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The Day White Innocence Died: An Indigenous Take on #September11

God bless the families of all who were harmed by September 11th. God also bless the families devastated by terrorism perpetrated by the United States.
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I remember the day, 9/11/2001, like it was yesterday.

I was a student in New York City. I’d been living there for a while at that time—I was still adjusting to being in the big city. I was a Native kid, a rez boy who grew up as a hip-hop head, and so I was living out my childhood fantasy of living in the birthplace of hip-hop while going to school and trying to pay my monthly rent.

Not easy.

I had class at nine o’clock that morning on September 11. I had a formula—it took me eight minutes to get dressed, wrap my hair in a t-shirt (on fleek!) and get to class. That meant that I could sleep until 8:52 in the morning. I always listened to the radio when I slept, so my dreams were often influenced by whatever I heard on the radio. I’ve done that since I was a little kid—I remember having nightmares about playing basketball with the “Thriller” version of Michael Jackson when I was little guy and I tumbled many, many times with Boy George as well!


But I digress.

On this particular morning—September 11—I remember hitting “snooze” in the morning time and going back to sleep. When I passed back out, I remember dreaming about a plane, a small crop duster in my dream, hitting a small building and falling to the ground. When I woke up, I hurried through my five-minute “get ready” routine—splash water in my face, brush my teeth, wrap my hair in a t-shirt and throw on the cleanest clothes in my room. Out of my apartment as quickly as I could!

At that time, my apartment was ONE block away from my school so I could make it in literally no time. When I rounded the corner from my block to the school, there were hundreds of people just standing outside on the corner and in the street. Now granted, this is New York City, White Harlem, so hundreds of people on a random street is not necessarily earth-shattering news. Yet, this was different—people were crying in the street, people looked confused in the street, and most important, these folks were right in front of my school, which was not really a sexy or fun street to hang out on.

Plus, it was 9 in the morning—I made it just in time for class. There were never hundreds of people there at 9 in the morning when class just started.

I saw my dear friend Vanessa and ran over to her. At that time, there were virtually no Natives at my school so Vanessa and I hung very, very close together and supported each other protectively. When I saw Vanessa, she was crying, so I asked her what was wrong.

“You haven’t heard?” she asked me as if I was the most oblivious person in the world, which apparently I was.

“Heard what?” I asked her, confirming my ignorance and obliviousness.

Vanessa answered incredulously, “Somebody flew a plane into the World Trade Center. There was also one that went down at the Pentagon. I don’t know if anything else happened down in Virginia…”

At that point, I knew why Vanessa was crying so passionately; her brother was stationed in Virginia. The scale of the destruction and tragedy still hadn’t dawned on me—I just wanted to find out if her brother was okay. At that moment I also understood why I had the weird dream about the crop duster running into a building—I heard that news on the radio right before I woke up and it crept into my subconscious. Unfortunately, we couldn’t call to find out if her brother was okay; all the phone lines were compromised, even landlines. That remained the case for almost a week. I later learned that my mom thought I was dead because she had never been to New York—how would she know that I was on the complete opposite side of Manhattan?

I thought I was dead too. When I learned of the destruction and evil behind the plane crashes, I figured that somebody was coming back to finish us off. There were bomb threats so everybody returned to their apartments and were no longer in the streets. I’m a country boy, a rez boy—this stuff was making no sense to me. I wanted to be home, on the rez, where people cry together and laugh together, where we mourn together, feel fear together and face death together. I remember when the smell crept uptown and I could smell the fire and destruction and it forced me to close my apartment window despite the late summer heat. I wished I could share that claustrophobia with someone.

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But this was the city, not my homelands, where everyone knows each other. Instead, this was a place with millions and millions of people within extremely close quarters and nobody knows each other.

It was weird. Not scary—I was cool dying, if that’s what was gonna happen. I was just sad that I couldn’t get my mom and my little brother on the phone to tell them that I loved them first.

Two women hold each other in shock and grief on Sep. 11, 2001 after planes crashed into the Twin Towers in New York City

Obviously I didn’t die. Obviously a lot of information came out later that showed the enormity of the day that I didn’t understand initially. Obviously it was much, much bigger than my little take on the day. Turns out that September 11th is probably the most important date in recent history—that date became the excuse for a whole new branch of government, a racist war against a nation that had nothing to do with that date, a racist war against an idea, terrorism, that is impossible to win. Because of that date, we’re still spending hundreds of millions of dollars a day on a war that had nothing to do with September 11th that could be instead dedicated to education, health care, social security, veterans’ benefits or any number of more worthwhile things.

It was undoubtedly a tragedy. But September 11th wasn’t a surprise, at least not for Native people and many people of color. No, Native people were already well aware of how destructive and evil people could be. How did we know? AMERICA TAUGHT US THAT; really, September 11th was only a surprise for white people and for those who didn’t realize that America had already perpetrated many September 11ths of its own. Native people knew that. We knew that America had a whole bunch of blood on its hands and that there was always a harvest season, always a reckoning. Sir Isaac Newton gave that harvest a name in his Third Law of Motion, that every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

Oh yeah, that means that there will be more September 11ths as well—it’s inevitable unless America works to acknowledge and reconcile with its many victims of domestic terrorism against its own people. We see that energy right now—the current distrust of the federal government, the distrust of law enforcement and peoples’ movements of all colors that don’t believe in the legitimacy of the “powers that be,” like Idle No More, the Occupy Movement, Black Lives Matter and the Tea Party. Obviously the viewpoints of those various movements are vastly different, but the energy is largely the same.

“We don’t believe you. This Nation is build upon raw power and deceit and not freedom, equality or opportunity.”

There will be more September 11ths unless we change, folks. God forbid, but unless we do something it will happen. There will be rectification for the Marias Massacre, for the Sand Creek Massacre, for Wounded Knee, for North Tulsa/Black Wall Street, the Mankato mass hanging, the Red Summer of 1919, Joe Coe, Emmett Till, internment camps of Japanese, Chinese Exclusion Act, slavery, Jim Crow, genocide, forced tubal ligation of Native women, Tuskegee experiments, etc., etc., etc.

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In the words of Ron Burgundy, “It’s science.” So, how do we stop this horrible cycle? Acknowledgment. Conversation. Painful conversation. Hell, restitution, reparations. Not punitive—just what the US owes. To wit, honor treaties with Native people and recognize aboriginal title, whether that be via monetary compensation (a disgusting compromise for many Native people, yet one that acknowledges practical realities) or specific performance. Monetary compensation for black folks for 40 acres and a mule—what is that in today’s dollars?

Formally apologize. Acknowledge. Treat us as human beings—the inhumane way that many white folks on this continent treated people of color for 400 years still influences the way they perceive us today, hence the incredibly disproportionate amount of deaths for Native and Black people at the hands of law enforcement.

Not civil rights-- human rights—treat us like human beings.

Otherwise there will be more September 11ths. It’s physics. Natural law. We’re stuck with each other—none of us are going anyplace. But acknowledgment, reconciliation and restitution of America’s past crimes will move help us move to a new age, where we can get past these historical demons and actually start living in the 21st Century.

God bless the families of all who were harmed by September 11th. God also bless the families devastated by all instances of terrorism, including those perpetrated by the United States.

This story was originally posted on September 11, 2015.

Two women hold each other in shock and grief on Sep. 11, 2001 after planes crashed into the Twin Towers in New York City

Gyasi Ross, Editor at Large
Blackfeet Nation/Suquamish Territories
Twitter: @BigIndianGyasi