9th Jul 2019


With it being the Fourth of July, I can’t help but think about how different the culture is around fireworks on reservations when compared to the “whiter” parts of the country. Many cities, like Bozeman and Missoula, have ordinances against fireworks in city limits, and the only fireworks experience someone might have is driving out of town to light a couple of fireworks, or watching a show put on by the local baseball team or mall.

This experience starkly contrasts with those on reservations. While I was growing up in Browning, it was common to hear the pop of bottle rockets, waterbombs, and firecrackers from the moment the firework stands opened. You’d hear them all day, every day, and well into the night. Nightfall, of course, was accompanied by artillery shells, fountains, and the occasional whistle of a chicken from a kid’s pack. As we got closer to the Fourth, it became common to see sidewalks tagged with smoke bomb drawings.

Why are the experiences so different? The answer is tribal sovereignty. Many tribes aren’t subject to state laws?) and thus tribes’ control what types of fireworks can be sold. This control comes with pros and cons, of course. The sale of fireworks that are otherwise illegal attracts many customers from off reservation who are more than happy to empty their pockets for “illegal fireworks;” money which goes into the pockets of reservation’s residents who then reinvest it into the local economy.

A “flower” made out of bottle rockets

A “flower” made out of bottle rockets

This money, however, comes at a cost. The cost of the playful havoc wreaked by and danger to the fearless kids, often referred to as “shit kid,” who also buy these fireworks. My friends and I were “shit kids.” We used to tear the sticks off bottle rockets and lay them in a circle with the fuses facing in (colloquially called a flower), light them all at once, and run as they shot off in every direction. It was even better when someone dropped money on “silver foxes” which burned magnesium, causing a silver tail to appear as they shot along. Silver foxes create a much prettier “flower.”

A friend of mine has stories about laying bottle rockets down in a line, lighting them, and then, at the last minute, running alongside them as they were shooting. Another friend would make sparkler bombs and light them down the street; cheering when the resonating boom echoed through the town. We were reckless and fearless when it came to fireworks but, while I never experienced it, these experiences sent many kids to the emergency room.

A cousin of mine had to spend the night in the ER after his sister held a smoke bomb under his nose. This same cousin was also shot in the face with a fountain when he leaned over it before it was done, resulting in another ER visit. After which his parents banned him from fireworks permanently. There was a kid who ended up deaf in one ear after another kid threw an M-100 at him. By mistake, a kid lit my uncle’s fence on fire while setting off fireworks, causing a call to the fire department. However, being “shit kid” with fireworks was almost a rite of passage. My dad has the same types of stories I do, and the same is true for many of my friends in Browning and Arlee. They all have crazy uncles or cousins who did the same type of stuff we did.

Even though others may frown on this dangerous use of fireworks, many of the people I know look on their time as a “shit kid” playing with bottle rockets with nostalgia. As I look back on my time as a “shit kid,” I’ve come to realize, in a uniquely satisfying way, that this use of fireworks is really an act of decolonization. Fourth of July is a celebration of the Declaration of Independence, but you would be hard pressed to find any Indian lighting fireworks in the name of that celebration. After all, we were here and independent long before Europeans got lost and stumbled here. While I didn’t see it this way as a kid, I think buying and lighting fireworks that are illegal under state law is a celebration of our indigenous sovereignty. Tribes were here before the states and their laws. Fireworks are a visual declaration of our independence. This Fourth I think I might buy some smoke bombs and artillery shells and light them in celebration, not for American Independence, but rather for Tribal Sovereignty.

- Naatosi Fish