Ya’a’teh. My name is Kayla Shaggy and I am a Diné and Annishinabe Two-Spirit woman. I work as an artist primarily and am known for my work within activism and public speaking.
I would like to talk about anti-Blackness within Indigenous communities.
I first brought up this subject with an essay I wrote back in 2020 during the height of the Rebecca Roanhorse harassment. I say harassment because I was seeing numerous people, especially well-known Diné writers, piling on and engaging Roanhorse repeatedly.
It saddened me, especially as Roanhorse is someone I admire. This opened my eyes to something I should’ve seen from the beginning: intense anti-Black racism in Indian Country. It is a hard subject to talk about and keeps being passed over in favor of more digestible issues for the Native palate.
My privilege as a white-passing enrolled Indigenous person is something I took notice of immediately and realized that I could use this for the greater good.
I find that it is my responsibility to call out and protect others more disadvantaged than me in the wider Indigenous community of anti-Black behavior, statements, and harassment. I also find that it is the whole Indigenous community, worldwide, that must also do the same. I also think that while I do have privilege and that I do want to protect, it in no way makes me a hero or someone of authority: I will always defer to my Black Indigenous friends and scholars. It is difficult to think that lateral violence could exist within Indigenous communities, but it does.
My experience in college was that of seeing racism so blatant, being whispered to by non-Indigenous people who thought I was the same, and seeing my Black Indigenous friends excluded purposely. The history of Black Indigenous people within the different tribes in the Americas is a fraught, tragic one, and is not one that I should solely be your expert on.
The Five Civilized Tribes (the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Seminole, and Muscogee) were also known as the Five Slaveholding Tribes, a dark history that no one wants to really elaborate on.
Even more worryingly are statements that “The Freedman issue is a problem caused by the United States, not the Choctaw Nation,” Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton wrote in a letter to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Freedmen have historically always fought to be seen as Indigenous, and modern Indigenous people of power have denied them of this due to loopholes created by white documents and laws.
Most recently in 2019, Representative Deb Haaland co-sponsored a bipartisan bill to reauthorize the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act (NAHASDA) through 2024 that removed protections for Freedmen of the Five Tribes that had previously been included in bills reauthorizing the funding.
Who do these words and actions benefit?
Indigenous people and Black people have a shared history and trauma of being enslaved, subjugated and colonized by colonizers, and yet Indigenous people continue to inflict lateral violence, gatekeeping and exclusion of Black people. Is it because of our proximity to white identity? Or is it because some believe there aren’t enough resources or money to go around to support all of us?
I have personally witnessed and heard Black Indigenous people tell me that they try very hard to reconnect with their Indigenous heritage and extended family, only to be cruelly turned away.
The struggle to reconnect is only amplified by Black Indigenous people’s struggle to be seen as members of their respective tribes: specifically, the struggle to be enrolled and/or documented as members. Black Indigenous people are criticized for “trying to gain resources” or “get an edge” over “real Indigenous people” when they attempt these actions. Who are we to deny and criticize people trying to reconnect? Or is it only okay when it is of someone possessing fairer skin?
People have always deferred to me, helped me, and poured their tribal knowledge to me based on the insurance of my white-passing, enrolled self. It has always made me uncomfortable knowing that I have the unfair advantage that Black Indigenous people will always have to fight for. Black Indigenous people must also be fair, pleasant, and act according to rules. Even then, if they were to try to enroll their children, or participate in public events, or even want to help carry on ceremonies and Indigenous languages, they are refused.
As Indigenous people, our history is that of resiliency, but it is of one to cruelty to our Black Indigenous members. We must accept the fact that anti-Blackness, like the monsters of old, lurks and grows with power in Indigenous communities, the more we feed it by being silent and compliant with colonial-based laws and systems. We are made all the stronger, wiser and better when we no longer have to exclude our Indigenous family members based on the color of their skin.
I would like to ask everyone in Indian Country to educate themselves on the things I’ve mentioned, to reach out and talk to Black Indigenous people, and to use their power as representatives of their tribes to talk to their elected officials, those in power, to stop Black Indigenous racism.
It might be a difficult thing to do, but it is not as difficult as the fight Black Indigenous people go through every day: being excluded, harassed, and dehumanized by both Indian Country and colonial systems of power.