Black Indigeneity Part II (Or Back to Back)

In Guest Posts, Uncategorized by Adrienne K.10 Comments


Dennis Banks and Stokely Carmichael

AK Note: This post is a follow up to Kyle’s post over the summer entitled The Political Discourses of Black Indigeneity, And Why It Matters”. If you haven’t read that post, I’d encourage you to head over there first. Part of why I love the format of blogging is the ability to reflect about my own writing, and to respond and more deeply develop thoughts I put out in earlier posts, so I’m happy to extend that opportunity to others too. 

By Dr. Kyle Mays, Guest Contributor

Let me get right to the point: I am writing this piece for those who have made interesting, provocative, wack, even insightful comments about the commentary on Black Indigeneity that I wrote for Dr. Adrienne Keene’s Native Appropriations blog this past summer. In particular, I want to respond to at least three comments: that I’ve internalized (white) racism, that Black people are not settlers, and how some Native people use my critical analysis to support their anti-Blackness. In the spirit of Hip Hop culture and competition, I’m bout to go Back to Back…Of course my title is ripping off of Drake’s summer diss track of Philly rapper Meek Mill. I got Seven points to make.


  1. Black-Indigenous Relations. The world does not revolve solely around Afro-Indigenous peoples, especially those connected to the Five Tribes. I respect that unique struggle, and have written about it. Google it. But I have also written elsewhere that there are other conversations that need to be had, too. So, if you want to read more about Afro-Indigenous relations and peoples among the Five Tribes, go check out the work of Tiya Miles and a host of other scholars. For contemporary people, holla at Marilyn Vann, who has been on the forefront of Afro-Cherokee and Cherokee Freedmen rights; she’s dope. I love my Afro-Five Tribes and Freedmen peeps, but that’s not my major concern. There are many dimensions to “Black indigeneity,” and my aim is to document and explore other parts of it.

  1. A Note About Self. I have poor (we weren’t working class, we were working poor and then just straight up po!), Black (American) cultural experiences (my mom is from the projects of Cleveland!). I took two years of graduate level coursework in Black Studies. And my academic mother and Black Studies O.G., Geneva Smitherman mentored me to pursue my doctoral studies. I say all of that to say: I’m Black, proud to be Black, and have a deep love and appreciation for Black culture, history, and language. Oh, by the way, how many of yall were mentored by the “Queen of Black Language?” I’ll wait…Anyways, pardon my hubris, but I understand Black discourse styles very, very well, and their prospective for “gittin us ovah.” I also understand their potential pitfalls. Just because I’m trying to point these difficult contradictions out, that doesn’t mean I’m ashamed of anything. We need to be ashamed about anti-Blackness and anti-Indigenous-ness coming from each other. I am also not engaging in the politics of conservatism or victim-blaming. My goal is to end colonialism and white supremacy; we can’t do that without clear dialogue with one another about the issues we face because of colonialism and white supremacy.


  1. On Being Black-Indigenous. Being Black and Indigenous and studying the topic affords me a unique opportunity. I am well-situated to comment on what I call “Black Indigeneity.” I embody what I study, and I see both sides very well, even if the topics are difficult. The world is full of contradictions, and I am trying to tease out at least one. As Huey P. Newton once said, “contradiction is the ruling principle of the universe.” Once we figure one thing out, a new contradiction will emerge, and then we have to solve that Rubik’s Cube. I don’t enjoy sifting out the thorny histories and strained relations between Black and Indigenous people, but if we are going to change the game, we need to have these painful dialogues and work out some contradictions. The plot thickens when we ain talkin bout white folks, don’t it?!


  1. Native People Showin Me Love. I appreciate all of the love I’ve received from my Native peers. But based upon conversations with close friends, it has forced me to reevaluate and think, well, why do some Native folks like my work? Though I think the majority of Native people have a righteous mind when it comes to my work and also have a genuine affinity for affirming that #BlackLivesMatter, etc., we do need to acknowledge that some Native folks are anti-Black. Straight up! I can’t tell you how many Native brothas and sistas done tried to check whether I’m “Indian enough” or characterize me solely as Native, only then to make some racist ass comment about Black folks. Hell, in my own family history, Native people have called us niggers like they were the mouthpieces of white supremacy. We, that is, Indigenous folks, need to check that anti-Black shit, too. Ain nobody got time for that!


  1. Arrivant/Settler/[etc.]. Someone humorously asked me if I considered myself a half-settler because I am Black and Indigenous. I laughed. Out. Loud. Bless her heart. No, I do not. When I wrote that original piece I thought long and hard about what word I should use for describing both my frustrations and acknowledge the unique history of Black folks who are the descendants of captured Africans. Obviously they didn’t come over here on their own, or, as Malcolm X so eloquently stated, “we didn’t land on Plymouth Rock! The rock was landed on us!” I used settlers in my essay, with a caveat; Chickasaw theorist Jodi Byrd uses arrivants in the Transit of Empire (2011). (I’m not comparing myself to Jodi; she’s way smarter than me!). But the point remains: when you use language to render Native people invisible, you become a part of the problem—the settler colonial problem—doing work for the settlers in power. You help construct what Geneva Smitherman calls a “sociolinguistic construction of reality.” Thus, you contribute to a situation wherein Native people, already struggling for visibility, have to contest against even more. Black folks are not settlers in the European sense. But do notice how I attempt to structure my argument(s). I analyzed the discourse, not the historical actions. Again, Black folks are not the God Damn White man (go listen to Louis Farrakhan’s written play from back in the day; problematic, but entertaining). Words, as symbols and signs embedded with meaning, can cause problems. Speaking of Farrakhan, ask him about how his words helped create a toxic scenario in which Malcolm X could be murdered. Words hurt.


  1. Black-Indigenous Relations. Finally, we live in a messy world. I have only so much energy to deal with oppression (also acknowledging my straight, male privilege, and having a Ph.D. I guess one of the few, terrible things that can happen to me is that I get shot by the po-po…). Quite frankly, I can’t deal with too much of the white man–that shit can be difficult and outright annoying. My point here is that I choose to focus my limited energy on Black-Indigenous relations. Someone else can do the backbreaking work of trying to educate zhaganosh. Unless they like John Brown or Viola Liuzzo, I just can’t (for the most part).


  1. Language Usage: Decolonization. Okay, I done talked a lot of shit. So, let me offer some hopefully useful points for those who, while trying to do good, render Native people invisible with words. Or, in the countersense, how Native people use the faults of some people to further their own anti-Blackness.


  1. Black folks, think carefully about how you use decolonization. I understand that you are dealing with actually existing material issues that impact people, but does your use of the term include Native people? Don’t forget, colonialism in this settler society has not ended. Any discussion of decolonization is irrelevant without Native people. If you want Black liberation, reparations, whatever, don’t forget you live in a settler state.


  1. Indigenous folks, don’t use my critical analysis to underscore your anti-blackness. I know, there are problems with how some Black folks frame their understanding of liberation; but that doesn’t mean you can engage in white supremacy. Again, Black folks are dealing with real issues, too. How can you discuss decolonization without taking into account those who didn’t come over here on the Mayflower? What about Afro-Indigenous folks? You cannot decolonize shit while being anti-Black. Period.


Okay, I-own wanna hear bout this ever again…Nah, I’m just playin. But I hope we can continue having these critical dialogues for the future of both Black and Native peoples. After all, ain nobody say that decolonial love was easy (shout out Leanne Simpson). It’s fuckin hard, but we need to end white supremacy and settler colonialism, sexism and ableism, gender discrimination and male patriarchy, etc., like yesteryear. We can’t do any of that unless we figure out some contradictions.


Well, there you go, Back to Back! I’m out!


Kyle T. Mays (Black/Saginaw Chippewa) earned his Ph.D. in the Department of History at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. In the fall of 2015, he began a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he will work to transform his dissertation titled, Indigenous Detroit: Indigeneity, Modernity, and Racial and Gender Formation in a Modern American City, 1871-2000, into a book. He can be followed on Twitter @mays_kyle.

  • herthoughts

    Lots of thoughtful analysis here. I don’t have a PhD to wave, but I do have a carefully studied family history that includes the merging of African and Sioux. Here’s a few of my observations.

    1. The prejudices between Native Americans and African Americans goes both ways indeed. My mother’s family was brought up full well knowing their rich Sioux heritage, yet their African heritage was hidden from them. They wondered why the kids in the neighborhood taunted them with the word nigger. Turn this around to the past 20 years, and when I discovered the answer to that in many genealogical records, many of my family refused to believe it.
    2. Wannabees. It is a romantic notion that some great grandmother was a Cherokee or whatever, and many white people perpetuate those tales without ever searching for documentation. But the same wishful thinking is found in black people too. The Black Indian group found on Facebook is chock full of wishful thinking. It is a compliment to Native Americans that so many want to have a link to them, but without documentation and/or DNA testing, it ends up being wishful romanticizing and misappropriation.
    3. I’m really tired of “who got here first”, which pervades all segments of society past and present. The real issues are genocide and slavery. We cannot forget that these things happened, yet we should not let it rule our lives in 2016. We are responsible for our own modern lives. How we as individuals react to current day prejudices is a test of our character.

    • disqus_SJjT8YLP8n

      I get what you’re saying, with #2, but you also want to be careful about that because unfortunately things like blood quantum is a way for the government/colonists to define what being indigenous even means. Although it’s helpful here in Canada for determining who gets to have a *potential* access to resources, it also divides communities, alienates mixed race indigenous peoples and those who grew up outside of their communities for any reason (and there’s a lot of reasons) – which is something the colonizers want. It’s part of that assimilation tactic, and it’s successful because once indigenous people are taken out of their communities, taken away from their families, grow up outside of those and never go back, they’ve successfully assimilated those people. This needs to be something we start having discussions on as well, because although it’s really useful for protecting ourselves and our identities to challenge people who try to claim indigenous heritage without actually having any in their family lines, we need to start figuring out better ways that we deal with that situation so that we don’t alienate people who’ve been victims of forced assimilation (our child welfare programs still have a disproportionate amount of native children in them who also experience the highest death rates in those programs etc,) and who are hesitant about trying to go back to their cultures and communities…or who’s children are hesitant about trying to go back to their communities because they’re afraid they’re “not native enough” – a claim that I’ve heard coming from communities time and again as a reaction against those who’ve grown up outside of their culture and tried going back to it. I know that we have purists in our groups, and we validate those ideas when we pull out our colonizers definition of what it is to be indigenous.

      So again, I get it because of how often people fetishize ideas about what being native even means and the risks it poses to our communities, our cultures to just let anyone in (and all of the history behind us)…but we have to remember that colonizers are defining what it even means to be indigenous through those tactics, and continues to control how WE define ourselves. Decolonizing ourselves means that we have to stop letting them be the deciding force on who gets to claim indigenous background or not, especially since they hold so much power already over us. We need to have discussions about how to undo the damage done by assimilation tactics, or at the very least learn better ways to deal with that assimilation other than just…not doing anything about it at all and continuing to lose those people to it. And I wouldn’t doubt for a moment that maybe, at least one of those people who you call wannabes may actually have some call back down their family line to indigenous heritage…we need to learn how to accept them back, educate them and get everyone up on why it’s so harmful to claim to be native when they’re not, or have no active interest in pursuing their potential communities that they may or may not have come from.

      This discussion is really complicated, and so is what I’m trying to say (and messy, this is a messy conversation.) But what I’m ultimately trying to say is that we all need to be really aware of what assimilation does and what it looks like and start having conversations about how we deal with it and how to welcome back the children of assimilated parents, so that our languages and cultures thrive, so that we have strength in numbers and our message gets out, so that we fight back against assimilation. And that we decolonize ourselves by defining what indigenous is for ourselves rather than relying on our colonizers to define it for us…

      • herthoughts

        Very well expressed thoughts, thank you so much for replying. I read one time that in the old days my tribe accepted mixed bloods as part of the tribe if they could speak the language. Too bad that notion wouldn’t help in today’s world. I know what you mean about the negativity of using blood quantum. I just am so bothered by “wannabees” even though they do it through admiration, it’s appropriation as Dr. Keene is pointing out. My mother left the reservation after high school, so I was raised far away, with only her stories as my immersion. So maybe I really have no right to comment, as I have not “walked the walk”. I have a lot of emotion about it though, as my siblings and I are the last of our family that qualify for tribal membership via quantum. I know that we will make sure though that our cultural heritage is kept alive in the following generations.

  • zhaganosh

    I read this blog to educate myself and my children. I do not understand what to take from this as a “God Damn White Man”? Is there no point? What do I need to do to be considered as having worth, not being -paraphrase- shit that is difficult and outright annoying? Isn’t that what we are all fighting……that we can all be considered equal…..or does it not count if our heritage is white?

    • karen

      I think a lot about the anger and annoyance that comes from dealing with white culture every day. Perhaps it is or isn’t coming from you, but it exists none-the-less. I look at the privilege I’ve been offered to be a quiet onlooker in this conversation that is, quite obviously, not about us white people even if our culture, our ugly and hateful culture, is being referenced.

      Our ancestors have left us with a terrible legacy, a bill to pay. And it is so overdue it is terrifying. Dr. Mays represents the current interest on that bill pretty accurately whether you and I like it or not.

      To make my case: When I speak of a woman’s right to safety and equitable wages, apparently I sound angry. You know what? I have known my whole 50 years that pay for women was inequitable to that of men and I’m totally enraged that men, mostly white men, continue along as if this is an okay thing. (And I could enter into the fact that People of Colour and Indigenous People, if they even get hired make far less, but I’m just trying to make a simple argument about the right to anger right now.) I am angry with men, and even the few good ones might get lumped in if they can’t read my information and my anger and check themselves to make sure they are doing everything they can to dismantle male supremacy. The good guys don’t need me to make some comforting bit about “not all men” because they recognize in themselves as working on being outside of that comfortable place. Some days they may feel extra sensitive about my anger, but they check themselves rather than asking me to go easier on a system (male supremacy) that told my working grandmothers they were only fit for certain work, left my mother mentally ill, and threatens my daughters’ right to equitable self determination in their lives. As an aside, wouldn’t you think it crazy if I *weren’t* angry about something like this? Wouldn’t that be weird?!

      So your and my privilege of getting to read a blog that sometimes has harsh words for white people and white culture does not extend to being free of the hatred that others have felt for generations and, quite frankly, have much crappier life expectancy because of us and our inability to change en mass. At this point they are words that, while they may hurt your feelings, will not leave you nor your children dead, apprehended or impoverished. It seems like a small price to pay, really. The least we could have done would be to read it and go away and work out our feelings around it, rather than demand equal treatment when we are so deeply in arrears.

      And notice Dr. Mays didn’t say Europeans? I would argue it is possible for us, in our own attempts to dismantle white supremacy, to access our own identity as people who came from Europe, who were driven from our own homelands, and arrived on these shores prepared to take what we wanted. That doesn’t mean we are allowed to deny our white identity, but rather work against it, with an anxiousness for others to help us see the things we cannot see clearly unless someone else points them out. And just because it was your ancestors and not you who came here, or it is a system of which you feel have no control within, does not excuse you any more than it excuses me.

      But mostly, this article was never about us. In all honesty, it is pretty embarrassing that 1/2 of the two comments sitting here on this post is of a white person complaining that they are offended about the representation of white people, that it hurts their feelings, when the article is not even written about or for us.

      We white people whether we consider ourselves to be “good” or “works in progress” have so much to do to clean up the messes and stop the crimes that our community can’t seem to stop making and committing. I personally am tough enough to see Dr. Kay’s words for what they are, logical angry words, and if they bug me I can sort through my feelings about not wanting to be grouped with all that, and then I am going to roll my sleeves up and work toward achieving an equitable world as usual. The way I see it, it is going to take a whole lot more sacrifice and humility and real talk for us white people to join everyone else at that table and we’ll probably have to endure some understandable anger, and even hate to get there.


        You can’t lash out with this unrestrained anger, you have to be responsible with your actions and words, just as you expect others to be responsible with theirs. No one is excused from that responsibility, regardless of their parents/ancestry.

        If you react towards me in anger, I will be defensive. If you make accusations that are unfair, I will be dismissive of your future comments.

        I understand that a problem exists in the way that people treat others, but it is not fair (and often destructive towards building respectful relationships) to make generalized statements about all whites/men as if everyone belongs to a certain group. I identify with most white males that I interact with about as much as I identify with most black females I interact with. It has nothing to do with skin color or gender, it has to do with your love for others.

        The only debt that is owed is to love people for their inherent value. This debt is not exclusive to whites. This debt is owed by all people to their brothers and sisters. Sacrifice and humility need to be a goal for everyone, do not make excuses or rationalizations for that.

        I do not understand all of the intricacies of the relationships between races that Dr. Mays does, but that doesn’t matter. I still know how to treat the people I interact with every day, and that is the debt that we all should strive to pay. You can not be exclusive in this matter. There is no room for the hate and anger you speak of.

        • karen

          Who made that rule? Is it hard and fast? Does everyone have to live by it?

          If so, bring it to our white community first. Insist upon it for us. When we start living by it, and we start reconciling with our history, and we figure out what reparations look like, then we can go about protecting our own fragile feelings by asking other to play nice.

          Seriously. For the sake of my nieces and nephews, I would rather read about these hard and understandable feelings because it forces me to redouble my efforts (and then some) to demand change from my culture.

          These are words.There is currently absolutely room for this anger of which I speak. There has, for too long and still today, been room for white people to say horrific things to Black People and Indigenous People, and room for them to act viciously upon them. Why the double standard?

          This anger? It exists on Dr. K’s blog. If they can break you and your willingness to fight for equity so easily, if you can’t sit with them as existing, then perhaps you should find a more comfortable place to “learn”.

  • Madison_DiMaria

    “The world does not revolve solely around Afro-Indigenous peoples….” What?! I wasn’t aware that the world even SAW us…and as for the 5 Tribes, lol please. Black Indians are more likely to be accepted by black folks than NDN folks…look a how the Freedmen are treated. Also, no, sorry…I don’t get behind the notion that black people are settlers, period. Africans did not board those damn ships – they were shackled and dragged over here, and even enslaved by Natives! There are accounts of black slaves saying they were treated worse by NDNs than whites. ‘Settler colonialism,’ ‘arrivant colonialism,’ no…stop. And please, PLEASE don’t let the next thing you write be about descendants of the enslaved benefiting from such a brutal system. I don’t think anyone’s denying that this is Native land but to say blacks benefit from NDN genocide and white colonialism is simply preposterous (and you wonder why NDNs are using this to support their anti-blackness). Free labor of stolen people damn near built this country. At the end of the day, Natives have their own problems and blacks have their own. Unless you’re a blk NDN, you’re likely not gonna be too keen on placing your own struggle on the backburner.

    • disqus_SJjT8YLP8n

      Actually in the first article they guest wrote for, they stated: “Scenario: So, I’m sitting with five dear friends in at one of their apartments. Two were women, three were men, all were Black, except for me (I am Black/Saginaw Chippewa).” Which is why they started the discourse, because there’s virtually none on this particular topic and it’s important to have this discussion.

      No one benefited from white colonizers coming over here, not the indigenous peoples on this continent and neither did black people. But that doesn’t mean that we still don’t have a complicated situation in which black folks are still living on stolen lands with no acknowledgement of our continued genocide, or that there were natives who had black slaves – both are things that are true and both are not mutually exclusive things. The point is to start a conversation about it however and to start working towards fixing anti-black and anti-indigenous attitudes in both communities, and figure out our places in each others discourses and spaces…because there is a history of black discourse treating indigenous people as invisible, just as there’s a history of indigenous people leaving out black native peoples from their tribes and indigenous discourse that puts black people on the same level as white people in terms of talking about our displacement and genocide.

  • disqus_SJjT8YLP8n

    Has there been any discourse on coming up with vernacular that would adequately address the issue that black people aren’t exactly colonizers? They were forced over here, and made to be slaves…and although they are still living on indigenous lands, they don’t necessarily benefit from it any more than we benefit from our displacement since they’re not part of the oppressive group. I think that we need a better term other than colonizers or settlers to address their particular situation in order to further this discourse…