A Curator’s Fourth of July Message on the Long, Shared Work of Creating a Better America

Normee Ekoomiak (Inuit, 1948–2009).
Normee Ekoomiak (Inuit, 1948–2009). "Spirit of Liberty," 1986. Toronto, Ontario. Gift of the artist. 25/2720 (National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian)

Recent events make it practically impossible to take something called Independence Day lightly.

I'm no scholar of the Declaration of Independence, which this holiday commemorates, but for the sake of doing it justice, I reread it. Written by members of the Second Continental Congress, its primary purpose was to break away from Great Britain. Simultaneously, the Declaration served those individuals’ interests and positioned them, and men like them, at the top of a new American society. They were all white men; many owned enslaved people, and some came from slave-trading families. By 1776, centuries of change had already devasted Native North America, driving survivors of innumerable epidemics and conflicts from their homelands. For anyone who wasn’t white, the effort to survive, live without fear, and succeed and perpetuate their ways of life was already a daily struggle. Let’s be clear: The Declaration of Independence asserted that status strictly for white men with property. So, I’ll just call that document “the Declaration” and not pretend that independence for everyone was really a factor.

Having said all that, I believe the Declaration holds a salvageable kernel that we should keep as a guide. The Declaration’s most quotable statement—that we are all created equal and that we are endowed with certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—remains something that we should work to uphold.

Beyond statements about equality, let’s remember that the Declaration helped create the union, meaning the bond between the thirteen independent colonies, each with its own agenda. What’s significant about the union—and which survives in the concept of the United States—is the capacity of political bodies to set aside differences and work together for the common benefit of the people.

In itself, setting aside perceived differences is a tall order. Human beings tend to align with and favor those we share something with—history, ancestry, faith, beliefs, values, lands, or other factors. It’s how we define ourselves in terms of identity, both as individuals and as part of groups. It’s also how we create bonds with one another to define our families, friends, and communities; how we situate ourselves in social groups; and how we interact with others. The downside is that the human tendency to define an “us”—who we are and who we align with—simultaneously means that we define a “them,” meaning people we share less with and don’t think of as part of our group. However, even if “us and them” thinking is natural to human beings, it isn’t necessarily derogatory or hostile. The difficulty is that intolerance, prejudice, hatred, or fear of those we identify as different all take us further and further away from principles expressed in the Declaration. Even freedom of speech, which Americans value highly and is guaranteed under the Constitution, becomes a dangerous weapon when it is coupled with prejudice or discrimination.

From where we stand now, after 244 years, the standard of equality, human rights, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness—which the United States and we, as Americans, are supposed to uphold—is still an ambition rather than a reality. Nothing about it is guaranteed, despite the public and private struggles that have continued for centuries. Far, far too many are still fighting for equality and basic human rights, including the right to be safe and happy and not to be labeled, judged, or discriminated against. Far too often, they have fought these battles on their own.

The primary purpose of the Declaration was to call for radical change and self-government. It asked people to stand up for what they believed in and to work toward changes in laws and government so they could carry on their lives freely. And although it was written by a few privileged individuals to serve their own interests, it was a call that asked everyone to step up and fight, not just for themselves but for everyone. That call for change was relevant in 1776 and it is no less relevant now as we continue to strive against long-lived preconceptions, prejudices, disparities, and innumerable forms of discrimination and social injustice.

This struggle is collective. Inequality and injustice aren’t things that can be righted only through the efforts of those people who experience discrimination. We can say that fighting injustice is part of our work at the National Museum of the American Indian or within the Smithsonian, or—taking a page from the Declaration—we can consider it part of our duty as Americans. We should also remember that in its wording, the Declaration can be read as a statement about all of humanity: that all human beings are created equal and are entitled to the same rights and freedoms, and that we all should fight to ensure that those rights and freedoms extend to everyone, everywhere.

This may take lifetimes to achieve, but each of us can and should do our part. The collective spirit of bettering the world we live in is not new, nor was it new in 1776. I am inspired by these words from Rabbi Tarfon, who lived between AD 70 and AD 135, which are recorded in the Talmud, the compilation of Jewish civil and religious law:

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.

We are all in this together and we will only succeed together. In the meantime, this weekend and always, remember to spend time with those you love; do what makes you happy; and stay safe.

Ann McMullen is curator and head of Collections Research and Documentation at the National Museum of the American Indian. She holds a doctorate in Anthropology from Brown University, and her research and publications have focused on Native North America; material culture, traditions, innovation, and commercialization; Native interaction networks; and the history of collecting and museums.

To read more on how Independence Day became associated with powwows, rodeos, summer ceremonies, and other homecomings in Native communities throughout the United States, see Do American Indians Celebrate the 4th of July?, also on Smithsonian Voices.