Joe Mathews: Have we given up on Independence? Look to the California town bearing that name

By Joe Mathews

“Why celebrate Independence Day when we’ve given up on independence? That question occurred to me while visiting Independence, California, a settlement of 600 people on U.S. highway 395 in the Owens Valley,” writes Joe Mathews. Photo by Shutterstock.

Communities across California are gearing up to celebrate the anniversary of the country's independence — with barbecues, picnics, parades, and fireworks.

Commentator Joe Mathews found himself mulling over this annual tradition during a recent trip to the town of Independence in California's Owens Valley.  He says in some ways, we may be celebrating the wrong thing.  

Read Mathews’ column below:

Why celebrate Independence Day when we’ve given up on independence?

That question occurred to me while visiting Independence, California, a settlement of 600 people on U.S. highway 395 in the Owens Valley. 

While Independence is the sort of rural, out-of-the-way place that, in the American imagination, should embody ideals of independence, there is very little that’s independent about Independence. Or about us.

Independence isn’t even its own municipality. It’s an unincorporated town,  officially a U.S. Census-designated place. Unincorporated towns exist at the whim of higher levels of government, which may or may not provide basic services. Independence neighborhoods don’t have sidewalks.

When I visited, local cafes were closed, and the hotel-restaurant across from the courthouse was for sale. When I asked what was new in town, I kept getting the same answer: The Subway sandwich shop had been replaced by a Nevada-based chain, Port of Subs. 

Independence is the seat of Inyo County, which helps keep the place alive. The county is a vital employer — between the county courthouse, administration, and jail. Like so many other remote rural communities, Independence also depends on the federal and state governments, which manage much of the land in the area, and fight fires. 

But the biggest outside landowner in the area is the L.A. Department of Water and Power. Los Angeles, in a historic act of treachery, bought much of the Owens Valley to obtain water for the city in the early 20th century. Today, LADWP manages state-owned lands to control for dust in Owens Lake. DWP trucks are visible around town, and their facilities occupy multiple blocks. All this makes Independence peculiarly dependent on a city government over 200 miles away. 

Around the corner from the LADWP buildings is Independence’s great attraction, the Eastern California Museum. But inside this marvel of local history is an origin story rooted in dependence. 

The name Independence was imposed by the U.S. Army, which established Camp Independence on July 4, 1862. In that period, the military was not protecting independence; it was keeping California in the Union, while killing local Indigenous people in campaigns that amounted to genocide.

That history sat with me when I drove six miles south of town to visit another example of the American government’s approach to this part of California: Manzanar, the World War II incarceration camp for people of Japanese ancestry. The wind howled as I walked through the camp, and reflected on the insatiable hunger of the United States to imprison its own people.

Did we stop believing in independence? Or did we ever really believe in it to begin with? 

Perhaps we’d be better off giving up on independence as an American value. The 21st Century is all about interdependence instead. We’ve needed one another to survive the pandemic, and we’ll need more collaboration to live through climate change. In a country as rough as ours, to be independent is to risk isolation and worse.

“Go as far as you dare in the heart of a lonely land,” wrote Independence-based writer Mary Austin in her 1903 book about the region, “The Land of Little Rain.” She continued, “You cannot go so far that life and death are not before you.”

Today, a plaque hangs from Austin’s Market Street house. Reading it, I wondered: Why not call July 4 Solidarity Day? After all, it’s a holiday where we don’t behave independently. Instead, we act collectively, performing the same rituals of barbecues, parades and fireworks across the country. 

Of course, independence is dangerous these days. Americans constantly pressure one another to be loyal members of our political, cultural and corporate tribes. Independent thought, expression or action is likely to get you fired, sued, or ostracized. Meanwhile, our representatives, social movements, and nonprofits spend considerable time cozying up to the wealthy people and institutions that fund them. 

All that said, Independence Day hasn’t been canceled, at least not yet. Independence is organizing a fabulous Fourth, closing highway 395 for a big parade. You could call it a celebration of our country, or a celebration of the birthday of Independence, California.

Just don’t call it a celebration of independence. Because no one believes in that anymore.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.



Darrell Satzman