“Indians Balk at a Role in Bicentennial” (January 31, 1975)


This article, published in the New York Times on January 31, 1975, describes the meeting of several Native American tribal leaders with John W. Warner, administrator of the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration (ARBA). The U. S. Congress chartered ARBA to plan the commemoration of the American Revolution’s bicentennial. This meeting came in the wake of Indigenous activism across the country like the Trail of Broken Treaties, the Siege at Wounded Knee, and the American Indian Bicentennial Conference of 150 representatives of 30 tribes, most of them from the Great Plains and western United States, in January 1973. This conference produced a report with resolutions on how the bicentennial commemoration could meet the needs and interests of Native Americans. This report was sent to President Nixon and the predecessor to ARBA, the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission. In August 1975, Warner established the Racial, Ethnic, and Native American Advisory committee to ensure Native American involvement in the bicentennial commemoration.


WASHINGTON, Jan. 30—Some of the people who run the bicentennial sat down with a group of Indian leaders here today to talk about their celebration of the country’s 200th anniversary.

The Indians, however, insisted that, from their view of history, they have nothing to celebrate.

“Indians are already too patriotic,” said Robert Burnette, the tribal chairman of the Rosebud Sioux, glancing up at a wall‐sized reproduction of the Declaration of Independence.

“Look at all those words,” he said, his voice tense with irritation. “Justice, justice, justice, justice. We’ve never had any of that justice—and now you people want us to celebrate!”

The blue‐walled conference room in a 19th‐century mansion near the White House became embarrassingly quiet, and what was to have been just another routine Washington meeting was transformed into a blunt, occasionally bitter and sometimes poignant confrontation between the American bureaucracy and the native Americans.

One by one, the Indians recited the details of their dissatisfaction and by the time they had finished, John W. Warner, the usually loquacious chief of the Federal bicentennial agency, was puffing silently on his pipe, staring occasionally at the subordinates who had planned the meeting.

Minority Disenchantment

While the session today in the headquarters of the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration was notable for its candor, it served also to illuminate a continuing problem for Mr. Warner and his agency.

Since planning for the anniversary began, programs, policies and proposals at both the Federal and local levels have been the targets of criticism from minority groups.

They have contended that the celebration has been too narrowly conceived, discouraging the participation of minorities and omitting tributes to their heroes in American history.

The group that met with Mr. Warner was in the city to discuss Indian programs with officials at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and to attend the President’s prayer breakfast.

They represented 24 tribes in seven Western states, and when they arrived at the March House, a mansion once occupied by Franklin Pierce’s secretary of state and James K. Polk’s secretary of war, the introductions were disarmingly cordial.

‘A Tremendous Opportunity’

They seated themselves around a large table covered with red felt and heard Mr. Warner’s description of the bicentennial as “a tremendous opportunity to awaken the entire nation to the richness of your heritage.”

A box filled with bicentennial lapel pins appeared, and Mr. Warner dumped them on the table.

Doreen Bond, a Northern Cheyenne from Lame Deer, Mont., watched from the opposite end. “Hooray,” she muttered, “here come the beads and trinkets.”

Most of the tribal leaders were quick to compliment Mr. Warner’s efforts to include native Americans in the bicentennial observances.

Still, there was no mistaking the bitterness in their voices when they responded to Mr. Warner’s suggestion that they participate in the bicentennial.

Rose Crow Flies High, the leader of the three Sioux tribes in North Dakota, spoke quietly. “I’m so tired,” she sighed. “Tired of programs and promises and coming here to knock on doors to ask for hand‐outs — and winding up with nothing. I’m so tired, I don’t even want anything anymore.”

Pat Stands Over Bull, chairman of the Crow Tribal Council in Montana, cleared his throat.

“Up where I come from, the white man wants to have some celebration at the Little Big Horn,” he said, referring to the site of the 1876 battle in which General George A. Custer and a large number of United States cavalry were killed by a federation of northern indians.

“I don’t know what the white man has to celebrate about that,” he continued, “but the battlefield is on our reservation and we don’t want them coming out there with their carnival.”

‘Do You Understand That?’

Still, the most important words came from Mr. Burnette and Jerry Flute, the chairman of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux tribal council in South Dakota.

“What you don’t seem to understand, Mr. Warner,” Mr. Flute said politely, “is that Indians are fighting a day‐today battle just to survive. Do you understand that? Just to make it through one more day alive—and we just are not very interested in celebrating anything.”

Mr. Burnette nodded.

“This bicentennial is hypocritical because it makes heroes out of men who have stolen our land and our lives. I simply cannot celebrate the name or the deeds of such men,” he said. shaking his head gravely. “I simply cannot.”

Mr. Warner leaned forward in his chair, as if to speak. Then, apparently, he decided against it and reached for his pipe instead.

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APA Citation:
Wooten, James. “Indians Balk at a Role in Bicentennial” (January 31, 1975). (2023, May 12). In Encyclopedia Virginia.
MLA Citation:
Wooten, James. "“Indians Balk at a Role in Bicentennial” (January 31, 1975)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (12 May. 2023). Web. 28 May. 2024
Last updated: 2023, September 11
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