Like Memorial Day, Independence Day has become a time for gathering with friends and family, but let us also remember its true purpose. In a 1776, John Adams penned in a letter to his wife that Independence Day “ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance.” Its purpose is to memorialize the Declaration of Independence and the forming of a federal union by the first 13 independent states.
For the United States, the philosophy of independence is about living out liberty and national allegiance. The American Revolution waged by the original 13 colonies was a fight for freedom, a fight to be self-governing and sovereign states free of tyranny and oppression from the British Crown, which prohibited basic rights of all Englishmen.
Ultimately, the Paris Peace Treaty of 1783 declared the 13 colonies to be “free sovereign and independent states.” This treaty established that the fundamental right of sovereignty resided within each former colony. This was a hard won acknowledgment and, understanding it, one would think the US would have extended it to Native American tribes. Yet, the recognition of tribes as self-governing and sovereign nations independent of the federal union was also hard won.
Although the USA holds the 566 federally recognized tribes as sovereign and independent nations, a great deal of federal legislation still exists regarding the tribes. This legislation extends to taxes, agriculture, mining, land, healthcare, housing, education, labor, law enforcement, and more.
Take home ownership, for instance. If a home is on reservation land, the land cannot be “owned” by the individual. Instead, the US government holds the land in trust for the tribe. So, can the house be sold? Would you buy the house if the land did not convey? Can the land be used as collateral or developed for economic purposes? This is just one way that the nearly 1 million Native Americans living on reservation lands are limited in independence and personal freedoms enjoyed by other Americans.
Fortunately, politics aside, tribes exercise great sovereignty and celebrate their independence through their heritage and the Indian way. They practice their ceremonies, speak their Native tongue to their children and grandchildren, and pass on their culture and traditions for the seventh generation.
In fact, in celebrating Navajo Nation Sovereignty Day on April 22, 2013, Dine’ President Ben Shelley asked his people to remember their sovereignty before it was decided by any court. Shelley said:
We, the Holy People have always known who we are; therefore, we have always been sovereign. As we move forward, we need to continue to practice cultural independence. Sovereignty is not defined completely by a court of law; it’s defined in our free ability to guide our children into the lives we want for them.
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