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Nation & World

The Declaration Of Independence Brings Mixed Feelings For Native Americans

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

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.

This is the most famous quotation from the Declaration of Independence, which you may have just heard in our annual reading of the document. The declaration is both a source of inspiration and a reminder of unkept promises for Black and Native Americans.

DAVID TREUER: They're wonderful sentiments that were not put into practice in any kind of meaningful way until long after 1776.

MARTIN: David Treuer is an author and a member of the Ojibwe tribe.

TREUER: I don't know if I want to be here simply to provide a dose of irony. But it was Oneida people who broke the famine at Valley Forge, who taught the revolutionaries, with George Washington, how to process Indian corn so that it was digestible and nutritious. So I think it's safe to say that war would have been difficult to win without our help.

MARTIN: So it's not just the hypocrisy of the all-men-are-created-equal line. There is explicit racism in this document that we must acknowledge. I want to play this clip. This is a line read by NPR managing editor Terry Samuel. And this is part of NPR's regular broadcast of the reading of the Declaration of Independence. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY SAMUEL, BYLINE: He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

TREUER: This is in the list of grievances of why they need to separate from the British and why the Revolution needs to take place. One of the main reasons for going to war was over the question of who got to colonize or try to colonize Native lands west of the colonies. The crown wanted that money for themselves. The colonists, understandably, would have preferred to have it for themselves. So the whole Revolution was in large part fought over who got to take our stuff.

You can't understand our Declaration of Independence without having a modicum of understanding of critical race theory because this country was founded on two principles. One was the theft of Indian land, and the other was the theft of Black labor in the form of slavery. And that is fundamental. Those two thefts were coded racially, and there's no getting around that.

MARTIN: David Treuer says many Native Americans interpret the Declaration of Independence with a certain amount of ambivalence.

TREUER: On one hand, we are keenly aware of the ways in which this country has attempted to both take our homelands and to eradicate us. And yet a huge number of Native people are deeply patriotic. And Native American people have fought in every war America has fought up until today. So we are both deeply skeptical, and we are also, you know, deeply patriotic. And we remain here, both as dual citizens of our Native nations and the United States. And as sovereign nations within the United States, we remain committed to forcing this country to live up to its own stated ideals.

MARTIN: David Treuer is a Leech Lake Ojibwe and the author of "The Heartbeat Of Wounded Knee."

Thank you so much for talking with us.

TREUER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.