michaels (Taos Pueblo), in response to people who say that her designs are not truly Native

“Everything is at our fingertips. We have no excuses that we shouldn’t be where we want to be.” —Patricia Michaels, on the responsibility and empowerment that modern technology gives to contemporary artists

“There’s a story behind what we present. There’s meaning behind what we have in our work.” —Loren Aragon (Acoma Pueblo), on the authenticity of Native design

“I have to stand my ground most days, but this is the work I want to do.” —Jared Yazzie, explaining how he deals with constant criticism

“We’re all human beings. At the end of the day, we fit in everywhere.” —Amy Farid (Osage), in response to the question, Where do Native designers belong in the world of fashion?

“No matter how far you go in life, you will always come back to your people. In this life or the next.” —Jade Willoughby (Whitesand First Nation), on the importance of remembering the place you came from

Thanks for reading! I strongly recommend you check out these designers. Exploring their work really gave me a new perspective on the ever-expanding and changing role of Native fashion in the chaos of today.

—Althea Meer

Althea Meer is an intern with the Office of Public Affairs at the museum in New York. In the fall she'll begin her junior year at New York University, where she's studying English, Spanish, and web programming.

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June 09, 2017

Thinking about the Indian Removal Act, at the National Archives Museum and National Museum of the American Indian


"Our cause is your own. It is the cause of liberty and justice."

Principal Chief John Ross (Cherokee, 1790–1866), appearing before the U.S. Senate in 1836 to argue on behalf of the Cherokee Council against ratification of the Treaty of New Echota, ceding Cherokee lands to the United States

Removal Act at the US National Archives
Visitors to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., viewing the Removal Act of 1830. Photo for the National Archives by Jessica Deibert

This spring, I visited the National Archives Museum in Washington, D.C., to see the Indian Removal Act, on display in the Archives' Landmark Document Case. Signed by President Andrew Jackson on May 28, 1830, the Removal Act, gave the president the legal authority to remove Native people by force from their homelands east of the Mississippi to lands west of the Mississippi. It became for American Indians one of the most detrimental pieces of legislation in U.S. history. Under the Removal Act, the military forcibly relocated approximately 50,000 American Indians to Indian Territory, within the boundaries of the present-day state of Oklahoma.

At the National Museum of the American Indian, we address the importance of the Removal Act in two major exhibitions—Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations, which opened in September 2014 and will be on view through 2021, and Americans, opening October 26 of this year and on view through fall 2027.

"Many of these helpless people did not have blankets and many of them had been driven from home barefooted. . . . And I have known as many as twenty-two of them to die in one night of pneumonia due to ill treatment, cold, and exposure." 

Private John G. Burnett (1810–unknown), Captain Abraham McClellan’s Company, 2nd Regiment, 2nd Brigade, Mounted Volunteer Militia, account of the removal of the Cherokee, from a letter to his children written in 1890

Removal Act of 1830 p 1 Removal Act of 1830 p 2

The Indian Removal Act, May 28, 1830. General Records of the United States Government, National Archives. Photos courtesy of the National Archives


Many Americans, and many people beyond the United States, know the story of removal—or part of the story. In the late 1830s, more than 20,000 Cherokee men, women, and children were removed from their homelands. Approximately one-fourth of these people died along the Trail of Tears—bayoneted, frozen to death, starved, or pushed beyond exhaustion. Less well known, perhaps, is that hundreds of other tribes shed tears as well as they were forced to leave their homes to make room for non-Indian settlement and ownership of their land. Through American expansion, every tribe lost land its people originally called home.
 

"They were not allowed to take any of their household stuff, but were compelled to leave as they were, with only the clothes which they had on." 

—Wahnenauhi (Lucy Lowrey Hoyt Keys, Cherokee, 1831–1912), account of the Cherokee removal written in 1889, published by the Smithsonian Bureau of American Ethnology in Bulletin 196, Anthropological Papers, No. 77

The museum’s exhibitions look at the Removal Act from the broader perspective of events at the time it was enacted and during the nearly two centuries since. In the companion book to Nation to Nation, Robert N. Clinton, Foundation Professor of Law at the Sandra Day O’Connor School of Law at Arizona State University, describes the growing sense of national strength that allowed the federal government to move away from conducting negotiations with Indian nations as a sort of diplomacy—based on transnational law, mutual interests, and tribal sovereignty—and toward the direct pursuit of its one-sided goals:

The War of 1812 eliminated the possibility of Indian alliances with Britain, which had posed a threat to the stability and security of the United States. Thereafter . . . the bargaining power in treaty discussions shifted greatly to the United States, and policy was increasingly dictated by the federal government. . . . After a decade of treaty negotiations on the subject, the southeastern states provoked a controversy over the continued presence of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Muskogee (Creek), Choctaw, and Seminole nations on lands within state borders. Congress decided to chart the policy unilaterally by adopting the Removal Act of 1830.

Nation to Nation also explores the place of the Removal Act in U.S. legal history. The exhibition shows how advocates and Native and non-Native opponents of removal battled in Congress and the courts—all the way to the Supreme Court—at the same time tribal leaders were working to ensure the survival of their people.

Americans, which will explore Indians and the development of America's national consciousness through four iconic events—Thanksgiving, the life of Pocahontas, the Trail of Tears, and the Battle of Little Bighorn—widens the museum’s perspective on the Removal Act even more. In developing the themes of the new exhibition, lead curator Paul Chaat Smith (Comanche) and co-curator Cécile R. Ganteaume wrote:

Democracy at the Crossroads—the section of Americans about the Trail of Tears—explores the contemporary relevance of removal and why it is still embedded in 21st-century American life. We focus on crucial elements of the history that usually do not receive the attention they deserve: A vigorous national debate over removal consumed the United States before passage of the Indian Removal Act. With the eyes of the Western world upon them, members of Congress cloaked the Removal Act in humanitarian language. The actual removal of Native nations from the South across the Mississippi was a massive national project that required the full force of the federal bureaucracy to accomplish. Finally, it is due to efforts of young Cherokees in the early 20th century that the expression “trail of tears” has come to be known throughout the country, if not the world, to represent a gross miscarriage of justice.

In the central space that links the four iconic events in Americans, visitors will find themselves surrounded by photographs and commercial art. The idea is to show how images of Indians—and Native names and words from Native languages—are and have always been everywhere around us in the United States. Once we look, we can see them as national symbols on monuments, coins, and stamps; in the marketing of just about anything you can think of; in the Defense Department's naming conventions for weapons; and as part of pop culture. The reality of images and references to Indians everywhere is illustrated, for the time being, by the 1948 Indian Chief motorcycle on view in the museum’s atrium.

I confess that as I stood before the original Removal Act at the National Archives, it was hard for me to reconcile the events it set in motion with the motorcycle’s very American celebration of freedom. The curators of Americans hope, however, that the new exhibition will encourage visitors to be part of a new conversation among Natives and non-Natives about the place Indians continue to hold in our understanding of America. It’s an important conversation, and I’m committed to being part of it.

—Dennis W. Zotigh

Dennis W. Zotigh (Kiowa/San Juan Pueblo/Santee Dakota Indian) is a member of the Kiowa Gourd Clan and San Juan Pueblo Winter Clan and a descendant of Sitting Bear and No Retreat, both principal war chiefs of the Kiowas. Dennis works as a writer and cultural specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

The Indian Removal Act of 1830 is on view at the National Archives Museum through June 14.

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May 26, 2017

The exhibition "Americans," opening in October, previews with a 1948 Indian Chief motorcycle

Motorcycle in atrium blog
A 1948 Indian Chief motorcycle, a loan from the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum in Birmingham, Alabama, is on view in the atrium of the museum. When Americans opens in the fall, the motorcycle will be moved to the exhibition gallery

The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., recently installed an iconic 1948 Indian Chief motorcycle in its majestic Potomac Atrium. On loan from the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum, this classic American motorcycle, with its Indian head fender ornament, will be featured in the museum’s exhibition Americans, opening in October. This exhibition explores Americans’ and American Indians’ deeply entangled history, made manifest by the imagery of American Indians all around us in our everyday lives.

Motorcycle fender ornament
The ornamental fender light representing an Indian wearing a Plains-style feather headdress became one of the icons of the brand. The Chief’s unmistakable large skirted fenders were designed in the 1940s.

Produced from 1922 until 1953, the Indian Chief was built as a large and powerful motorcycle by the Indian Motorcycle Company, once the largest motorcycle maker in the world. Founded in 1901—the first motorcycle manufacturer in the United States—Indian produced motorcycles for the U.S. military during World War I, survived the Great Depression with the help of two Du Pont brothers, and went on to build motorcycles for the Allies during World War II.

Indian tank
In 1928 the Hendee Manufacturing changed its name to the Indian Motocycle Manufacturing Company ("motocycle" without an R), now the Indian Motorcycle Company. "No more popular or wealth-producing name could have been chosen," the company's first advertising executive observed. The elegant script logo appears in chrome on the Chief's fuel tank.

Manufactured in a range of radiant colors, vintage Indian motorcycles are highly coveted by collectors enthralled by their early technical advancements and styling enhancements. To give an example, in season 2, episode 6 of the TV series Billions, hedge-fund manager Bobby “Axe” Axelrod takes a private moment to sit upon his newly acquired vintage Indian Four as a new monarch sits upon his rightful throne.

The Du Pont yellow Indian Chief Motorcycle now on view at the museum is one of four specially highlighted objects that will function as anchors in the Indians Everywhere section of the Americans exhibition. As the exhibition's introductory gallery, Indians Everywhere will confront visitors with the ubiquity of American Indian imagery in American popular culture. This bold, immersive display of more than 300 photographs and other images is designed to arrest our attention. But much more than that, it is intended to focus our thoughts on what, unknowingly, Americans have created and accepted as the white noise of our lives. No other country in the world is as fixated on one segment of its society as the United States is on American Indians. Why is this? Why are images of American Indians—some real, most imaginary—everywhere we look in American life, from boardroom to stadium, farm to inner city, fashion runway to tattoo parlor, Hollywood studio to military base, factory to highway?

Moving beyond now-commonplace discussions reflecting the politicization of visual culture in the United States, Americans delves deeply into the historic reasons behind this phenomenon. Whether taken-in sweepingly or considered in detail, Indians Everywhere reveals not only the time span of this imagery—its use began with Paul Revere and the revolutionary generation and has continued unabated to the present day—but also the myriad unexpected, sometimes paradoxical contexts in which it appears. American Indian imagery has been used by the federal government to distinguish the United States from other nations and to define the nation for its citizens, by U.S. armed forces to express military might, by American corporations to signify integrity, and by designers, such those who created the 1948 Indian Chief, to add luster and cachet to commercial products.

Motorcycle + admirers
An unexpected and fun thing to see at the museum, the Indian Chief also carries a message that will be explored further when Americans opens in October: Indians are everywhere in American national and pop culture, and have been for centuries. Why is that? 

Within Americans, Indians Everywhere—the backdrop of American life—provides a starting point for exploring four foundational events in U.S. history: Pocahontas, Thanksgiving, the Trail of Tears, and the Battle of Little Bighorn. The heart of Americans lies in thinking about how each of these events has affected and shaped America’s national consciousness and Americans' lives. In Americans these four events illuminate political realities when and after they occurred and, ultimately, our changing understanding of what it means to be an American.

The title of the exhibition is a play on words. In the Oxford English Dictionary, the first historical definition provided for “American” is: “An indigenous inhabitant of (any part of) the Americas; an American Indian.” This usage was common until the early 19th century. As visitors move through Americans, from the imagery of Indians Everywhere to the four events, the museum hopes to spark a greater awareness of the history American Indians and non-Indians share. We hope people will leave the museum newly attuned to the pervasive presence of American Indian imagery in everyday life. And when people begin see Indians everywhere, as they will—even on the front fender of a motorcycle widely believed to represent perfection in functionality and design—we hope they will see it for what it is: A phenomenon that exists in no other country of the world, one that ultimately speaks to the fact that the United States was carved out of the indigenous lands of American Indians, and that its history is inextricably and profoundly intertwined with American Indians.

—Cécile R. Ganteaume


Where do you see Indian imagery? Tell us, using #NDNsEverywhere. 

CRG-small-2017Cécile R. Ganteaume is an associate curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., and formerly at the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, in New York. A recipient of a Secretary of the Smithsonian’s Excellence in Research Award, she curates and writes on American Indian art, culture, and history. With lead curator Paul Chaat Smith, she is co-curator of Americans, scheduled to open on October 26, 2017. Her new book, Officially Indian: Symbols That Define the United States, will be published this fall to coincide with the opening of Americans.

Motorcycle photos by Matailong Du for the National Museum of the American Indian. Author photo by R.A. Whiteside.

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May 23, 2017

Native Fashion Now: Designer Sho Sho Esquiro

Through September 4, 2017, the National Museum of the American Indian’s George Gustav Heye Center in New York celebrates indigenous designers from across the United States and Canada, from the 1950s to today. Native Fashion Now—a traveling exhibition organized by the Peabody Essex Museum and now making its final stop—explores the exciting and complex realms where fashion meets art, cultural identity, politics, and commerce. In a series of interviews, writer and cultural specialist Dennis Zotigh (Kiowa, Santee Dakota, and San Juan Pueblo tribes) speaks with the artists taking part in the exhibitionhere, designer Sho Sho Esquiro.—Dennis Zotigh

 

Sho Sho Esquiro by Matika Wilbur
Sho Sho Esquiro. Photo by Matika Wilbur (Swinomish and Tulalip)

Please introduce yourself.

Hello! My name is Sho Sho Esquiro. I am Kaska Dene from the Yukon Territory Canada and also Cree.

Can you give us your Native name and its English translation?

My Indian name is Belelige, meaning Butterfly. I use my name Sho Sho for most things and use my Indian name when introducing myself to my people or at a ceremony.

Where did you grow up and where do you call home now?

I am proud to say I grew up in the Yukon, where it snows eight months out of the year. Being able to cross country ski to school and eat what my dad shot was a luxury. I now reside in Vancouver, British Columbia.

How old were you when you became interested in your art form?

I have always been interested in sewing and learning our traditional ways. From as far back as I can remember I watched my mama, aunties and grandma sew, bead, and work with furs. I think my first sewing project was when I was five.

Sho Sho Esquiro %22Moma yeh%22 jacket Matika Wilbur
Sho Sho Esquiro (Kaska Dene and Cree, b. 1980), Moma yeh estsu yeh Giyets'edih (Remembering Our Mothers and Grandmothers) jacket, 2016. Sealskin, silk, lynx fur, beads, gold. The jacket is dedicated to Sho Sho's late grandmother Grace McCallum and modeled by her aunt Louise Profeit-LeBlanc (Nacho Nyak Dun First Nation). Photo by Matika Wilbur

Who are the individuals who inspired you?

I am inspired by the women in my family. Hearing stories of my grandma going out and shooting her own moose, cutting it up, and tanning her own hides—those are the type of things that inspire me. In the harsh conditions in the north, 50 below zero was not uncommon. So my aunties were always sewing up hides and furs to make mitts, gloves, jackets, and hats.

Have you competed and won any awards for your work

I have had the honor of winning various awards from museums. At Santa Fe Indian Market (SWAIA), in 2016, I received Best of Show Contemporary Fashion, Best of Division, and First Place. At the Heard Museum in 2016, Judges' Choice and Conrad House Award. At the Heard in 2015, First Place and Honorable Mention. At Santa Fe Indian Market (SWAIA) in 2015, Honorable Mention. At the Autry Museum in 2015, First Place. At Cherokee Art Market in 2014, Second Place. At the Elteljorg Museum, Best of Division and First Place two times. At Santa Fe Indian Market (SWAIA) in 2013, Best of Show Contemporary Clothing, First Place Clothing. At the Autry in 2013, Second Place.

What does the title Native Fashion Now mean to you?

I love the title Native Fashion Now. I had to chuckle once when a lady told me she was the first Native fashion designer. There has always been Native fashion, so to me this title is very suiting. It is the current work of some of our time's visionaries.

Where do you envision the future of Native fashion to be headed on the world’s stage?

I love that we as artists are getting a platform and attracting more of a general interest. I was very proud two years ago I was the first Native to take part in the world's first-ever fashion show presented on the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Experiences and opportunities like these are what inspires me to keep pushing the boundaries.

How do you describe the relationship between your work and traditional Native art forms?

My work coincides with traditional Native art forms because I am a Native woman doing my art form. Our art form is not stagnant, it grows and develops while we honor the ways. There aren't a lot of historical photos or even old pieces from my tribe's history. Does that make what I do less authentic? I think not, because I am a Kaska woman doing my art. There isn't anyone who can tell me I'm doing it right or wrong because it's from my heart, and thus my spirit.

Sho Sho Esquiro  Wile WIle Wile by Thosh Collins
Sho Sho Esquiro (Kaska Dene and Cree, b. 1980), Wile Wile Wile (the sound of wings in flight), Day of the Dead Collection, 2013. Dress: seal fur, beaver tail, carp, beads, silk, and rooster feathers; fascinator: tulle and skull by Dominique Hanke for Sho Sho Esquiro. Peabody Essex Museum Museum 2016.41.1-.2. Photo by Thosh Collins (Salt River Pima Maricopa)

When you are asked by the media to explain your work, how do you answer?

I would explain my work as contemporary art using traditional techniques.

On average, how much time does it take you to complete one of your creations?

One of my pieces can take months, my longest piece took four months. While I was preparing to show in Paris, I worked about four months, 18 hours a day. I don't usually like to keep track. It's a labor of love.

What is one of the biggest challenges you have faced in creating your art form?

I wouldn't say I've had too many challenges so far in my career. My grandpa always taught me challenges are the times to rise and learn. But I would say any time I've tried to get a grant, I always get declined because they view my work more as fashion and less textile. It's a double-edged sword when you want to be relevant in the fashion sense, but still get the respect and attention of museums and serious collectors.

What do you do to get inspired to be creative?

I love to go home and be on the land. I find that inspiring. But I get inspired by all sorts of things. Elders, family, life, death, hip hop, the environment. When you are an artist you see life a little differently, and so through those eyes many things can inspire.

Are there any unique signature styles that you are known for?

I would like to think I have defined a style in my art forms. I love bright colors and bold patterns, textures and hides and furs. I never like to get too comfortable in what I'm doing, so you will often see me switch it up to challenge my abilities and continue to learn new techniques.

How do your earlier art forms differ from what you produce today?

In my earlier work I used a lot of Pendleton. I don't so much use it anymore.

In your opinion, is it significant that this exhibition opened in New York during Fashion Week?

I love that the exhibition opening coincided with Fashion Week. I think it is significant because in the past couple of years we've seen a lot of non-Native designers being inspired by our culture. I think this exhibition will make people think and will helpfully leave with a better insight into Native Fashion Now.

In the exhibition, are you presented as a Pathbreaker, Revisitor, Activator, or Provocateur?

My work is billed as Provocateur. Let me add that I love Karen Kramer and her vision. Before this show she supported my work. She even came to my first big fashion show during New York Couture Fashion Week 2013. I would like to think my work surprises people when they find out what it is made of. My gown in this exhibit is made of sealskin, beaver tail, carp skin, beads, and rooster feathers.

Where can people go to learn more about you and your art?

You can reach me at shoshoesquirocouture@gmail.com

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

I would just like to add it has actually been a life goal to have a piece showing at the Smithsonian. I thank you for this opportunity.

Thank you for doing this interview, and congratulations on having your work chosen for Native Fashion Now.

Native Fashion Now is on view at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York through September 4, 2017. Sho Sho Esquiro's work is represented in the exhibition by her Wile Wile Wile dress.

Native Fashion Now is organized by the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts. The Coby Foundation Ltd. provided generous support. The New York presentation of this exhibition and related programming is made possible through the generous support of Ameriprise Financial and the members of the New York Board of Directors of the National Museum of the American Indian. Additional funding provided by Macy’s.

Photographs are © the photographers and are used courtesy of Sho Sho Esquiro. 

#NativeFashionNow 

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