Tag Archives: Nez Perce

Fourth of July

Sioux Indians Hitting a Dime at 100 Yards, July 4, 1891, courtesy Library of Congress

The Indian Bureau was never culturally sensitive, especially when it came to Native American celebrations. It actively discouraged or forbade ceremonial dances, feasts, and other gatherings, fearing that they might unite tribes or keep them from assimilating into white culture. Most gatherings required written permission. One explanation for the Indian Bureau allowing celebrations at all was offered in Sunday Magazine (July 2, 1911): “Shut off on reservations and compelled to do without any extraneous amusements, the Indian grows morose and is much more inclined to give trouble than when occasionally permitted to enjoy himself.”

The Bureau didn’t pay as much attention to Fourth of July celebrations, and Native Americans soon discovered that they could get together on that day without written permission. They began to use the Fourth of July as an excuse to gather and perform the dances and ceremonies they enjoyed. Some tribes had a practice of giving away assets during celebrations, often through a formal ceremony called a potlatch. Native Americans considered it an honor to give their possessions to others, and often gave to the poorest members of the tribe, first. Sioux Indians apparently ramped up this gift-giving practice on the Fourth of July, and the Indian Bureau began calling this “Give-Away Day.” Tribal members celebrated the Fourth with games of skill and strength, feasting, and dancing. They also incorporated their practice of honoring individuals with important gifts, with no thought of reciprocation. Gifts were substantial–horses, fancy bead work, saddles, and other valuable items. Whites seemed to be amazed by the practice, since it often left the giver without any resources.

Fourth of July Celebration, 1891, South Dakota, courtesy Library of Congress


Nez Perce Fourth of July Parade, Spaulding, Idaho, 1902, courtesy Library of Congress



Onward, Civilization

Presbyterian Missionary Kate McBeth and Nez Perce Students, late 19th Century, courtesy Idaho Historical Society

Besides encouraging native peoples to take up farming, white settlers believed that introducing Christianity would help “civilize” Indians (see last post). Federal policy encouraged missionaries to enter Indian territories to spread both the gospel and white culture. By the 1820s, missionaries were active as far west as Oklahoma, and by the 1850s, had established churches, schools, and mission stations among the Cherokee, Comanche, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and many other native peoples. The government  did not always observe a strict separation of church and state, since they considered Christian missionaries effective ambassadors of white culture, and actively encouraged their involvement in reservation life. In 1869, federal officials instituted the Peace Policy, a church-led assimilation program based out of reservations. These and similar efforts fell in line with the prevailing notion that America held a unique position in the world because of its Christian, democratic roots, and needed to spread its ideals across the continent.

For the most part, missionaries were undoubtedly convinced that their work would better both the physical and spiritual lives of Indians, and Native Americans did not always reject Christianity out of hand. Various Native American belief systems held commonalities with Christianity, and Native Americans tended to be spiritually inclusive. As a result, they could accept appealing parts of Christianity without rejecting their own traditional belief systems. In unfortunate contrast, Christian missionaries wanted Native Americans to abandon their heritage and culture completely. This adversarial stance guaranteed that Native Americans would suffer almost continually for practicing their own religion.

Reverend Arthur on Horseback With His Three Children, courtesy Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

Chief Black Horse Shaking Hands With Missionary, Promising Friendship, between 1880 and 1910, courtesy Library of Congress