Posted by on Feb 29, 2012 in Uncategorized

Black History Month in Indian Country

By:  Jihan Gearon

I had grand ideas of finding and reporting on some definitive answer to this topic– like statistics about how many half Black and half Native children there are now as compared to ten years ago, or how many reservation schools truly celebrate Black History Month, or specific examples of collaborations between Native and African American communities today.  This kind of information may very well exist out there and I would appreciate anyone pointing it out to me, but for this short piece I’d simply like to share my experience with you and offer some food for thought.  Besides my own sweet self, consider this my contribution to Black History Month in Indian Country.

I was born in Chicago and lived there until I was five, when we moved back home to the Navajo reservation.  When I was growing up my brother and I used to joke that together we made up one Black person in our entire school.  That’s a bit of an exaggeration but the point is that half Black and half Native kids were pretty rare then.  Today I meet a lot of Natives my parents’ age who say, “I have a granddaughter/son that’s like you.”  It seems like we’re more common now and it makes me wonder if kids “like me” have to deal with the same negative experiences that I did growing up.  If they do, what can we do to create a better experience for them?

Yes folks, racism exists- and it exists in Indian Country.  I have personal experiences growing up in which a Native person put me down for being Black.  Similarly, African Americans in Chicago put down my mom for being Native.  I don’t want to get into a “who is more oppressed” debate.  I’m simply combating the common belief in Indian Country that racism doesn’t really exist and if it does, “that’s not how my family is.”  I think people need to understand that even when racism isn’t in your face, it still exists.  Since the racist belief that “the darker the skin, the worse the person” is ingrained in today’s society (after centuries of blatant racist policies and practices), racism can be unintentional.  I’m not letting anyone off the hook here.  I’m just encouraging us all to get out of our safety zones and realize that even if our actions aren’t meant to be racist or hurtful, they can still have that effect.

Case in point:  the Navajo word for African Americans is “Nakai ?izhinii” or “Zhinii” for short.  It translates simply to the color black.  Growing up I was teased nonstop with the word “Zhinii” and although the word itself isn’t bad, the way it was said definitely was.  Today, I cringe when I hear the word, as do most half Black and half Navajo people.  Personally “Nakai ?izhinii” isn’t hurtful, but I accept that for some it is.  I’ve had many conversations with many Navajos who take personal offense when I say that the word “Zhinii” is derogatory.  They fire back with “in my family, we don’t use it that way,” or “you just don’t understand what it means.”  It brings up an interesting question:  do all Native words get a free pass from scrutiny just because they’re Native words?

Think about this:  A young Black and Navajo girl or boy has been teased with the word “Nakai ?izhini.”  It makes them feel bad when they hear it.  Still, when they introduce themselves in Navajo, they have to use that very word to describe themselves.  I don’t think it’s a stretch to worry about that little girl or boys self image.  Furthermore, while our other clans have histories and stories and songs and characteristics and responsibilities associated with them, this word identifies us as a color only.  As more mixed race Natives are being born, isn’t this a problem we should address, and if so, how should we address it?

I’m very inspired by the work of my good friend, grandma (clan wise), and twin from another mother Radmilla Cody.  She is a former Miss Navajo Nation and as the first half Black and half Navajo one, an inspiration to me.  Like most of us she’s grown up to have negative associations with the words “Zhinii,” and “Nakai ?izhinii,” but she is actually doing something about it.  Radmilla is introducing and promoting a new Navajo word to represent us– “Naahi?ii.”  Radmilla breaks it down like this:  “naa,” means “those who have come from across,” “hi?,” means “dark calmness, those who have overcome and persevered and we’ve come to like,” and “ii,” means “oneness.”

Although she was taught this word by a Navajo medicine man, I imagine that many Navajo people may have a problem with creating this “new” clan.  Even I had reservations (pun intended) about it at first but after giving it a lot of thought, I really support this word.  First of all, I believe there is power in words.  Also, I believe this new term is empowering.  By using this term, we are encouraged to see ourselves as more than a color.  Instead, we are people who have overcome.  Instead of being half Black and half Navajo, we are one.  Furthermore, the creation of this clan reminds us that our cultures aren’t stagnant.  We have always adopted new people into our nation, taking the best aspects of those people.  I think we do ourselves a disservice when we don’t allow ourselves to evolve as we always have.  Lastly, and most importantly, I believe in anything that will empower our young Native people and build their self-worth and dignity.  After all, lastrealindians readers, isn’t that the point?