Anti-Blackness in Native Communities

About a year ago, I wrote a paper titled ‘Bondage, Resistance, and Belonging’, outlining the relationship between Indigenous Peoples within the ‘US’ and enslaved Africans, with a particular focus on the Choctaw, Seminole, Cherokee, Creek, and Chickasaw or known as the “Five Civilized Tribes”.  

My paper was an attempt to analyze it from the colonizer’s regulation and forced assimilation practices into White society against the “Five Civilized Tribes”, and how the creation of the “Black body” was used as a means to define “humanity”.

HUGE disclaimer, I am not Black nor part of the Choctaw, Seminole, Cherokee, Creek, and Chickasaw communities. My analysis and thoughts were written from a Diné outsider perspective.

Drawing from my paper;

“a person’s identity and/or belonging was determined by their lineage; “a person who appeared ‘Black’ and had a [Native] mother would have been defined and accepted as Indian” (Miles 2002, p. 145). Generally, clan relations were more enduring than other kinds of kinship bonds, especially those formed in marriages.”

It was commonly understood that within matrilineal communities, families developed and were nurtured by the mother’s clan relations. As white-patriarchy refined and grew in power, kinship dynamics were targeted.

Racial coding began to seep into Indigenous communities as interactions with the United States settlers become more frequent and violent.

White settlers demanded Indigenous communities to take on this mantle of ‘nationhood’ in order to be considered ‘legitimate’ and ‘sovereign’. In a recent NPR video, Indigenous scholars answer questions about treaties; what they are, why they were signed, and what they mean today. Drawing from them, treaties are agreements between two nations, and can only be made between ‘sovereign’ governments. Furthermore, Mary Kathryn Nagle (Cherokee Nation) states that “many countries around the world did not recognize the United States’ sovereignty”.  The United States lacked ‘sovereignty’ and so, Jill Doefler (White Earth Anishinaabe Descendent) asserts that for the US to be considered ‘sovereign’, it made agreements with Native Nations as a way to justify their existence. 

At this point, treaties became a form of legal documentation that inherently allowed definitions of selves to be developed. The United States made agreements with Indigenous communities to have rights, not Indigenous communities making agreements with the United States to have rights. That’s a revision of history. 

Jill Doefler (White Earth Anishinaabe Descendent): They’re not rights given to Native Nations, they’re Native nations by and large giving rights to the United States.

Despite this acknowledgment of Indigenous communities giving rights to the United States. The United States became an overpowering colonizing force that decided to displace the ‘Indian’. A prime example would be Andrew Jackson refusing to adhere to the Supreme Court ruling in Cherokee Nation v. State of Georgia, and forcibly relocated the Cherokee Nation, known as the Trail of Tears. To this day, the United States has not upheld their end of the Treaties they have made with Indigenous communities and have broken many of them. 

Thus, Indigenous communities were socially and politically forced, through violent means, to racially codify their distinct sense of personhood within white supremacy. It was through this crucial racial codification process that blackness became a defining characteristic that was embedded with cultural associations developed by and the conditions of White settlers. Blackness became synonymous with being dirty, sinful, impure, whereas whiteness became associated with beauty, virtue, and cleanliness.

These racial understandings of White society seeped into many Indigenous communities. A particular legislation developed by the forty-ninth group of White settlers redefined the rights and demanded stipulations for Indigenous Peoples who adhere to their ‘rule’. The Dawes Act of 1887 introduced the basis of blood quantum.  Section 6 of the act stipulates that:

“…And every Indian born within the territorial limits of the United States to whom allotments shall have been made under the provisions of this act, or under any law or treaty, and every Indian born within the territorial limits of the United States who has voluntarily taken up, within said limits, his residence separate and apart from any tribe of Indians therein, and has adopted the habits of civilized life, [and every Indian in Indian Territory,] is hereby declared to be a citizen of the United States, and is entitled to all the rights, privileges, and immunities of such citizens, whether said Indian has been or not, by birth or otherwise, a member of any tribe of Indians within the territorial limits of the United States without in any manner impairing or otherwise affecting the right of any such Indian to tribal or other property”.

Avoiding the continuation of talking more about these awful laws, quantifying blood was a way to undermine Indigenous communities’ conceptions of kinship. There was a “rationale” attached to these conceptions of kinship and were calculated to appropriate indigeneity for White supremacy, rather than acknowledging or accepting Indigenous customs and beliefs.  

As such, much of the ‘rationale’ for blood quantum was based on ‘nationhood’ status early on in White history.

Black inferiority was demanded of Indigenous communities to be recognized as  ‘sovereign’ early on in White history.

Enslavement was used to showcase ‘sovereignty’ and indicators of ‘civility’. To be perceived and/or constructed as a slave “was to be denied basic human rights which [distinguished people] from lesser creatures” (Walvin, J., 1996. p. 31). Unfortunately, much of that rationale is still being used today to legitimize ideas of ‘humanity’ and anti-Black sentiments.

According to a 2013 article written by Cedric Sunray on Indian Country Today, Terry Anderson and Kirke Kickingbird (Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma) were hired by the NCAI to research the issue of federal recognition in 1978. They ended their research and reported that the problem with federal recognition was:

“The reasons that are usually presented to withhold recognition from tribes are 1) that they are racially tainted with the blood of African tribes-men or 2) greed, for newly recognized tribes will share in the appropriations for services given to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The names of justice, mercy, sanity, common sense, fiscal responsibility, and rationality can be presented just as easily on the side of those advocating recognition.”

Sunray outlines that Anderson and Kickingbird found a history of surveillance on Indigenous Peoples with mixed-Black ancestry, who were often targeted intentionally.

“While tribes who are perceived or do have some black ancestry, as well as significant Indian ancestry, are being denied, tribes with large amounts of white ancestry and less significant Indian heritage have been acknowledged.”

I refer to Sunray’s article because it showcases how anti-blackness continues today. Anti-blacknesses persist today, especially in discussions within ‘tribal sovereignty’ and ‘tribal recognition’.

But it isn’t just within these conversations that anti-black sentiments arise. Over the last century, anti-black rhetoric has increased among Indigenous communities.

A lot of it may originate from a place of hurt and anger of erasure that occurs when non-Native peoples talk about racism. In these conversations, racism tends to focus on Black-White binary more so than any other racial or ethnic group. These conversations focus on a Black-White binary because of the history and contributions that prominent Black activists and Black movements have offered to remind the United States history of enslaving their ancestors. Yet, this is a part of the process of racialization for Black folx.

White supremacy is predicated on the public dehumanization of the Black body and the erasure and silencing of Indigenous voices.

One example of this public dehumanization is when Indigenous Peoples, begrudgingly, say that they are “more oppressed” than Black folx. Thus, displacing the conversation of the oppression of Black folx, and furthering anti-blackness. 

This is most prominent with the co-optation of #NativesLivesMatter, which intended to bring advocacy and awareness of the high rates of police brutality of Native Peoples. #NativeLivesMatter, unfortunately, de-centered the conversation on the public violence against the Black body and affirmation of the humanity of Black folx, which was the focus of #BlackLivesMatter.

Another instance is when comparisons are made about oppression, and non-Black Natives say “this is just as bad as blackface” or “you wouldn’t do/say this if this involved a black person” etc. These type of comparisons reinforce the dehumanization process of Black bodies, by trying to reclaim a sense of humanity through comparison to communities who are considered to be ‘inhuman’. 

One most recent example of anti-blackness is digital blackface. Teen Vogue has a great article piece on it. Digital blackface is when a non-Black person uses a reaction gif of a Black person in cyberspace.  This action reinforces the dehumanization process of Black folx simply by framing them as caricatures. 

I am trying to convey that much of the historical construction of ‘humanity’ within White America is predicated on this idea that there needs to be a scapegoat for who is not human to justify personhood.

By comparing instances of oppression targeted towards specific racialized communities, is an act of minimizing them or de-centering them completely.

White supremacy is predicated on the public dehumanization of the Black body and the erasure and silencing of Indigenous voices.

We are all complicit in the erasure and silencing of Indigenous voices, yet also in the perpetuation of anti-blackness.

I have perpetuated anti-blackness, and I still do. I have been called out and I have been called in. There have been many instances that I have failed to hold people accountable for anti-blackness, and there are moments when I still do fail. Anti-blackness exists in our communities, just like any other anti sentiments against marginalized communities. 

I have a lot of self-interrogation and work to do to ensure that I mitigate what I learned and internalized about myself and others. Diné children are taught very early on that to be called ‘Black’ in Diné bizaad (Navajo Language) was to be called dirty and unclean.

We need to be vigilant in how we confront anti-blackness, in ways that are sustainable and long-lasting.

Anti-blackness permeates in our society. It exists and persists, infecting us and twisting our perception of peoples, who are similarly affected by colonialism and displacement.

Anti-blackness is a global phenomenon that has become synonymous with ideas of humanity. Liberation is not possible at all if Indigenous Peoples don’t interrogate our anti-black sentiments. Anti-blackness is a product of colonialism and slavery. There is a long history of anti-blackness in our Indigenous communities.  It does not belong there, and it needs to end.

I hope this blog post continues or re-start a conversation on Anti-blackness in our Indigenous communities.

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Additional Articles & Resources: 

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References:

Miles, T. (2002). Uncle Tom Was an Indian: Tracing the Red in Black Slavery. In J. F. Brooks, Confounding the Color Line (pp. 137-160). Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press.

Walvin, J. (1996). Questioning Slavery. London: Routledge.

 

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