The Pledge of Allegiance and Native Americans

Maya Aphornsuvan looks at the contestation over American patriotism in light of settler-colonial and Cold War history. Israel Dominguez offers a response. This is the second post in our series on indigeneity and part of a conversation on “The Bible and Race in the USA.

“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Leilani Thomas made headlines when she was punished by a teacher for refusing to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance. Thomas explains that, as a Native American, she feels that she disagrees with the statements made in the pledge.

When Americans speak of the pledge, it is envisioned as something much more grand than what those few sentences give an impression of. For some, the pledge is interchangeable with the concept of democracy. For some, it is interchangeable with lives lost overseas. But for others, it is simply a substitute of injustice, of stolen liberty, of power hierarchies that have been hurtful.

As Smith understands, these meanings that have been associated with the pledge are part of thought processes Americans use to comprehend who they are as a people.[1] In this case, both Thomas’ and her teacher’s response to the pledge, which can be considered a form of a scripture, is an important part of interpreting what it means to be an American living under the pledge. It also shows the relationship dynamic between white Americans and Native Americans in the modern day that reflects the past in which whites were conquerors and Native Americans were the conquered.

The way people see the pledge comes from people’s understanding of scripture; understanding scripture comes from our experiences which then show us how to understand the scripture and how the scripture understands us. But in thinking of scriptures, we must also think about the experience of the relationship between groups of people and how it affects them.

The experience that one goes through in life and how one learns to connect to the pledge is very different for Native Americans than it would be for other groups in the country, and as Taves once explained, how we experience and what we experience all come together and form a person’s understanding of numerous things, including that of scriptures.[2]

But according to Smith, understanding scripture is complex because scriptures show us relationships that were created and are still being processed. In an example which clarifies this statement, Smith explains that one is not born as a husband, rather they are a husband in relation to their wife. [3] Therefore, when Native Americans such as Thomas form an understand of how the pledge, or scripture, has been used, they see themselves as those who have endured injustice in relation to the white Europeans who have caused that injustice yet have the upper hand in society. As Tinker sees it, these relationship placements are a result of cultural differences forming different cognitive understandings of America.[4]

 “Pledge of Allegiance Plaque at Allegheny Courthouse,” Photo by daveynin [Flickr], used under Fair Use/CC. 
Smith explains that people try to understand scriptures to reach a moment of transcendence, in which the answer to the problem is achieved by going through a scripture of choice and seeing a clear direction on how to overcome that problem. Non Native Americans read the pledge out loud as a way to proclaim and affirm a certain status; the status of the conqueror, of a people under a certain God. And as a group with the upper hand in society, they assume that Native Americans have the exact same understanding of the pledge, yet throughout history, and even currently in the process of making new history, Native Americans’ plea to add their own value to the American scripture is ignored.

We see that the pledge has always stood for those higher up in the hierarchy of morals and in the hierarchy of power. Looking at the history of the pledge which was written by a Baptist minister, the pledge did not originally mention the term “Under God” until later on in 1954 to differentiate the U.S.A. from Communist states that disregarded God. Those who made the decision to write the pledge, to bring the pledge into usage, or to adapt it into American culture did so because they knew that they were on the higher end of the hierarchy in relation to the others that weren’t a part of the creation of the pledge. The pledge became the scripture that captured the essence of the experience of living in America, a moral country blessed by God.


On a global stage, the Pledge of Allegiance dominates. Yet on a national stage, there are cracks, and in those cracks we see people like Leilani Thomas, who have never resonated with the pledge. Thomas has no way of understanding how the Pledge can state that there is liberty and justice for all when her experience in the world, her experience living through generations of her people that existed before her, were not part of the winning side that created the pledge.

The creation of scripture is an ongoing process that continuously grows because we keep adding value to it. Americans, for example, have come to add the idea of fighting for freedom in the Middle East into the wider understanding of what the pledge is.

As noted by Warrior, Native Americans have never gotten the chance to understand this “American” scripture for themselves.[7] They were never invited to add their value to the scripture that supposedly captures the meaning of living an American life. So when people like Leilani step up and tell the world that they are going to explore their own understanding of the scripture through their own life experiences, one must ask: Why do others feel so threatened?

Discussion Questions:

  1. How do you think the conversation between Native Americans and Non Native Americans has been regarding the complex meaning given to the Pledge?
  2. Looking at Leilani Thomas’ actions and her teacher’s response, do you see any other situations in American society that are similar to this situation?
  3. What are some associations you have with the Pledge?

[1] Wilfed Cantwell Smith, “Introduction: Presenting the Issues,” 1-20 in What is Scripture?: A Comparative Approach (Fortress Press, 1993).

[2] Ann Taves, “Introduction,” in Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and other Special Things, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011), 8.

[3] Smith, 18.

[4] George E. Tinker, “Reading the Bible as Native Americans,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, ed. Leander E. Keck, 1: 174-180.

[6] Wilfed Cantwell Smith, “Introduction: Presenting the Issues,” 1-20 in What is Scripture?: A Comparative Approach (Fortress Press, 1993).

[7] Robert Warrior, “Canaanites, Cowboys, and Indians: Deliverance, Conquest, and Liberation Theology Today,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 59 (2005): 1-8.

Maya Aphornsuvan ‘18 is a junior at Elizabethtown College. She is a Political ScienceReligious Studies double major with interests in media studies, social justice, and comparative religions. She serves as the production assistant of the podcast, Broadcast Seeding.


This is an extremely timely topic, and there is so much to potentially examine. I felt the strongest part of your paper was your willingness to elaborate on the idea that, vis-à-vis scripture, we shape culture as much as we are shaped by it. I do want to caution you, though, against making blanket generalizations, especially when writing on matters of Indigeneity. For example, you wrote that: “Christians, who were part of the powerful group that overcame the Native Americans, sent out missionaries who came and converted Native Americans into the tradition. But these two groups had completely different understandings of Christianity.” Interaction between colonizers/missionaries and Indigenous peoples was in fact much more nuanced. Adding some qualifying statements to your sentences would help illuminate these differences.

Taking into account the current political climate, I think your paper topic definitely merits further exploration should you wish to pursue it. At this moment in our country, there is a clear and pronounced rhetoric coming from particular political camps that questions one’s patriotism in light of social commentary. The cognitive dissonance surrounding this is fascinating. For example, many who are taking up the slogan “Make America Great Again” seem to have no trouble admitting (indirectly, at least) that the state of our country is inadequate while simultaneously decrying athletes who are drawing attention to social critique by taking a knee while the national anthem is being played. I feel this ties in quite ideally with your final thought: “So when people […] tell the world that they are going to explore their own understanding of the scripture through their own religious experience, one must ask: Why do some feel so threatened?” With all of that said, I appreciate you highlighting the intricacies of subjectivity in regards to how people regard the Pledge of Allegiance and your willingness to ask tough questions.

dominguezIsrael Dominguez is a second-year M.A. student in the Department of Religious Studies and Chancellor Fellow at the University of Colorado, Boulder. His primary research interest focuses on decolonization within the context of U.S.-Mexico borderland religious traditions.

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