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Reckoning With Anti-Blackness in Indian Country

Native lives won’t matter unless Black lives do.

Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

“Just spray the hell out of ’em,” one man shouted to the police officer standing in the middle of the road in Pembroke, North Carolina. “Goddamn pack of lazy sons of bitches,” mumbled another. The voices joined a chorus of insults and slurs being lobbed at a group of students at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and other community members who were peacefully marching in a protest against police brutality. Their hecklers cursed at them and peppered them with beer and soda cans; one man even reportedly threatened them with a knife.

Pembroke, originally an all-Native school, is situated in Robeson County, home of the state’s largest tribal community in the Lumbee Tribe—famous across the state for fighting back the Ku Klux Klan at gunpoint in the 1958 Battle of Hayes Pond. But last Friday, Lumbee tribal members stood on both sides of the street. Some protested in defense of Black lives, and some tossed trash and hurled slurs. It’s not a pat story of Native allies combating white supremacy. It’s a story about how white supremacy is designed to work.

After a few weeks of stories about Native individuals and groups heroically struggling in solidarity with Black protesters and communities, Friday’s march in Pembroke stood as a reminder of racism in Indian Country. The scene might have been ugly, but the sentiments being expressed felt too familiar for comfort. Just as soon as a cousin or uncle complains about their own experiences of police discrimination, they’ll be jawing about the unruly rioters. It’s a knotted kind of discrimination, warped by colonization and the selfish desire to try to climb a racist hierarchy rather than dismantle it.

Pembroke was the overt expression of this racism. But anti-Blackness is not limited to clumsy, open manifestations like what happened that week. In the case of Rebecca Roanhorse, it also operates in silence.

Roanhorse is an award-winning fantasy writer whose father is Black and whose mother descends from the Ohkay Owingeh. She was adopted and only reconnected with her birth mother as an adult, creating both a physical and emotional barrier to her ability to establish a community relationship; her husband is a Diné (Navajo) citizen and so is the child they are raising. Roanhorse’s short story “A Brief Lesson in Native American Astronomy” and her novel Storm of Locusts were recently nominated for Locus Awards, and last Wednesday, published an article by Editor in Chief Acee Agoyo, who is Ohkay Owingeh, Cochiti, and Kewa, that placed Roanhorse’s family history and bona fides under a microscope.

The piece was less a journalistic endeavor than a pile-on. Agoyo interviewed Elena Ortiz, an Ohkay Owingeh citizen who provided the necessarily flashy quote for the headline, calling Roanhorse “the Elizabeth Warren of the sci-fi set.” Agoyo also spoke with Dr. Jennifer Denetdale, a Diné citizen who holds the position of associate professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico. Denetdale told that she felt Roanhorse’s use of Diné stories and culture in her popular 2018 novel, Trail of Lightning, and Locusts, its sequel, “appropriates them violently.” She added that “an in-law keeps their place,” another snipe at the fact that Roanhorse is not a tribally enrolled citizen.

Agoyo only spoke with academics and government officials who denigrated Roanhorse’s authenticity by claiming that she does not maintain a continuous connection with the Ohkay Owingeh community—a suggestion that Roanhorse both legally and socially is distant from the culture. What the piece fails to grapple with, though, is Roanhorse’s creative and craft-driven lens. It instead limits the reader’s understanding of the work to a purely political spectacle. This alone is troubling because, as Adrian Jawort wrote in this incisive piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books, “What does or doesn’t count as Native art is sometimes defined by a narrow anthropological lens and a pressure to produce something ‘authentic.’”

The article also never once mentions the fact that Roanhorse is Black—an omission that attempts to sidestep the question of anti-Black and other kinds of discrimination in tribal communities. (The article “practically turns itself into a pretzel trying not to note this,” Sterling HolyWhiteMountain, a Blackfeet writer, noted in a thread on the piece.) Speaking to this same issue, Kayla Shaggy, a gay Diné writer who responded to the reception to Roanhorse’s work, wrote:

Anti-Blackness is what prevented Roanhorse from truly connecting with her Indigenous roots, family, and culture. Anti-Blackness is what motivates her harshest critics to flail wildly in the name of “protecting culture” against her. Anti-Blackness is what suffocates and influences Indigenous circles of varying spheres: whether its literature, art, history, etc. Anti-Blackness is alive and well within Indigenous culture, like the monsters of old, hiding deep within members of the Indigenous community and perpetuated by them with excuses of “maintaining and preserving traditions.”

There is an enormous amount of fraught history baked into the above incidents. One could look through the Lumbee’s history of being discriminated against and segregated by the North Carolina government, how that has created their difficult and ongoing journey to federal recognition, and why tribal nations like the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, who oppose Lumbee recognition, take such serious offense to others claiming their heritage. It would also be worth looking over how the racialization of Native people in the South shaped the surrounding structures of racism, from policing to housing to environmental policy.

Turning to Roanhorse, one could also point out, as author Terese Mailhout did, that Native communities, like all communities, are “wide and splintered” and don’t share uniform ideologies, beliefs, or laws about who is and isn’t really Native. When you’re a Native writer, Lipan Apache author Darcie Little Badger noted this week, “there will be people who look at you in disbelief & demand the chance to dissect your heart, the most personal facets of your life and history. They want your family tree.”

There are very good reasons why those hecklers in Pembroke felt so comfortable and why so many Native professionals feel comfortable telling Roanhorse what she is and what she is not. The vitriol that Roanhorse and the Pembroke protesters faced is not random or unique or separate; rather, it is the result of decades and centuries of colonization policies being internalized by Indian Country governments and communities.

At a systems level, born out of both self-preservation and greed, some Native nations initially mimicked their white, European counterparts by adopting practices like slavery, blood quantum policing, and racial segregation—all with the express interest of ensuring that Black people remained on the margins of their society, too. A handful of nations even went full method actor and followed their interpretation of American governance up with years of protracted—and ongoing—legal battles against granting full citizenship rights to Black tribal members known as Freedmen. This is the end goal of the four-century-long assimilation ploy. It is easy to point at boarding schools and urban relocation programs and decry the American government for attacking Native culture; it is far more difficult and more prudent to acknowledge how we allowed our governing bodies to slowly take the shape of the racist oppressor we share with Black community members.

When I take a step back and look at Pembroke and the Roanhorse cases, I see two distinct examples of how anti-Black racism works in Native communities. Pembroke is an overt, physical rejection of Black community members being allowed the space to voice their needs. This version of racism is easier to identify, because its proponents have few fears about being labeled racist, which also makes this brand difficult to combat. (Robeson County will again be one of the counties Donald Trump counts on come November, seeing as he won it by five points in 2016.)

Roanhorse’s, on the other hand, is a slightly more sinister, “just-asking-questions” attempt at exclusion that functions at an individual level but also through different systems of prestige and legitimacy. What critics of this sort refuse to acknowledge, or quickly brush off, is the fact that their campaign against this one artist easily fits in a pattern of “vetting” Black Native people. While Roanhorse’s critics might believe themselves to be pursuing the same line of critique used to address Senator Warren, they feel closer in spirit to the Obama-era birthers than anything else. There is no denying that there exist today dozens of people in prominent positions who are lying about their own Native ancestry either because they’re greedy and craven or just because it’s a warm comfort to wrap themselves in. But as Shaggy wrote, Roanhorse’s creative and professional intentions do not appear predatory or self-affirming but rather “create a positive space and proper representation of Indigenous characters and cultures.” That is to say, she seeks to create what did not exist for her.

Rejecting racist ideals and policies should be viewed as being just as heroic as knocking down a Columbus statue, because they ultimately are remnants of the same oppressive force. But the anti-Black sentiments that colonization baked into Indigenous governing structures are still being perpetuated by Native communities, and until we reckon with and fix this, Indian Country’s fight for equality will be a lonely one. White supremacy stretches beyond governing structures. It distorts the way community members consider themselves in relation to one another because everything becomes a contest instead of a collective struggle. Who’s in and who’s out? Only by accepting, addressing, and fixing our understanding of citizenship and ancestry for Black citizens from within our own governments and communities will we be able to have the honest, balanced conversations these situations deserve.

A line in a recent letter to the editor by Malinda Maynor Lowery, the head of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Center for the Study of the American South and a renowned Lumbee citizen and researcher, has stuck with me since I first read it. The discrimination faced by Native and Black communities in America run parallel, even if they bear important distinctions and require different struggles. But it should not be difficult to recognize that the fates of Native people are bound to our relationship with Black people and everyone else made marginal under these same systems. “What do Lumbees lose when Black lives matter?” Lowery wrote. “Nothing except our colonized minds.”