Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota Oyate
Black lives matter. From the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade, Europeans did not believe that Black lives mattered. Historic sources demonstrate genocidal efforts to eliminate and enslave Native peoples since the landing of Christopher Columbus. As Native peoples were killed by Europeans, died from contracting European diseases, or engaged in mass suicide, the Atlantic slave trade was started to capture African people and force them to do the labor of White plantation owners on stolen Native lands.
Fast forward to 2020, Black men are endangered in the United States due to police brutality. Those hired by government to serve and protect have betrayed the trust of non-whites by allowing racism to flourish in their ranks. Police unions have been notoriously focused on keeping law enforcement all-white by suing to dismantle affirmative action decrees, as have fire fighters. With the entrance of the Trump administration, the decrees put in place by the Obama administration for federal oversight of police departments allegedly using excessive force have all been abandoned at the federal level.
The statistics for police officers killing alleged “suspects” are grim for the Black community and the Native community. As reported in a special investigation by Stephanie Woodard in “In These Times” October 17, 2016, the statistics for Natives killed by police are shocking:
"To get a clearer picture, Mike Males, senior researcher at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, looked at data the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention collected from medical examiners in 47 states between 1999 and 2011. When compared to their percentage of the U.S. population, Natives were more likely to be killed by police than any other group, including African Americans. By age, Natives 20-24, 25-34 and 35–44 were three of the five groups most likely to be killed by police. (The other two groups were African Americans 20-24 and 25-34.) Males’ analysis of CDC data from 1999 to 2014 shows that Native Americans are 3.1 times more likely to be killed by police than white Americans."
Beyond the sheer brutality that Black and Native men face, we must include in the conversation how systemic injustice continues to perpetuate class inequality, quality of life inequality, environmental inequality, employment inequality, etc. The list goes on and on.
Black people deserve to lead good lives, safe from the fear of police attacks. Black people deserve to share in the wealth of the United States and not endure intergenerational poverty due to systemic injustice.
For Native people, systemic inequality is evident when we see how our lands were stolen in violation of legal promises made by the U.S. government in treaty documents, ratified by the U.S. Senate. These violations led to pushing Natives often to the least desirable areas of our homelands; the kidnapping and brutalizing of our children in U.S. government sanctioned boarding schools; the flooding and contamination of our lands; environmental injustice by running pipelines near our lands; and the enduring poverty we face due to U.S. government policy and action.
In my own life, I wanted to become a lawyer when I saw my auntie’s husband who was African-American emerge from a courtroom on TV after he won a money judgment against the Shawnee County Sheriff’s Department in Topeka, Kansas. He won that judgment due to being brutally beaten after going into the sheriff’s department to pay a speeding ticket. When I saw the judgment in his favor, I decided at the age of eight years old that I wanted to be a lawyer.
As my father encouraged me to read Vine Deloria, Jr’s books and understand the history of tribal nation-U.S. relations, I wanted to become a lawyer and educator to seek justice for tribal nations and be a force for positive change.
With the killing of George Floyd, many Native American people and organizations stand in solidarity with the Black community and their demands for justice. When we want to engage in conversations about systemic injustice, it is not enough to focus on the latest police killing of a Black or Native person and whether appropriate charges and prosecution will occur.
Our conversations must go beyond that and open up honest discourse.
For Native people, we must engage in real dialogue with the United States and its citizens about stolen lands, equitable redistribution and return of our lands and sacred sites; an end to the epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls because of the lack of police attention or investigation; truthful education in elementary, middle and high school history books on the colonization of these lands; the treaty rights that allowed for White settlement; the subsequent violation of those treaties by the U.S. government and what remedies are necessary; and the protection of our Native peoples from the police use of lethal force and corporate security use of lethal force when we protest the desecration of our homelands. We must be treated as human beings whose lives matter, all of us.
From our Native teachings, we are all related. Mitakuye Oyasin. When George Floyd’s last words were calling for his mama, Native mothers across the tribal nations shed tears and understood the pain of Black mothers everywhere. To truly heal the pain that we all have continued to endure for centuries, we need to start with open honest conversations on what a just society means and how to start sharing a good quality of life for all.
Angelique W. EagleWoman, (Wambdi A. Was’teWinyan), is a law professor, legal scholar and has served as a pro tempore Tribal Judge in several Tribal Court systems. As a practicing lawyer, one of the highlights of her career was to serve as General Counsel for her own Tribe, the Sisseton-Wahpeton (Dakota) Oyate. She graduated from Stanford University with a BA in Political Science, received her Juris Doctor degree from the University of North Dakota School of Law with distinction, and her L.L.M. in American Indian and Indigenous Law with honors from the University of Tulsa College of Law. Follow her on Twitter @ProfEagleWoman