As a young adult in Alaska, there were moments where I struggled with my identity as an American. I think this was in part because I had rarely been to the Lower 48; my father’s family is from Washington State and I had left Alaska to visit for a week as a baby, a week when I was 11, and did not leave Alaska again until I was 21.
It’s a funny experience, learning of this place you had rarely been, a country with a different history than your state, studying stories of the intentional societal dismantling of the people you have most in common on this continent. Some might say that America has a complicated history with Indigenous and minority peoples, but to me, it always looked abundantly clear. Through it all, I loved this idea of justice, checks against power, the opportunity to make a difference and that as an American — someone is both Alaska Native and a descendent of immigrants — this was also part of my cultural heritage, too. I was enamored by all social studies and US History seemed to be a rolling tension: sparks of greatness pursuing the essence of American ideals and through fear, giving way to our baser, lesser angels until it became too much and greatness would spark once again.
As I grew into my own identity as an Iñupiaq woman, this left me increasingly conflicted as I began questioning elements of what I had learned in school. The justice system historically is and continues to be, deeply problematic for non-White people. The only mentions of communalism as can be found in our Alaskan communities were linked to communism, and as such communalism was not individualism and was very very bad. Our textbooks were constructed to highlight what was most important, and Alaska or Alaska Native history wasn’t included. The telling of history is political and education is connected to power, including who has the power to decide what gets deposited in our own minds; it was clear that it wasn’t my people.
When I was 25, I decided to go straight to the source to figure this all out. My friend from Utqiaġvik and I bought tickets and flew to Boston. We visited the site of the Boston Massacre and the Tea Party and Paul Revere’s house, stopping at the New Bedford Museum, where Yankee Whaling history and our North Slope history intersect. We went to New York to see the Statue of Liberty and pay our respects at the 9/11 Memorial, mourning a day that changed our lives forever. From New York, we traveled to Independence and Congress Hall in Philadelphia, where America’s founding documents were signed, laughing at being among few adults in rooms filled with 5th graders, obviously late on a ritual we were supposed to take. Finally, we rode a bus to Washington DC to reflect at the monuments and view the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, themselves.
Through every building, every plaque, and every town we passed through, I searched for something I could connect with not just on my Kellie side, a descendant of Scottish immigrants, but for who I am today — An Indigenous, Iñupiaq-Scottish Alaska Native woman. I found that at the Liberty Bell.
There was a sign that described how the Liberty Bell has been borrowed as a symbol of freedom by people around the world in the struggle against unchecked power, injustice, oppression, and tyranny, including fighting tyranny within our own country. It was something I could hold on to, and adopt as something that felt relevant in the struggles of my own people’s recent history and lives. That single symbol, that connection, reminded me that people, through our humanity, distort ideas all the time which was why I was having such difficulty connecting, including the idea of what it means to be a citizen of this country. This is why it is important to have reminders and go straight to the source.
As such, I’m sharing some of my favorite passages that remind me of the soul of America. We keep these reminders as our compass of what it means to be American.
Chief Seattle, Duwamish, “When you know who you are; when your mission is clear and you burn with the inner fire of unbreakable will; no cold can touch your heart; no deluge can dampen your purpose. You know that you are alive.”
John Henry, “They tell us, sir, that we are weak; unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be next week, or the next year?…Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction? Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance, by lying supinely on our backs, and hugging the delusive phantom of hope, until our enemies have bound us hand and foot? Sir, we are not weak if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power…Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle?...Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?”
Thomas Jefferson, “But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans; we are all Federalists…possessing a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the hundreth and thousandth generation..”
Theodore Roosevelt, “The foundation stone of national life is, and ever must be, the high individual character of the average citizen.”
Suffraget Carrie Chapman, 1916, “Behind us, in front of us, everywhere about us are suffragists — millions of them, but inactive and silent. They have been “agitated and educated” and are with us in belief. There are thousands of women who have at one time or another been members of our organization but they have dropped out because, to them, the movement seemed negative and pointless. Many have taken up other work whose results were more immediate…If you believe with me that a crisis has come to our movement — if you believe that the time for final action is now, if you catch the rosy tints of the coming day, what does it mean to you? Does it not give you a thrill of exaltation; does the blood not course more quickly through your veins; does it not bring a new sense of freedom, of joy and determination?..Then let us sound a bugle call here and now to the women of the Nation: “The Woman’s Hour has struck…”
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1937, “Hard-headedness will not so easily excuse hard-heartedness…But here is the challenge to our democracy: In this nation, I see tens of millions of citizens — a substantial part of its whole population–who at this moment are denied the greater part of what the very lowest standards of today call the necessities of life…It is not in despair that I paint you that picture. I paint it for you in hope — because the Nation, seeing and understanding the injustice in it, proposes to paint it out.”
Senator Margaret Chase Smith, 1950, “Those of us who shout the loudest about Americanism in making character assassinations are all too frequently those who, by our own words and acts, ignore some of the basic principles of Americanism: The right to criticize; The right to hold unpopular beliefs; The right to protest; The right to independent thought. The exercise of these rights should not cost one single American citizen his reputation or his right to a livelihood nor should he be in danger of losing his reputation or livelihood merely because he happens to know someone who holds unpopular beliefs.”
President Kennedy, 1963, “First: Let us examine our attitude toward peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it is unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable– that mankind is doomed — that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not to accept that view. Our problems are man-made–therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable–and we believe they can do it again..”
President Kennedy, 1963, “This Nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened. Today we are committed to a worldwide struggle to promote and protect the rights of all who wish to be free. And when Americans are sent to Vietnam or West Berlin, we do not ask for whites only…And this Nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.”
President Kennedy, 1963, “Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I Have A Dream, 1963, “We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. There is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism…We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied? We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”
President Obama, 2009, “For we know our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness.”
Other passages related to current conversations in America which remind us that history is cyclical and worth studying:
Delicacy of our freedom and democracy
Ronald Reagan, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”
The safety of women
Hilary Clinton, 1995, “What we are learning around the world is that if women are healthy and educated, their families will flourish. If women are free from violence, their families will flourish. If women are free from violence, their families will flourish. If women have a chance to work and earn as full and equal partners in society, their families will flourish. And when families flourish, communities and nations do as well.”
Relevant reminder for Russian influence today, George Washington
“Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow-citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.”
Regarding the conversation, different groups have very different histories and experiences as Americans, Frederick Douglass
“I say it with a sad sense of disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you on this day rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn...I will not equivocate — I will not excuse. I will use the severest language I can command.
Warning for today about a minority having undue power over the majority
President Harry Truman, 1947: “At the present moment in world history nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life. The choice is too often not a free one. One way of life is based on the will of the majority, and is distinguished by free institutions, representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from political oppression. The second way of life is based upon the will of a minority forcibly imposed upon the majority. It relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio, fixed elections and the suppression of personal freedoms. I believe it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”
How America has experienced a crisis in confidence before
President Carter, 1979, “The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America…Our people are losing that faith, not only in government itself but in the ability as citizens to serve as the ultimate rulers and shapers of our democracy…The symptoms of this crisis of the American spirit are all around us. For the first time in the history of our country a majority of our people believe that the next five years will be worse than the past five years.”