For many years, Bill Burke wondered why, up until about 1952, the local tribes threw a big Fourth of July celebration every year. “Certainly, we didn’t have any independence,” he said. He recalled how agents from the Bureau of Indian Affairs prohibited the Indians on the Umatilla Indian Reservation from speaking their native languages or practicing their native culture. Burke, son of famed chief Clarence Burke, remembered those celebrations from his youth, which included horse and foot races, spear-throwing and other contests, and dancing and drumming that lasted well into the night.
The older Burke got, the more he realized that the Fourth of July celebrations on the reservation weren’t really commemorating America’s independence at all, but were a form of subterfuge — pretending to join in the national holiday while actually celebrating their tribal heritage. “Unbeknownst to the BIA, we were able to continue traditional ways of life — story telling, speech making, the games. The BIA thought, ‘Well, look at these Indians, they are becoming civilized and they’re even willing to celebrate our nation’s birth.’”
The first of these celebrations took place at Cayuse, but eventually the activities moved closer to the BIA campus in what is now Mission when some of the non-Indian residents of the reservation started getting nervous about the dancing, whooping, drumming and rifle fire. A ring of trees circled the “July grounds,” where a big tent was set up for traditional activities: children receiving their Indian names, dancing, drumming, singing, giveaways, memorials and the rejoining of family members who had mourned the loss of a loved one for the previous year.
The annual event began to dwindle in the 1940s and early ’50s, when the men went to war and the women to work. The sacred circle of trees gradually began to disappear, overtaken by encroaching building projects and brush.
In 1992, after Burke’s annual Thanksgiving feast, he brought out a large pad of paper and invited elders to talk about the old July grounds, the activities and where families camped inside the circle of trees. They also discussed a memorial for all tribal members who had served in the armed forces.
On July 1, 1993, tent poles started going up on the old July grounds near the Mission Longhouse for the first Fourth of July celebration on the reservation in 40 years, including a horse parade and giveaway to rededicate the circle of trees, a communal feast and naming ceremony and, of course, customary dancing and drumming into the night. Tribal elder Ron Pond said reviving the celebration would show respect for their tribal heritage in a world influenced by the commercialism of the “modern-day pow-wow.”
After the construction of Wildhorse Resort and Casino in 1994, portions of the annual event were moved to the resort’s grass arena and the three-day event expanded to include dancing and drumming contests open to Indians from across the U.S., while still retaining traditional observances on the July grounds for local tribes — a blending of the old and the new.