Why Natives in the US Support Black Lives Matter

If you speak of historical events seared on Native American minds, unspeakable traumas, the “Indian Removal Act” (1830), the “Trail of Tears” (1838-1850), the “Sand Creek Massacre” (1864), and even, the “Wounded Knee Massacre” (1890), perhaps come to the forefront, among a plethora of genocidal acts against Native peoples too numerous to count. Today, we have the effects of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) on Tribal Nations across the United States and the consequences of the absolute neglect of President Donald J. Trump and his administration of Native peoples who are losing more people per capita to the disease than most countries.

And now with the recent murder of the African-American man, George Floyd, Native Americans want to be included in on the conversation about race, especially since historical indigenous genocide is hardly discussed in the media today. Not only must the United States confront the horrors of slavery and its long history of racism against Black people but such discussions must include Native peoples as well who were wiped out by the same white-American mindset. Some of this colonial mentality was couched in a utopian dream of white-settlement known as “Manifest Destiny”. A dream in which all of the American West was open to settling from divine providence wherein the American dream could be fulfilled and huge swathes of mythical land was devoid of its indigenous peoples.

Presently, indigenous peoples in the United States like African-American and Hispanic-American minorities were also left behind by COVID-19 and were more adversely affected than whites. Some Native nations in our country are still feeling the effects of the Coronavirus and many Native reservations are still on lockdown because of the disease.

In recent statistics from the end of May in New Mexico, Native Americans contracted COVID-19 at a rate of 57.6% of the total state population, the highest of any ethnic group within the state. Whereas Native peoples, those from the Apache, Navajo, and Pueblo, and other tribal nations, are only 9.6% of New Mexico’s overall population, proving how much Coronavirus has affected indigenous peoples in the Southwestern United States. Moreover, the Trump Administration made the disbursement of funds from the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act to Tribes almost impossible and bogged down in bureaucracy and unnecessary red-tape.

Furthermore, the Trump Administration, specifically the Treasury Department, threatened “not” to allocate CARES Act funds to Native Nations. Regardless, a federal judge ordered the remainder of CARES Act funds to be disbursed to Tribes by June 17th, a balance of approximately $679 million.

A curfew is still in effect for the Navajo Nation where 22 new cases of COVID-19 were reported on June 15th and its total of 319 deaths and a total of 6,672 cases from Coronavirus. This is out of a population of about 300,000, an infection rate much more than most countries around the world.

Beyond the Coronavirus, Native peoples have their own issues with law enforcement and a long history of police abuse among their communities, which is why so many indigenous peoples in the United States support the #Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement.

There are places in the United States where Native Americans are just as discriminated against and targeted like African-Americans by law enforcement and just because they are Natives. Hence, if the “original sin” in the United States was slavery, then what was genocide against Native peoples in our country called? Both slavery of African-Americans “and” the genocide against indigenous peoples in the United States are therefore entwined original sins. Moreover, Black Civil Rights leaders like Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) (1941-1998), All-African People’s Revolutionary Party (A-APRP), knew this too and supported Native civil rights. Black leaders knew this when Native peoples had their own civil rights struggles in 1973 and occupied “Wounded Knee” on the Pine Ridge Reservation through the efforts of the American Indian Movement (AIM) in a standoff against the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) during President Nixon’s Administration.

Today, Native peoples, such as those from the Sioux Nation often have a difficult time finding housing outside of reservations in states like South Dakota, or problems getting served at restaurants, or obstacles in buying a car. Or in states like Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Wyoming, are targeted by police as African-Americans often are in large metropolises in places like Chicago, Los Angeles, or New York City, and across most cities in the USA.

As one Native Blackfeet author, activist, and lawyer, Gyasi Ross, on MSNBC explained: “The hallmark of racism against Native Americans in the United States is that nobody knows about it…We suffer violent crime at the highest rates in this country, nobody knows it. We die at the hands of law enforcement and nobody knows it. We get expelled and suspended from schools according to 2014 Department of Education statistics at the highest rate which later on leads to having contact with the criminal justice system, which nowadays are calling schools the prison pipeline for Native people and Black people and nobody knows it. So, there is a common narrative there among Native people and Black people. It’s different because the circumstances within our communities are different and the circumstances in the way that it is policed is different and everybody is catching hell. That is the point.”

American Native peoples are also fighting oil pipelines and fracking on indigenous lands. As The Guardian reported (June 10th): “Today, the US Bureau of Land Management is considering a plan, known as the Mancos-Gallup Amendment, which could lease land in the region for some 3,000 new wells—many of which would be for fracking oil and gas. The plan would expand drilling into some of northern New Mexico’s last available public lands, threatening the desecration of sacred Native artefacts near Chaco Canyon while bringing in a swath of new public health risks to a place that’s already reeling from one of the worst Covid-19 outbreaks in the world.” Canadian Aboriginal peoples are also protesting against the construction of oil pipelines such as the proposed pipeline across British Columbia through the Wet’suwet’en Nation’s territory. And like their U.S. indigenous brothers and sisters, Canadian Aboriginals face overt racism as well and are protesting against the systemic racism they have been subjected to in Canada.

The late Dennis Banks (1937-2017), an AIM co-founder, was from Minneapolis, and he helped to found American Indian Movement in the Twin Cities because of police brutality back in 1968. In a recent opinion article by Levi Rickert of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, recalled interviewing Banks about the founding of AIM. Rickert wrote: “The effort to fight police brutality in the American Indian community was the impetus of AIM…He [Dennis Banks] said that AIM founders were fed up with the large number of urban American Indians being rounded up each weekend, beaten and then hauled off to jail in paddy wagons. Often, they were made to do manual labor as part of their punishment.”

So, historical ties of racism and struggle, and even the history of protests against police brutality, while both the African-American and Native-American civil rights movements are quite different, likewise demonstrate their similarities. AIM began in Minneapolis and expanded. The recent Floyd Movement is expanding from Minneapolis too.

Native Americans are also advocating for symbols of genocide such as statues remembering those perpetuating indigenous genocide to be taken down and removed. Many Native activists have been advocating for their removal for years. However, since the Floyd murder, activists are dismantling such statues in places like California and New Mexico as well as protesting the “white-washing” of this genocidal history. One indigenous scholar, Emeritus Professor Tink Tinker (wazhazhe, Osage Nation), Clifford Baldridge Professor of American Indian Cultures and Religious Traditions of Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, shared his thoughts about the matter on Facebook: “Let’s be clear. Statues & monuments have already erased history! We have seen Native history, African history in the Americas, & other POC [People of Color] histories persistently erased in favor of elevating eurochristian history & White supremacy on the continent. Whether it is the brutality of the Spanish eurochristians in the southwest (Oñate, de Vargas, & their missionaries); the Doctrine of (Christian) Discovery conquistadores of the north (Washington, Jefferson, Marshall, et al); or the diehard Christian slavery defending confederate “heroes” of the south, all of them function to erase history even as they elevate the history of Whiteness. That history is only important as a means for maintaining the status quo of White eurochristian superiority. Time to let it go & create a history that is inclusive of all of us.”

Above all, this should be a time for peace and reconciliation as well. It is time for “dialogue” on many issues of conflict, whether in the past or the present.

Most Native peoples are aware of the destruction of “Mother Earth”, our environment, and the effects of climate change. Our era of the 6th extinction is also known as the “Anthropocene”. The cartesian dynamic of separating body from nature seems to be another unnecessary holdover of colonialism whereby nature is meant to be conquered and not cared for. This is what Julie Morley has called the “Cartesian Sleep”.

Chief Arvol Looking Horse, nineteenth generation and keeper of the Sacred Pipe, Lakota Dakota Nakota Sioux Nations, remarked: “My grandmother on her deathbed said if the people don’t start to straighten up, you shall be the last bundle keeper…I am going to pray for global peace and global healing…I carry the message of the ‘White Buffalo’, the prophecy of mending the ‘Sacred Hoop’. That sacred hoop of the nation was broken at Wounded Knee…We signed a treaty with the U.S. government over a hundred years ago. It was broken at Wounded Knee 1890…We’re survivors of Holocaust, massacres in the name of progress. They put our people on ‘concentration camps’. It’s called a reservation but back then it was a concentration camp. The military came and took our children, five, six years old [referring to Native boarding schools]. If you don’t let go of your children, they shot your children right in your arms, so much abuse…we rode horseback from the 1980s until 1993, we did the ceremony. We prayed there would be no more Wounded Knees throughout the world. But the way things are going. The way things are doing right now, looks not that way…Mother Earth she has a fever. Man has gone too far, disrespect everything. Sacred sites have been destroyed. Eagles are flying into trash pits [municipal landfills]. When I go outside our community into the world, this is a strange world that can’t succeed…We have come to a time and a place of great urgency. Even scientists are saying we are at the point of no return…People are so spiritually disconnected. We need to reconnect with the Spirit. Mother Earth is the Spirit. Mother Earth is the source of life, not a resource. We are at the crossroads but there is hope.”

J. P. Linstroth is a former Fulbright Scholar to Brazil. His recent book, Epochal Reckonings (2020), is the 2019 Winner of the Proverse Prize. He has a PhD (D.Phil.) from the University of Oxford. He is the author of Marching Against Gender Practice: Political Imaginings in the Basqueland (2015) and, most recently, author of Politics and Racism Beyond Nations: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Crises (2022).