As we approach another Independence Day here in the United States we begin to hear again the proud proclamations identifying our great nation as a “melting pot.” Leaving aside for a bit the fact that our heterogeneous society is dominated by one culture and not much melting is going on, let us focus on a way we have learned from a people who are not white to actually celebrate the diversity, perhaps the first instance of real diversity of our nation, born as the US itself was born.
The popularity of indigenous cultures waxes and wanes with a semi-predictable pattern. They have not been reviled for some time, and in my youth there was a sort of patronizing affection, especially for the Plains Indians. I expect that the pendulum will complete its back swing soon, especially in light of the tribes’ “unfair” tax exempt status, our poor economy, and the fact that Americans like to blame the second on taxes. Which is too bad because we owe the first people of this land more than most of us know.
When trying to figure out the best way to govern this new nation, the founding fathers, in particular Franklin and Jefferson looked to the neighbors who helped us oust the British (this despite the fact that being forced by the Crown to respect our treaties with these “savages” was one of the grievances listed on the Declaration of Independence.) The first three words of our Constitution “We the people” was a common Lenape expression. The form of our government was modeled closely on the Grand Council of the Haudenausaunee. Even our courts were modeled after theirs, with judges positions secure to reduce undue influence, though not much credit was given, since their judges were women.
It really should be no surprise that we would not look to Europe. Participatory democracy was unheard of in the Old World for a very long time. Sure the great thinkers of the Enlightenment, men who we do owe a great deal to, valued the virtues of liberty and equality, but they were light on the details of how to accomplish this (I love me some Locke, but have you ever read him? I’m pretty sure the man couldn’t make his own sandwich.)
So this Fourth of July, as you remember the birth our nation, remember that we are built on the bones of others, and the debt we owe them. It diminishes us not at all to acknowledge our failings and from whom we learned to overcome them, but it does to turn our heads and pretend none of it happened.