Skip to main content

Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today

As Indian Country joins the nation in honoring the legacy of civil rights icon John Lewis, we are reminded of the leadership of Black people, past and present, in demanding equality and justice for people of color.

From slavery and voting rights battles to the long hot summer of 1967 to the chaotic summer of 2020, Black leaders have paved the way for change for Native Americans and others.

In the 1960s, for instance, it was Black activists who inspired Native people to create the American Indian Movement to counter police brutality in Minneapolis, noted Winona LaDuke, of the Mississippi Band Anishinaabeg.

“The Black Panthers and people like Angela Davis organizing against police brutality and in support of equality greatly influenced our lives,” says LaDuke, a land rights activist, environmentalist, economist and author.


Protests since the recent death of George Floyd in Minneapolis also have fueled Indigenous activism, adding momentum to the movement to eradicate racist mascots and other branding and to rid the country of statues of Christopher Columbus, Juan de Onate and other historical figures with controversial or brutal pasts toward Native Americans.

Not surprisingly, Floyd’s death struck a deep chord with Native people.

In an editorial for the Washington Post, Katrina Phillips of the Red Cliff band of Lake Superior Ojibwe tribe wrote: “Native support of Black Lives Matter protesters underscores Minneapolis’s ongoing hostilities against Indigenous people and people of color, and highlights the long history of weaponized state violence against American Indians.”

Katrina Phillips, Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe tribe, is an assistant professor of history at Macalester College. (Photo courtesy of Katrina Phillips)

She added: “The police brutality that galvanized American Indians in Minneapolis more than 50 years ago is part of the same brutality that killed Floyd.”

Black leaders have consistently helped bring America to flashpoints in which the fallout from systemic racism can no longer be denied.

Judith Leblanc of the Caddo tribe used a pop culture reference to frame the unique confluence of crisis and social uprising — the coronavirus, Floyd’s death, mass protests over police brutality and systemic racism — defining our country over the past months. She described this moment in history as a “crisitunity,” a combination of “crisis” and “opportunity” coined by Lisa Simpson of the animated television show “The Simpsons.”

Judith Leblanc, executive director of Native Organizers Alliance. (Provided)

During a virtual town hall convened by Native nonprofit IllumiNative, Leblanc also pointed to the work of past civil rights leaders in helping create the current crisitunity, preparing the ground for people of color to take today’s bold stand against systemic racism. Leblanc is executive Director of Native Organizers Alliance. 

Nick Tilsen, NDN Collective president and CEO, echoed similar feelings in his statement regarding Lewis’ death.

(Related: Indian Country leaders pay tribute to John Lewis)

“I strongly believe that in his passing, John Lewis’ legacy is a call-to-action to all of us, that we must act with the same urgency that he did in fighting for justice.”

Nick Tilsen, Oglala Lakota and CEO of NDN Collective, talks with park rangers on July 3, 2020. (Screenshot)

Will Sutton, columnist at NOLA.Com in New Orleans, noted powerful movements are “built upon the work of others.” Sutton is former president of the National Association of Black Journalists and is one of the founders of Unity: Journalists of Color, an alliance of four professional organizations representing Native American, Asians, Hispanic and Black journalists. Founded in 1990, Unity ceased operations in 2018.

“Martin Luther King would be the first to acknowledge that the strategic vision for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s was greatly influenced by the work of Mahatma Gandhi and his use of nonviolence to challenge British colonial rule in India,” Sutton says.

Looking back over his own work advocating for greater diversity in the media as well as historic moments that have defined the nation’s push for racial and social equity, Sutton notes common elements.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Washington D.C., March on Washington 1963. (National Archives)

Black people’s battles for the abolition of slavery, voting rights, social and economic equity as well as equity in criminal justice and political representation have historically resonated with people of color seeking the same things, according to Sutton.

Frequently during the course of these struggles, there is a crisitunity or convergence of events that create an emotional opening uniting people to see connections with other individuals and communities facing similar challenges, Sutton notes.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Police brutality and systemic violence have long functioned as a potent spark igniting movements for social, racial justice and equity.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was established in 1909 in response to widespread lynchings as well as the 1908 race riot in Springfield, Illinois, in which two Black men were arrested for alleged crimes against White people, spurring a White mob to burn down homes and businesses belonging to Black people. Two Black people were murdered at that time as well.

In 1908, Thomas Sloan of the Omaha tribe helped found the Society of American Indians, an organization that battled the arbitrary authority of the federal government over Native peoples as well as exploitation of their lands and resources.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries also birthed the Progressive movement in which supporters believed problems such as poverty, poor health, racism and violence could be eradicated by better education. Most Progressives, however, were White, college-educated urban dwellers who embraced social Darwinism and eugenics, which deemed Blacks and Native Americans, among others, racially inferior.

Organizations such as the NAACP and the Society of American Indians were created in this crucible of exclusion, claiming the egalitarian tenets of the Progressive Movement for Black and Native peoples alike.

“Black and Natives bonded during their military service. After defending their nation in WWII and the Korean War, they both returned to a country that treated them as second-class citizens; they began to see they were bound together in a similar struggle,” says Paul DeMain of the Ojibwe and Oneida tribes. DeMain is a longtime journalist in Indian Country and was co-founder of Unity Journalists of Color.

According to Phillips, an assistant professor of history at Macalester College in St. Paul, Indian revitalization efforts of the 1930s and 1940s, such as the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, gave way to federal assimilation policies such as termination, severing U.S. and tribal trust relationships, and the 1956 Indian Relocation Act, moving Native people to cities.

While the goal of these policies was to assimilate Native people into mainstream society, most simply exchanged rural for urban poverty. The resulting disenfranchisement, however, served to politicize Native people and create greater awareness of their shared struggles for equity with Blacks and other people of color.

Black peoples’ growing demands for equality in the 1950s with the public school desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education, Rosa Parks’ refusal to surrender her seat on a bus to a White man and other incidents fueled the rise of the Civil Rights movement. Events such as Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech given during the 1963 March on Washington and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 further galvanized and emboldened other marginalized groups to demand equality. Waves of activism began to sweep the nation.

FILE - In this March 17, 1965, file photo, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., fourth from left, foreground, locks arms with his aides as he leads a march of several thousands to the courthouse in Montgomery, Ala. From left are: an unidentified woman, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, James Foreman, King, Jesse Douglas Sr., and John Lewis. Lewis, who carried the struggle against racial discrimination from Southern battlegrounds of the 1960s to the halls of Congress, died Friday, July 17, 2020. (AP Photo/File)

King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s creation of the Poor Peoples Campaign in 1968 was a pivotal event uniting a wide range of disenfranchised people, Black, Native American, Latino, Asian and impoverished white people under a common banner. King said, “It (the goals of the Poor Peoples Campaign) are as pure as a man needing an income to support his family. We have the ultimate goal of freedom, independence and self-determination.”

Although King was assassinated that year and the resulting Poor Peoples March on Washington was plagued by problems and dissent, it stands as a seminal moment, or crisitunty, that helped ignite actions such as the Trail of Broken Treaties of 1972, in which activists occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Longest Walk in 1978, in which Native activists and allies marched 3,000 miles from Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay to Washington, D.C.

Celebrities and people from diverse ethnicities and backgrounds joined these actions; the collective calls for justice led to legislation such as the Indian Self Determination and Assistance Act, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the Tribally Controlled Community College Act and others.

The Longest Walk, 1978. Muhammad Ali, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Floyd Red Crow Westerman, Harold Smith, Stevie Wonder, Marlon Brando, Max Gail, Dick Gregory, Richie Havens and David Amram at the concert at the end of the Longest Walk, a 3,600-mile protest march from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., in the name of the Native rights. (Photo courtesy National Museum of the American Indian)

Crystal Echo Hawk of the Pawnee tribe and founder and chief executive officer of IllumiNative, asked the town hall panel about how the current protest can move into power, building for a multiracial justice moment that inspires transformational change.

“Our ancestors have prepared us for this moment,” Leblanc says.

The COVID-19 virus has lit the flame of protest against huge health care and other disparities that have plagued Native people for generations, according to Leblanc.

“If something is wrong, we must go into the streets; we must clearly show people what medicine we can bring to creating a multi-racial movement,” she says.

According to NAACP President Derrick Johnson, the answer lies in the ballot box.

“We must address structural and systemic racism through proactive measures of public policy,” Johnson says.

Rather than focusing on white supremacy alone, people must focus on healing and growth as well as educating each other about their shared histories, according to Ileoma Oluo, author of “So You Want to Talk about Race.”

“We must come together and realize we are stronger together; we can’t do this by ourselves” she says. 

ICT Phone Logo

Mary Annette Pember, a citizen of the Red Cliff Ojibwe tribe, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today.