Black & Indigenous People Have More Shared History Than You’d Think. It’s Time To Honor That

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In this op-ed, Eryn Wise, Jicarilla Apache/Laguna Pueblo, communications director at Seeding Sovereignty, discusses the shared history between Black and Indigenous people in what is now the United States. To learn more and support our work, please visit www.seedingsovereignty.org.

After hundreds of years of colonialism and the violence this system begets, people who have most suffered under America’s historical and current imperialism — Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color — are still working to unlearn the false dichotomies that have pushed our people apart. Entire sovereign nations and countless many have had their stories silenced and erased from this earth in the name of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Many people are unaware of this history of the United States, but there remains those of us who carry the tales of all that came before us.

One critical chapter missing from this understanding of our nation's history is the story of kinship between the Indigenous peoples of what is now called the the United States, and those whose ancestors were wrenched from their homelands and enslaved to build what this nation became. Recent online discussions in activist circles around Indigenous peoples with Black ancestry have spurred us to ask, whose stories haven’t, and aren’t being told? Anti-blackness exists not only in mainstream American society, but can also be present in indigenous communities across Turtle Island (the continents of North and South America).

This month, Seeding Sovereignty honors the lived experience of a sister who carries the stories of many ancestors. In this conversation, Eryn Wise, communications director for Seeding Sovereignty, and Sheridan Noelani Enomoto, climate and environmental justice community organizer and Policy Advocate with Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, discuss ancestry, Black and Indigenous history, discrimination, resilience beyond color scales, and intersectional movements for kinship and a future for all.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Sheridan Enomoto: I introduce myself the way we formally introduce ourselves in the Hawai’ian language. Not only do we mention our name, but we also mention all the who’s that are part of it. And that means our mountain, our birthplace, our oceans. Sometimes it can be rivers. I really love how Robin Wall Kimmerer, the author and indigenous traditional knowledge practitioner, says when we speak our indigenous languages, we breathe life into them. We remind everyone that they're living. It was really important for me, growing up, to recognize all my of my ancestry — my father, whose ancestry is Kanaka Maoli, Japanese, Scottish, and English, and my mother, whose ancestry is rooted in not only African-American roots, but also Caddo Indians, Punjabi, and European roots. What I find really important is when we talk about our ancestors coming together, our indigenous ancestry and our African ancestry — when we’re talking about Blackness, what does that mean? What does that mean when you identify with both?

My mom grew up in the South, where there was a lot of segregation. She started getting involved in civil rights movements at an early age. And so her relationship to racism and segregation was right in her face and her life daily. My dad was the fifth out of 11 children, and of those 11 children, I have aunties and uncles that look really Japanese, that look more Scottish, and others that look really, really Hawai’ian. My dad is one of them. When my dad came over to California in 1958 or ’59, the only opportunities he would have had if he’d stayed in Hawai’i as a Hawai’ian, Japanese, Scottish man, was to join the military or work on the plantation. He came to California and saw a segregated water fountain and he didn’t even know what it was. He was like, I don’t understand what’s going on here.

Eryn Wise: I’ve often wondered where our people drank from, like which water fountain. I don’t know if my ancestors even had access to public spaces in that way. That’s crazy. I can’t imagine being in your dad’s shoes at that moment.

SE: My sister, Joy Enomoto, does a lot of work around conversations needed in indigenous communities around anti-Blackness. She has a really beautiful reference in her work called “plantation genealogies,” where you have a separation of groups and these questions of who gets to do what and why. That’s another layer where you can look at what connects southern plantation to plantations in Hawai'i. The other connection is water. On the Atlantic, you have the middle passage, with my mother’s side of the family and her ancestry. And on the pacific, it’s all water, all the way to Oceania. It’s interesting to see how water also defines us, not just our land.

Courtesy of Sheridan Noelani Enomoto

EW: When I tell my own story, I feel the same way. It’s not just our lives that we’re living, it’s a continuation of the lives that came before us. In speaking your own language, you’re breathing life into the language. I really appreciate that because I get so tired of the narrative around indigenous people, that we were this great nation, or that we’re associated with a greatness we no longer have. I really don’t agree with that. I’m like, my nation is still pretty amazing, and there’s lots of folks doing powerful work. It hasn’t stopped. When you speak your knowledge and honor your ancestors and share all of those layers, it’s important. Folks forget how important ancestry could be. When I was a little kid, my mom would ask me every day, “Who are you?” And I’d be like, I’m Eryn Wise. And she’d ask again, “Who are you?” And I’d be like, ugh. I hated it. I’d have to say, “I’m Eryn Wise, Apache Laguna Pueblo” and introduce my who. I didn’t realize at the time, but that was what she was training me for. She was teaching me to walk in a good way. Hearing you talk about language like that, I feel like my mom would just say, Eryn, I told you this is why you need to do it. It’s so meaningful for so many people.

SE: What I really love about what I learned in the Hawai'ian way of introducing myself is I'm not only introducing my ancestors. I'm introducing the land, and the who. Who are you? Who is your mountain, what is your river? Because that also helps people know your relationships. One thing I'm learning, especially in this work is, if you want to know the health of the people, then look at the health of the land, and if you want to know the health of the land, look at the health of the people. They're part of your who. I can teach others how to look at their relationship with the world differently just with an introduction.

EW: One of the things I really struggle with in seeing folks fight online, it’s like I always feel like I want to mediate my family's fighting. This discourse that happened online, with folks saying there's hella anti-Blackness in our community, and co-opting Black movements and not giving credit. In organizing, often we’re adopting phrases and sentiments and ways of knowing that aren't ours. How do we honor other relative knowledge, and honor what they're teaching us? What I really want people to take away from this conversation is that obviously this is happening, but there is a way to continue reciprocating and learning from each other because it's so necessary. I think a lot of folks if they do recognize it'S happening, they don't know how to address it.

SE: So much of who has access and mobility is associated with what you look like and how you’re perceived through your body. We’re not even talking about challenges around gender. When it comes to color, young people learn that language even in how you describe yourself. When I was young, I was in Hawai’i on a trip, and a girl made fun of how dark I was in front of a bunch of boys. But the ironic part was she was the same complexion that I was. There’s a story about Queen Lili’uokalani coming to New York and being denied access to hotels because they thought she was Black. Hawai’ians weren’t living under segregation in the same way as Black folks in the South, but we were thrown into categories. When we talk about anti-Blackness in indigenous activism communities, in terms of where we’re using Black movements as reference points — that’s not good or bad. There’s a culture of training by co-opting and appropriating, and we could talk about appropriation all day long. Maybe that’s why I value the Hawai’iian language, because it’s more than just words. It’s a way of looking at a worldview to move from and create.

Another way of looking at it is there’s nowhere that there isn’t indigeneity, indigenous life, and indigenous reference points. But there’s something that we can learn from different perspectives about how we value who we are, and the relationship to where we were born. In terms of anti-Blackness, I think you have to take a step back and look at our relationships and values, and what got us to this place where we discriminate within our own community. Is someone who’s Yoruba or indigenous African less indigenous than someone from Turtle Island? Everyone is indigenous in some way, but we have to be respectful. For Black people in the States, for women, we had a movement, but not everyone had a movement. And we need to be able to create our own movements. Do I think my non-Black family fully understands the experience of being Black? I don’t think so, but I wouldn’t say that there isn’t a place of coming together.