Indigenous communities can offer support to Black Americans by doing our own reckoning while honoring the space they deserve to tell the truth about their history.
By Angelina Newsom
Last Week The New York Times released a ground-breaking enterprise called The 1619 Project, a series of content aimed to “reframe the country’s history” by placing the nation’s founding in 1619, the year enslaved Africans arrived. The 1619 project was conceived and led by New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones. Through it, readers are given valuable opportunities to explore the legacy of slavery through the words of descendants of those who were enslaved. A bold project highlighting uncomfortable truths about American history will always be met with resistance—sadly, some of it was projected by members of Native American communities. The largest complaint focused on how the project didn’t tell Indigenous stories. Rather than criticize, we must understand why it’s important for Natives to unite with Black Americans in calling on America to atone for its sins.
The project wasn’t meant to provide a comprehensive American history. Its focus was to tell readers how the United States was shaped by the institutions of slavery and race. Native Americans are indeed mentioned in 1619 by detailing how the business of cotton—driven by slave labor—contributed to the greedy, violent expansion that pushed Natives off their land. This is perhaps the most significant connection between Indigenous and Black Americans. For centuries, each group has faced systematic oppression at the hands of the US government. Dehumanized and slaughtered for “freedom” in a country built by enslaved people on stolen land.
Because Native Americans aren’t monolithic, it’s impossible to condense our stories into a singular point, save for genocide. Throughout history, we’ve resisted the US government at every turn to maintain sovereignty, and Black Americans fought to hold the United States to its own constitution of “equality for all”. Having seen themselves successfully excluded from the foundational writings that would become the nation’s backbone, descendants of enslaved people led entire movements aiming to dismantle white supremacy and the structural inequalities that it creates. Putting their lives on the line, Black Americans continue fighting institutions of racism and injustice. While our stories run parallel, Native Americans historically rejected the idea of “founding fathers” and their shenanigans. In 1978, Indigenous people led by the American Indian Movement organized The Longest Walk, a march from San Francisco to Washington, DC. Upon reaching their destination, they were met in solidarity by Black activists, including Muhammad Ali and Stevie Wonder. The civil rights era inspired Native Americans to engage in the movement when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. included their struggle in his speeches.
Ancestors of modern-day Indigenous people faced brutal colonization that continues to reverberate throughout Native American communities in many forms, including environmental racism, sexualized violence, and the eradication of culture and language. Much like descendants of slavery, names, as well as histories, have been colonized, sanitized, and forgotten throughout generations. The 1619 Project paves the way for Indigenous people in America by lifting Black voices and allowing history to be told by those adversely affected by it. Native American writers and scholars can draw inspiration from Hannah-Jones to undertake similar projects because telling our own accurate history is an important part of decolonizing.
Indigenous communities can offer support to Black Americans by doing our own reckoning while honoring the space they deserve to tell the truth about their history. An often overlooked tragedy is the fact that some tribes enslaved Black people. Elevating these stories and exploring ways to atone for them is long overdue. Uniting with Black Americans allows for healing within both communities whose ancestors paid dearly for our existence.
White supremacy has ravaged our communities for centuries and the settler-colonial project continues today. The rise of Trump has made anti-Black and anti-Native sentiment more mainstream in America. Vitriolic rhetoric which says that Indigenous people simply lost a war for their land and should deal with it goes hand in hand with, “Black people are free and the civil rights era happened, so what’s the problem?” The amount of conservative pushback to The 1619 Project perfectly illustrates these sentiments, and the narrative that highlighting an ugly truth about American history is “divisive” to Americans is gaslighting 101. Prioritizing America’s marginalized groups provokes defensive positions because the country is dedicated to believing in the myth of American exceptionalism. Any threats to settler-colonial thinking will always be met with harsh responses because many white Americans would prefer to deny that their achievements were largely made possible by the brutality of white supremacy. Taking refuge in monikers of freedom and the American dream are much easier than confronting the fact that not everyone has been afforded these things.
Raising our voices together strengthens the resolve to hold government institutions and society accountable for continuing settler-colonial brutality. This includes offering Native support to Black Americans unconditionally. The 1619 Project comes at a very necessary time in American political discourse. We have existed and continue to exist in an environment where white supremacy goes unchecked at the expense of Black, Indigenous, and people of color. These are the moments in history where creating allies offers powerful resistance. Reminding America that history is indeed a resource by which we can and should learn valuable lessons means telling it correctly. In 2019, it remains vital to speak truth to power.
Angelina Newsom is a Northern Cheyenne freelance writer with an interest in culture and politics. She hosts the true crime podcast Crimes Against Her, which is dedicated to telling stories of marginalized women.