Feb 19th, 2019 - Black History – Native History: Shared Connections
A number of years ago, following an undoing racism workshop I was a panelist on, a participant approached me to further discuss a point I had made regarding the importance of maintaining cultural identity and reclaiming traditional languages in our decolonization efforts. The individual stated that as a person of African descent they wished they could know who they were and where they truly came from and that they deeply desired to know the traditional songs, ceremonies, and languages of their ancestors. He went on to say that we, Native peoples, were blessed to be able to have access to knowing who we are and where we come from.
February marks “Black” history month, where in classrooms across the country students will learn about heroics of MLK, Rosa Parks, and a select handful of other Black leaders who fought bitterly to end segregation and for civil rights. They will learn about Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in professional sports. Some classes will discuss the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education which ended segregation in public schools.
Less discussed in these classrooms will be the utter horror that an estimated 2 – 8 million Africans died over the course of the Middle Passage alone with the Atlantic ocean serving as the graveyard for the untold millions of African men, women and children. For the 10 million or so of Africans who survived the Middle Passage they faced a life no less brutal as families watched loved ones sold at auction blocks to never been seen, or heard from, again. Students are also not likely to learn that during the years following the end of Reconstruction to the start of the Great Depression an estimated 3,000+ Black men were lynched in Southern states, often with crowds of picnic going Whites dressed in their Sunday best smiling and laughing on as a lifeless Black body hung from a tree.
Students will not learn how the twin evils of African slave trade and the genocide and land theft of Native peoples led directly to the establishment of the United States becoming the wealthiest country on earth. Nor will they learn that Wall Street firms and banks such as Lehman Brothers and JP Morgan Chase made their fortunes in funding the slave trade. Going unmentioned too is how the slave trade led to the establishment of New York and London as the centers of finance and global capitals of commerce.
Slave masters worked to destroy their slaves’ sense of self worth, their family/community bonds, and forging great distrust amongst each other.
This form of mental colonization we too, as Native peoples, have experienced and continue to live with. We have had ingrained into our historic psyche that we were less than, savage, heathen, dirty, immoral. My Unci once told me a story how she use to tear down posters of Tatanka Iyotanka (Sitting Bull) and Mahpiya Lute (Red Cloud) that my Uncle’s would try hanging in their bedrooms. She stated her sense of guilt for doing so all these years later and simply said “those nuns had just pounded into our heads that anything Indian was evil.”
We certainly have also experienced the destruction of families when our little ones were stripped from homes and tribal communities and sent to boarding schools, or now taken from us by the state welfare agencies. And we know all too well the foraging of distrust amongst the people, with the pitting tribes against tribes, federally recognized tribes against unrecognized tribes, and traditional peoples pitted against tribal councils, a scene that continues to play out to this day in some tribal communities.
The colonization of the mind seeks to strip one of their physical, emotional, and spiritual connections to one’s self to ones community and sense of place and belonging in the greater cosmos. It attempts to replace ones sense of place with that of self hate, doubt, jealousy, and distrust. The slave master, the colonizer, sought to transform the people, Indigenous peoples, from spiritual beings into empty shells. These empty shells then exist only to serve the interest of the colonial elite whether as slaves, indentured labor, or soldiers in the Western empire. Mental slavery of the masses leads the people to not question their oppression, but rather convinces them that their higher goal is reach some mythical “dream” of coexisting with the master as equals.
Years later, after that undoing racism workshop, I was at ceremony with a Blackfeet brother from Browning who was sharing some good words with us. At one point he says, “You know it is a lie that we lost our ceremonies and spirituality. It is a lie that we could ever even lose our ceremonies and spirituality. Our ceremonies, songs, and spirituality don’t come from man they come from Tunkasila manifesting themselves through our dreams and visions. They cannot control our dreams or visions. They cannot control Tunkasila.”
The brother was right. I thought of that man who spoke to me at that undoing racism workshop years before and of how deeply the colonizer/slave masters lies had imbedded themselves. Our brothers and sisters of African descent, like us, have buried in their genetic memory ancient knowledge of whom and what they are. The colonizer, the slave master, the elite of the West have sought to strip from our genetic memory our sense of place and connection to our first Mother, our communities and Nations, our other relatives we share the land with, and to the greater cosmos. They seek have sought to impress upon the masses a spiritual void that can only be filled through mass consumption, a consumption that relies on the destruction and desecration of our Mother and all her wakanyeja.
But the colonizer/slave master could only suppress, and never erase, this knowledge this genetic memory. Through our dreams, visions and communications with other nations we are reminded of who and what we are. While we listen to our dreams, visions and other relatives in gaining, or regaining, our sense of self and place within the greater cosmos, we must also reject the notion that gaining a seat at the masters table is, or should be, a part of any goal of any social justice movement. The Western empire leaves only in its wake death, disease and destruction. This is the opposite of who we are as spiritual beings who are connected to all relations.
Fellow civil rights activist Harry Belafonte recalls the following conversation with Martin Luther King Jr., whom had began to see the Western empire for what it really was:
“I said, ‘What’s the matter, Martin? You seem very agitated.’ He said, ‘Well, I am, because I’ve come upon a thought that I don’t know how to deal with at this moment.’ I said, ‘Well, what is it?’ He said, ‘We’ve fought long for integration. It looks like we’re gonna get it. I think we’ll get the laws,” he says. “But I’m afraid that I’ve come upon something that I don’t know quite what to do with. I’m afraid that we’re integrating into a burning house.’”
This brilliant insight, sadly, will also be most unlikely heard in classrooms across the country during “Black” history month.