Keeping it real

The Damaging Three Words of the Declaration of Independence

By , 07/ 2/11 08:30 AM ET

When I moved to San Francisco decades ago, I was invited to any number of July 4th gatherings. They all had two things in common.

First, they were freezing. What was with this fog?

Second, at someone’s suggestion – I think mine, but cannot claim authorship for sure – we started reading the Declaration of Independence out loud. I had a World Almanac that contained a copy. Yes, the New York Times prints a full page version of the original, but those old f’s for s’s, among other stumbles, made us choose more modern type.

Our tradition was to set out the picnic stuff, run back to the car for another jacket or sweater, maybe a hat or gloves, then, once the shivering merriment was underway, pull out the Almanac, and open it to the Declaration.

We took turns, each person reading a paragraph or two, or part of one, depending on such factors as the reader’s dramatic interpretation inclination, or shyness. Then the reader would pass the book to the next person.

I really liked doing this – if not then, when? – but the tradition took place years before I started working on my book, Indian Voices: Listening to Native Americans and, well, I was not paying a lot of attention to certain phrases. My Euro-centric background was just fine with Th. Jefferson’s prose. So much of it was thrilling. “He has plundered our Seas, ravaged our Coasts …” Whew! “… circumstances of Cruelty and Perfidy” what rhythm, what cadence, I thought.

Eventually, however, we get to “domestic Insurrections amongst us,” and here it comes, the phrase that distresses me so much after spending close to a decade meeting, and listening to, Native Americans, that I can barely stand to read it, nor type it.

“… the merciless Indian Savages.”

Say what? From the elegantly-quotable Jefferson? Yes. “… the merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction, of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions.”

While Native Americans celebrate this 4th of July weekend, probably with hotdogs and fireworks, and possibly a powwow (as far as I know, the day has not attained the level of dislike or dismissal in Indian country that there is towards Columbus Day), I wonder whether we might all read the Declaration of Independence out loud, consider what that three word phrase wrought, not to mention the words about “undistinguished Destruction.” Destruction of who by whom? Native people, among others, may ask.

The words themselves are so savage, it is a wonder to me that there had already been a celebrating of Thanksgiving. or or

Painting is by Benjamin West, 1771, William Penn’s Treaty with the Indians. or or

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