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Young, Black Native activists say it's time to appreciate Indigenous diversity

Four activists speak during a panel discussion hosted by the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian on Indigenous Peoples' Day. Clockwise, from top left: Amber Starks, Joy SpearChief-Morris, Autumn Rose Williams and Kyle T. Mays.
Four activists speak during a panel discussion hosted by the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian on Indigenous Peoples' Day. Clockwise, from top left: Amber Starks, Joy SpearChief-Morris, Autumn Rose Williams and Kyle T. Mays.

The diversity of the Indigenous community is underrepresented and misunderstood. Four young Black Indigenous activists working to change that spoke about their heritage, solidarity and how they view Indigenous Peoples Day. The hour-long virtual panel, coinciding with the national holiday on Monday, was hosted by Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.

Here are some of the highlights from the conversation.

What it means to exist as a Black Indigenous person

For Autumn Rose Williams, a Black member of Shinnecock Indian Nation, being an African American Native woman is foundational to her sense of pride and empowerment, she said.

"What you identify with — between you and you — that is powerful in itself," said Williams. "Whatever that is for you, whether it's you telling the world, 'No, I'm proud to be a trans woman or I'm proud to be Dene."

At the same time, existing in those two worlds can be painful, said Joy SpearChief-Morris, an African American member of the Kainai Blood Tribe in southern Alberta in Canada — between racial justice protests against police brutality and "especially recently with the findings of children's graves from the residential schools."

The struggle to represent the community's diversity

The Black Indigenous community is not a monolith. Some people grew up on tribal reservations; others didn't. Some are descendants of slaves who sought freedom through the Underground Railroad, while others can't trace their ancestral history. Some wear ornate tribal jewelry while others wear box braids, the activists explained. Some wear both.

"Just because you grew up on a [reservation], that doesn't make you culturally better than — or knowing more of — your particular history or culture. And vice versa," said Kyle T. Mays, a Black Native member of the Saginaw Chippewa.

The labels projected onto Black Natives are often at odds with who they are and how they want to be seen, said Amber Starks, an African American member of Muscogee Nation, who moderated the discussion.

"Once people put you into boxes, you have to almost pull yourself out of those boxes so that you don't get lost — so that you don't start performing what it is people think you should be," said Starks.

There are so few high-profile Black and Native people that the rare exceptions can feed stereotypes or suggest a homogeneity that isn't accurate.

"We may not see Black natives or Asian natives or trans natives or, you know, the diversity within Native identity," Starks said. "We end up seeing those stereotypes kind of rehashed."

Solidarity should be intersectional

SpearChief-Morris said that it's often seen as taboo to acknowledge the racism that exists both ways between Black and Indigenous people.

"We ignore the history of past experience and past strength in solidarity movements," she said. "There is the Red Power movement and the civil rights movement that went hand-in-hand with each other in the United States and that both groups supported each other."

Mays echoed that sentiment: "If we want to dismantle oppressive systems that exist, then we have to stop being oppressive to each other."

He appreciates Indigenous Peoples' Day gaining recognition across the country. But he doesn't want the movement to be in vain.

"It's cool, but I think in a few years — if it's not already there – it'll just be a little celebration. And I don't want a day for celebration. I want justice," he said.

You can get to know more about the activists here.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.