Reflection: Black-Native People Are Living Proof of Our Ancestors’ Strength

by Miriam Zmiewski-Angelova in collaboration with Storme Webber, Brit Reed, Leanne Rye Brock, and Kailyn Jordan

Since the 2014 passing of the Native led resolution to turn the second Monday of every October into Indigenous Peoples’ Day, replacing Christopher Columbus Day (murderer of Indigenous peoples, rapist, and prolific slave trader), the holiday has honored the legacy and solidarity of Indigenous communities in Seattle for years. Today, on Indigenous Peoples Day 2020, it is a somber reality that we cannot celebrate in the same ways as the past because of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic. Our country is also facing the compounding effects of public outcry against the ongoing violence and deaths of Black and Brown bodies at the hands of law enforcement, increased incidences of threats and violence by various white supremacist groups, the collapse of many healthcare, employment, education, and housing systems due to a struggling economy, and an incredibly contentious presidential election. 

All in all, 2020 has been exhausting for Black, Indigenous, People of Color. Many of us in the BIPOC community rely on family and community support, our cultural protocols, and ceremonies to create balance in our busy lives. But because it has been so hard to access that support and find balance, we are holding a deep sense of grief, trauma, isolation, and loss. I am an Afro-Indigenous mother of two, full-time worker, and advocate/coach for early educators and families. I felt that it was important on this Indigenous Peoples’ Day during BLM and COVID-19 to help uplift Black-Native perspective, community, and voice. 

Right now there is a renewed focus on racial equity and unity for BIPOC which comes with more discussion about how anti-Blackness is showing up in our own communities. Black-Native people are the living proof of our ancestors’ strength. Their resilience provides the foundation for a brighter path ahead for our families and most importantly, our next generation. Like the Sankofa of the Bono Adinkra, we need to look back at our past and bring it to our present day if we want to make positive steps forward. This piece offers words from folks of mixed Indigenous and Black/African American heritage in and around the Seattle area:

Reflections on Grief, Protest, and Healing During a Pandemic and a Revolution

“Youth are the future and Black and Brown youth are in the forefront,” said Kailyn Jordan, 13-year-old Black-Native youth activist. “Being a Black and Native activist has been exciting and hard. I have gained lifelong friends and even got the opportunity to attend the March on Washington in Washington, D.C. I have spoken in front of crowds of 1,000+ people, had my poems played on NPR and even been on the news. I often remind myself that I’m only 13 and have to take time away from activism.” 

Brit Reed, Choctaw and Black chef and artist, said, “Seeing those protests were something that I dreamed of and prayed about in my early 20s … With COVID and being a little older now, I am definitely of the mind that a diversity of tactics is needed [to be able to] protest safely from home … To be able to contribute to the movement and help prevent the spread of COVID, my initial thing was that people need something to wake up to if they don’t have jobs to go to. It begins to get depressing after the honeymoon phase of not having to go into work wears off. Especially if you don’t have a lot of money.” Following the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and amidst Seattle’s pandemic quarantine, Brit teamed up with the Yəhaw exhibit to create an artist relief fund. It was very important, she said, to establish a Black-Native gallery free from anti-Blackness and allow Black-Native artists to tell their own stories. Brit also collaborated with Seattle #BLM to have posters made by and for Black-Native people and in solidarity. 

Listening to Kailyn and others, I have reflected on the importance of balance and self-care during these turbulent times. We cannot gather, have ceremony, share meals in large gatherings, or even embrace people who are grieving from the loss of family and community. As a parent, I find myself worrying endlessly about getting my children or others sick following a grocery run; about random violence to my loved ones by white supremacists roaming the city; about supporting my son in online school while working full-time so that he will not become another statistic of the education system failing Black, Brown, and Indigenous children. And yet through the worry, I am also excited about the passion of those fighting in the streets and from home, creating a voice for the voiceless. 

Reflections on Black and Indigenous Identity and Visibility 

Being born of mixed ancestry, and in particular of mixed African ancestry, seems to invite a litany of questions and qualifiers. I’ve heard statements ranging from “What are you?”, “How are you so mixed?”, “You’re diluted” (referring to blood quantum), “So you’re basically a mutt,” “How did that happen?” (referring to how my parents met), and “You’re kinda ethnic neutral.”  In the broader Native community, colorism sometimes shows up a little differently than in white-dominated spaces. “People generally believe the word of someone who is darker more, and see them as more legitimate,” said Brit. “However, if your darkness is attributed to being mixed with Blackness, then you’re at the lower end of the hierarchy. Whereas if you are mixed with whiteness, you’re more likely to be accepted in community.” 

Leanne Rye Brock, doula/birth worker and lactation counselor, discusses Blood Tropes as part of her dissertation work in Blood Will Tell: Native Americans and Assimilation Policy. “Anthropologists played an important role in cementing the image of the ‘authentic Indian’ staging, fabricating, authenticating, and editing what was and was not Indian,” Leanne writes. The fictitious notion of having the “addition of white or Black blood” created different value judgements on someone’s Indian-ness. While “the addition of white blood made Indians smarter, more business-like, and au fait with Christianity, the English language, and mainstream ways of life, … the ‘one drop rule’ could mollify their Indian status in the eye of the U.S. government as well as some tribal governments.” These tropes drove racist policies which perpetuated colorism, anti-Black and anti-Indigenous rhetoric, and created divisions and further erasure among our Black and Indigenous communities. 

For Storme Webber, Two-Spirit interdisciplinary artist and poet, “embodying and reclaiming Two-Spirit practices and traditions is a means of service to community who may not have a voice … I was born where Indigenous met Alaskan Native, met African met Texan … The ancestors know who we are.” I resonated with Storme’s words. Like Storme, I describe the meeting of my ancestors as finding each other on common ground in surviving genocide: Indigenous, African, and Ashkenazi Jewish peoples. When I reflect on the unimaginable challenges experienced by my elders, I thank them for their resilience that has allowed me to be here and have many privileges unafforded to them. 

In recent years, there are more efforts to educate and unify people within BIPOC communities around intersectionality, or the various and many ways we self-identify. Groups seem to spring up daily to begin to create more dialogue and visibility for those of us sitting in-between identities. For me, this has been very healing, to have spaces where I can connect and have my children engaged with other mixed-race Afro-Indigenous community members. Storme said, “I am thankful for all the change. Sometimes the things that can be our burdens can be our blessing too. I am a Black Indian Two-Spirit. There have been instances everywhere I turned where I’ve not been enough something.”

“We need to address anti-Blackness and raise the profile and acknowledge that Black-Native people exist in our communities,” said Brit. “I would like to see our communities give us the same benefit of the doubt, and a seat at the table, that is given to our lighter-skinned and white-Native people.” 

Luckily, many young leaders like Kailyn are stepping up to the challenge. “It hasn’t always been easy,” she said, “but I wouldn’t change it for anything.” 

“As a Black and Choctaw woman, I feel like I have been seen and accepted for the colors I occupy by both my Black and Native Peoples,” Leanne said. “Maintaining a sacred space of healing in the midst of these trying times has proven difficult but not impossible. We gather to sing socially distanced and crafting Zooms to stay connected. This time of quarantine and racial unrest has brought a silence that has allowed people to hear the cries of the Black and Native communities. To know your history is to know you are sacred and stand on the shoulders of a resilient people. Your past does not have to be your narrative. It is your tool for healing.”

Miriam Zmiewski-Angelova is Choctaw, Cherokee, Sauk/Fox, African American and Ashkenazi. She is mother to two beautiful Brown babies, an Early Learning Coach, artist, and gardener.

Miriam Zmiewski-Angelova

Storme Webber is Sugpiaq, Black, Choctaw, Russian, and Norwegian. She is a Two-Spirit interdisciplinary artist and poet.

Storme Webber

Brit Reed is a Choctaw and Black chef and artist.

Brit Reed

Kailyn Jordan is Black, Leech Lake Chippewa, and Nespelem Band of Colville Confederated Tribes. She is an eighth grade activist who speaks her truth.

Kailyn Jordan

Leanne Rye Brock is Black and Choctaw. She is a mother of two kings, educator, leader, advocate, birth worker, and lactation counselor.

Leanne Rye Brock

 Featured image: Seattle Indigenous People’s Day Celebration 2017 (photo by Susan Fried)

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