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Freddie Gray and Baltimore's Urban Indians

For weeks now, I have been struggling to come to terms with what happened in Baltimore since the murder of Freddie Gray and how to write about it in a way that shows humility, respect, empathy, and a feeling of relationship. I struggled with this not because I do not have strong opinions and not because I lack words, but because these are the values taught to me by my family. Speaking out of turn, without accountability or authority, benefits no one, which is why I was stunned to read Mark Roger’s piece, "Is Baltimore Like a Reservation for Non-Indians? "(ICTMN, 5/19/15). Having identified himself as someone who has never lived in Baltimore nor has ever lived on a reservation, I am still mystified as to what compelled him to write such a piece, a piece I feel adds little to the conversation beyond confusion, romanticism, and division. Is this helpful? I cannot see how.

Myself, I have never lived on a reservation; it’s true. And while I annually visit and attend ceremony with relatives who call Pine Ridge and Rosebud home, I have no shame in owning this identity: I am an urban Indian. Baltimore is my home. And it is home to a good many other Native people, thank you very much.

In the early 1900s, John and Alice Hawk moved to Baltimore from Wills Creek, just outside of Cumberland, Maryland. Their daughter, Jessie Hawk, gave birth to my great-grandmother, affectionately known as Toots, who was a barmaid at the Five Corners Bar not a stone’s throw from Westside Shopping Center. Her son, my grandfather, delivered the early edition of The Baltimore Sun and was known as Bulldog Bill, at least to the other men on the CB circuit of my growing up years. My family has deep roots in Baltimore. And as Shawnee people, we have still deeper roots in America. In fact, we are her roots. I am this land and this land is me.

The fact of the matter is that Native people living in Baltimore—at least those with whom I am in community—do not identify as black and do not identify as white; we identify as Native. Most of us are multiracial and we know this, but the foundations of who we are rest in our identity as tribal citizens and all that this means. Our experiences as urban Indian people and in the context of recent unrest are much more nuanced and complex than what Mr. Rogers seems even to fathom, which is perhaps why he glosses over Native realities entirely, something ironic given the title of his piece and the place of assuredness from which he writes it.

Monday, May 4, was a tense and anxious time for my community. As we watched anger and upheaval unfold on our television screens and in our own neighborhoods, people were fearful of what would happen to our downtown Indian Center. Just the week before, our children planted seeds as part of our ongoing food sovereignty initiative and they were worried that their seeds - plants we’ve taught them to think of as relatives - would be untended or worse yet, destroyed. Community members reached out on Facebook, fearful that any of us might have been hurt. Some even asked us to identify our property as Indian-owned so that it might be spared from looting or vandalism. Families that drive from as far away as Central Virginia and Delaware for Indian Health Service dental care found their services interrupted. And as days wore on, an unintended disconnect between communities arose. 

Conversations around state violence, race, and intersectional solidarity have long been difficult. Native people in my community found themselves in the middle of a narrative imposed upon them but one that did not feel entirely true. Laterally oppressive and polarizing discourse suggested that as people of color, we could hold only one of two views and that where you stood placed you on either the right or wrong side of social justice. One view embraced the expression of justifiable anger and frustration through riots and protest. On the other hand, failure to wholeheartedly support what was reframed as the “Baltimore Rebellion” rendered one a weak, anti-black apologist guilty of the worst sort of respectability politics. But the truth is that real life is messier than this, and it was for this reason that we decided to hold a talking circle so that our people could process how they felt openly and without fear of judgement.

What they had to say might be surprising to those looking in, especially Mr. Rogers. Members of our community are subjected to much of the same injustice and police brutality as those who advocate direct action, often from within the same social dynamics and systemic oppression. At the same time, however, they may feel deeply uncomfortable with destruction and resent the ways in which it is felt to deepen their experience of poverty and structural violence. We struggled with how to be supportive of our neighbors in Sandtown-Winchester while at the same time acknowledging the impacts felt at a community level. One community member commented on what she perceived as the arrogance and privilege of outsiders who criticized a concern for property loss: “It’s pretty easy for them to say it’s just stuff, but it ain’t their stuff. They get to go home and we live here.”

Rogers’s comments on identity and segregation also ring hollow in that they overlook the invisibility deeply felt by urban Indians. We are not at all eager to yield our distinct political and cultural identities as tribal people, memberships that transcend mere ethnicity. Indeed, it is an identity we fight to have recognized owing to its muting and/or absenting within our social environment. Often, Native people find their identity challenged because their physical appearance and very existence within an urban setting fails to conform to a stereotype that holds a privileged authority over their own self-expression. Our “Indian-ness” is questioned, invalidated, and appropriated even by other communities of color and so to expect us to automatically see kinship and similarity is something that ignores these very real and painful experiences. Protesters want solidarity, but they do not always respect who we tell you we are. We work hard to stand strong in our indigeneity even when that is an uncomfortable space to occupy. By criticizing this, by incorrectly throwing around the term “decolonization” and invoking romanticized notions of a rez ethic (something, ironically, we’ve faced from outsiders who identify as “indigenous”), suggests critical misunderstanding of who we are and how we got here. It is also exacerbates the experience of historical trauma by reaffirming our subaltern position within settler colonialism. We may be urban Indians, but beneath the concrete is the dust of our ancestors, our homelands. In short, we endure.

All of this reservation talk is fetishized distraction. It does not speak to the issue of urban Indians living in Baltimore. It does not speak to the issue of our relatives living on treaty lands or how they may or may not think about the murder of Freddie Gray. It does, however, perpetuate a negative view of reservations that is grounded more in stereotype than actual knowledge or experience (both of which Rogers openly acknowledges that he lacks). Similarly it harkens back to every time I've heard someone use the phrase "going off the reservation," a colloquialism loaded with condescension, ignorance, and thinly veiled contempt. And I wonder if this is how my auntie felt, crying softly because of how Diane Sawyer represented her Pine Ridge home. For all of its imperfections, for all its harshness, there is immense beauty to be found because it is home, because it is our land, and it is the land to which we are inextricably connected.

By his own admission, Rogers has not had these conversations or experiences. It makes me wonder, then, why he felt the need to write such an article in the first place. It also makes me wonder who would ask such a question of someone who acknowledges no ties to either variable in the equation and who would draw such an inflammatory comparison. I remember one time, sitting with my mom and some white people, when I thought it would be a good idea to spout off about something I had no business discussing. I still have scars from the side eye she gave me that day. Mom knew she’d made her point and later joked that she would will me that special medicine when she journeyed on. I should hope that Mr. Rogers thinks twice before appointing himself spokesperson for a community not his own. But if he does not, know that I have some special side eye with his name on it.

Kerry Hawk Lessard (Shawnee) is the executive director of Native American Lifelines, a Title V Indian Health Service UIHP in Baltimore. She is an applied medical anthropologist whose work focuses on issues of historical trauma and its impact on the health status of Native people.