Whitewashing Activism: Environmentalist Edition
Rest in Power, John Conyers

Words That Matter: Black and Indigenous Solidarity and the Right to Language

By Kyle T. Mays

Red and Black Power

This Native American Heritage month, I want to bring a moment of historical clarity to the topics of solidarity and tension as they play out in the contemporary connection between African American and Native American peoples. I am Black American and Saginaw Chippewa. My mother’s side of the family is from Cleveland, my dad’s side of the family from Detroit. I am the descendant of Indigenous peoples in North America and Indigenous peoples from Africa. I know the former; I have yet to find out about the latter. Coming to terms with the relationship between these peoples, their histories in the US—and recovering these histories—is important to me and surely to Native people committed to ending antiblackness and uplifting the voices of their relatives. 

From the moment the first Indigenous Africans were brought to a settler colony to work in lands that Europeans were taking from Native peoples, their futures would be embroiled in the ongoing twin oppressions of dispossession and enslavement. As we celebrate Native American Heritage Month, we should at least recall an important point: that the Africans kidnapped from their homelands were and remained Indigenous peoples. They had their own cultures, languages, spiritual beliefs, and above all, a deep tie to their lands. If that ain’t Indigenous, then I don’t know what is!  

In our telling of mainstream colonial history, we assume that African (Indigenous) selves were completely shattered during the Middle Passage. Yes, lives were changed, in some fundamental ways, but not in every way. As the saying in the Black Oral Tradition goes, they made a “way outta no way.” They still remembered their homelands. We know from numerous accounts, including the posthumously published Barracoon, written by Black literary genius, Zora Neale Hurston, which has become a New York Times best-seller, that Indigenous Africans kept the remnants of their languages, which still remain in, for instance, as Geneva Smitherman taught us, the form of US Black English. Moreover, as Black radical theorist Cedric Robinson argues in Black Marxism, Africans, though forced by Europeans to toil in dispossessed lands, maintained their humanity in the form of  “African cultures, critical mixes and admixtures of language thought . . . of habits, beliefs, and morality.” These African forms of language did not disappear. I now want to discuss the pits of linguistic solidarity.

Solidarity in general is fleeting, and Black and Indigenous solidarity has been up and down since the era of Black and Red Power. Since at least the Resistance at Standing Rock and the formation of Black Lives Matter, there have been numerous demonstrations of Black and Indigenous solidarity. Over the last year, I’ve seen numerous Native people comment on non-Black-Indigenous people using the N-word. The social media version goes something like this: if you’re not Afro-Indigenous (here meaning someone who is African American and Native American), then you should not be using the term. Here is a good example that resurfaced from 2015, during Indigenous Peoples’ Day (formerly Columbus Day; The only Christopher we now acknowledge is Wallace).

On November 26, 2015, The Daily Mail, a United Kingdom online news source, did a series of short videos featuring a variety of Native Americans on the topics of Christopher Columbus, Thanksgiving, and the term r*dsk*n (hereafter the ‘R-word). While the point of the videos was to offer Indigenous voices on these issues, perhaps the most intriguing one was on the R-word.

The interviewer asked one person about the use of the R-word. Here is the dialogue:

Offensive. Whenever you use the term nigger or redskin or whitey or ch*nk, it’s definitely not a good thing to use.

Interviewer: Has anyone ever called you a “redskin” or anything else insulting?

Respondent: “A river n****r.” I’ve been called that all throughout high school. I was like, 1 out of 4 Native Americans. So, I experienced a lot of racism. And I still do. I definitely speak up. I definitely, in a good way, let people know that using offensive words is not something that will help us progress as a nation.”

The issue that people had was her use of the N-word. She is correct in being offended. Both R-word and the N-word are steeped in white supremacy. Arguably, Black folks have more sway in the public sphere in getting attention on issues (from white people?), and so the comparison makes sense. The R-word is racist, demeaning, and, as far as I can tell, in general, Indigenous people don’t use it as a term of endearment. However, the missing part of the analysis is that, while both are steeped in white supremacy, the N-word is slightly more complicated.

Black people use the N-word in a variety of contexts. Black people don’t “call” each other the N-word. As Smitherman points out, to “call implies name-calling, a linguistic offense.” It can be used positively, negatively, or neutrally. The N-word is used, as Smitherman notes, “to address another African American, as a greeting, or to refer to a Brotha or Sista.” We hear the word in hip-hop music. And it’s a fact that some Black people allow for non-Black people to use it. However, Kendrick Lamar didn’t allow this white woman to use it last year. So, we can’t say that hip-hop is to blame for why non-Black people want to use it.

What we can learn from these lessons is that context matters. The question people should ask is this: Who can say what to whom and with what consequences? Another question we should ask, is should we even compare the two words in the first place? If we do, who benefits and who does not? Native people have been fighting racist epithets and mascots for a long time, most recently in the documentary More Than A Word, by Standing Rock Sioux brothers, John and Kenn Little.

The words we use matter. How and why we make comparisons matter. Most importantly, it is not simply the use of the comparison, but it is important for solidarity. The discourse we use and how we talk about racism and oppression are just as vital the actions we take. If we are going to engage in solidarity, then language must be a crucial part of our liberation.

As we celebrate Native American Heritage Month, let us remember that coalitions are not easy. Solidarity is hard work. As Black queer feminist Audre Lorde stated in ‘Learning from the 60s,’ “any future vision which can encompass all of us, by definition, must be complex and expanding, not easy to achieve.” There is no guarantee that we will get along. We are not “natural” allies. We will definitely make mistakes. But if we are going to defeat racial capitalism and Indigenous dispossession, we need solidarity. We need what Leanne Betasamosake Simpson calls a “radical resurgence” and what Robin D. G. Kelley calls “freedom dreams.” We need radical resurgent freedom dreams that recover histories and help us achieve the decolonial future we want. In this hour, at this moment, our very lives depend on them.


About the Author 

Kyle T. Mays, PhD (Black/Saginaw Anishinaabe) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of African American Studies and the American Indian Studies Center at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of Hip Hop Beats, Indigenous Rhymes: Modernity and Hip Hop in Indigenous North America (SUNY Press, 2018). He is currently writing An Afro-Indigenous History of the United States with Beacon Press.