We still hold certain truths to be self-evident. But other assertions made back in 1776 by Thomas Jefferson and framers of the Declaration of Independence are real head-scratchers.
How many of us, Mike Jetty wondered aloud Friday morning, know that the revered formulating document of the American Revolution also grieved King George's use of "merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions."
Contrast that perception to the Plains Indians' tradition of counting coups, Jetty told the breakfast crowd at the 38th annual Montana History Conference at the DoubleTree Missoula-Edgewater.
"To be able to touch an enemy and get away without shedding any blood was considered much braver than it was to actually kill somebody," Jetty said.
An Indian education specialist at the Office of Public Instruction in Helena and an enrolled member of the Spirit Lake Dakota, Jetty spiced his talk with a series of one-liners Jetty said he built up while teaching school in South Dakota. It included the "Six C's" of the American Indians. They were here, Jetty said, "before Columbus, Christianity, Custer, Costner, casinos and commodities."
The talk coincided with American Indian Heritage Day in Montana, and Jetty took the opportunity later in the morning to speak to schools around Missoula.
But first he told the banquet room full of historians and educators that the stereotype of the American Indian as a bloodthirsty savage is embedded in our country's fabric - and not just by Virginia gentlemen and other Founding Fathers.
"When you get ready to go to war with somebody, what do you do to your enemies? You dehumanize them," Jetty said. "There are many examples in our country's history where Indians are dehumanized to serve a political purpose."
Subjugation was an obvious motive, and the nation used both force and perception as it expanded and displaced its original inhabitants. The annual three-day state history conference, making a rare stop in Missoula, is focusing on wars of all kinds and Montana's part in them, and the timing is good. In 2011, the U.S. marks the 70th anniversary of our entry into World War II and the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War.
Tribal conflict, of course, dates back much further. It was engrained in the cultures of many Indian nations, and little-understood warrior societies are still in working existence.
They're structured in such a way that a member's primary focus isn't on constant fighting but to serve and to honor.
"That concept of honor is big," Jetty said.
But it wasn't touched upon in a 1908 spelling book he found. A unit focusing on Native Americans used the week's spelling words in contextual sentences. Thus, he said, you had Indians as "treacherous" enemies who often "engaged" in warfare and were rarely "lenient" to their captives.
The Indian as a one-dimensional warmonger has long been a favorite stereotype.
"But if you think about it - the warriors were also husbands, they were fathers, they were brothers," Jetty said. "There's that whole family life we don't think about, them being compassionate, caring individuals - just being a total person as compared to this image of always just fighting."
He wishes that American culture would push out of mind those depictions in the old westerns of anonymous "redskins" lurking just over the ridge and preparing to swoop down on helpless settlers.
They could be replaced by the image of, say, Jamie Fox, a Gros Ventres/Metis from Harlem. A crew chief in the U.S. Air Force, Fox was one of 22 young Montanans featured in the Office of Public Instruction's recent "Honor Yourself" poster series.
"We sent this out to all the schools to show young Native Americans as positive role models for all Montanans, not just for native kids," Jetty said.
He displayed a slide of the poster featuring Fox, who was 19 at the time. On it, she's pictured in military fatigues in front of an Air Force jet.
"Jamie's a fiddle player," he said. "How many of you, when you think about Indians, think about fiddlers? The Fox family played at the International Folk Festival in Butte a few years ago."
To be sure, tribes still hold their warriors in high esteem.
"When they come back from Afghanistan and Iraq, we have honoring ceremonies, we have cleansing ceremonies," Jetty said.
Warrior societies such as the Blackfeet's Crazy Dog Society and his Lakota's Strong Heart Society help returning veterans get through the trauma and "heal them up from the conflict."
Montana is the only state that's constitutionally committed to preserving the cultural integrity of American Indians. Jetty said part of his mission at OPI and Indian Education for All is to help Montana educators sort through the myths, misconceptions and mysteries that still surround Indian people.
"We can debunk that stereotype about Indians always fighting, but give a bigger sense of who Indian people are today, what they were back then, and how we are all going to move into the future together," he said.
Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at email@example.com.