Joseph M. Pierce
Black Lives Matter and Indigenous Solidarity
I was asked to participate in a forum, "The Global Dimensions of Black Lives Matter: Where Do We Go From Here?," hosted by Stony Brook University on June 24, 2020. This video is what I presented. The text follows.
My name is Joseph Pierce. I am a citizen of Cherokee Nation. I am also Associate Professor in the Department of Hispanic Languages and Literature, and the Diversity Officer for the SUNY Stony Brook Chapter of the UUP. I want to thank my colleagues for their time and labor, and especially Tracey Walters for the invitation to be here today. My remarks are aimed at shedding shed light on how Black and Indigenous activists, artists, and knowledge keepers are creating less violent futures for us all.
Before I get to that, however, it is important that I situate myself in relation to this conversation we are having.* Along with the Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks and Seminoles, the Cherokees were a slave holding tribe in the 18th and 19th centuries. By adopting racialized chattel slavery, some Cherokees sought to prove the measure of their civilization in the eyes of white Americans. Cherokees brought enslaved African Americans with them on the Trail of Tears, and Cherokee citizens fought on both sides of the Civil War. In 1866, Cherokee Nation signed a treaty with the US government that granted the Black people it had enslaved “all the rights of native Cherokees”. These people became known as Freedmen. Since then, the Cherokee Nation has consistently sought to refuse or limit the rights of Freedmen and their descendants. In 2007 Cherokee people voted to strip Freedmen of citizenship. Only in 2017 were their citizenship rights restored by a ruling in US District Court. The relationship between Freedmen and non-Freedmen Cherokees is complicated. But I have to begin with this because as a non-Freedman Cherokee citizen, I am both a survivor of Indigenous genocide and implicated in the historical and contemporary anti-Blackness of the tribe. Those two things are not incommensurable.
The current uprising is a response to the devastating effects of white supremacy on the lives of Black people. Many Indigenous people have joined in this cause because we share its aims of dismantling the structures and the policies that continue to marginalize us under white supremacy.
White supremacy is not a theory. It names the material realities that have emerged as the compounding effects of colonization, genocide, and slavery. White supremacy is both a built environment and an epistemological project that has imbued every aspect of Western culture in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and elsewhere, as the expansion of Europe’s colonial tentacles reached across the globe beginning in the 15th century. It has lodged itself in our bodies, in our ways of thinking, loving, and relating. This project is ongoing. And we are all immersed in its anti-Blackness and Indigenous erasure. We must not shy away from this fact.
We are all living in a white supremacist world. And so many thousands upon thousands of other worlds were extinguished in order for this one to exist as it does now. White people built this world to uphold the lives and legacies of white people, their dreams, their ideas. And for those dreams of order and progress, of modernity, to become a reality, they reduced, dehumanized, or eliminated Indigenous and Black people.
This epistemology, this way of knowing, takes whiteness as the pinnacle of civilization. Or rather, it sees civilization only in terms of whiteness, as if one defined the other, as if whiteness = civilization were a conceptualization of humanity so self-evident as to render these words tautological.
White people assert supremacy by erasing our names and our histories. Our languages. Our futures. This is why, when police murder our kin, we say their names. And this is why we remember our own names for where we are from, and for who we are.
White supremacy built its world upon the twin pillars of colonialism and slavery. And like any construction, it requires an investment—in this case an investment in whiteness, in the contours of how we conceive of the human, the non-human, and the other-than-human, what is true and what is myth.
It should not come as a surprise, then, that one place we see the juncture of Indigenous and Black activism is around the monuments that stand as symbols of this structure, this architecture of white supremacy. Monuments bring the past forward into the present. They are quotidian reminders of our shared but particular forms of subjugation under white supremacy.
Think of what it is like to walk past a slave owner, a genocidal murderer, a rapist, on your way to class. Think of what it means to live in a place named after the man who killed your ancestors.
So, we have seen monuments come down in Minneapolis, Washington DC, Columbus, Birmingham, Boston, and in the former capital of the Confederacy, Richmond.
Because white supremacy is an architecture and epistemological framework, a structure for comprehending the world, any form of resistance to that norm seems violent to those in power. In other words, white supremacy is hegemonic, but whiteness is also fragile. White people constantly guard and protect their whiteness. They shore it up through racist laws and institutions, limiting access to housing and healthcare—and through lynchings. The people who benefited from white supremacy transformed slavery into Jim Crow into the carceral state. They continue to dispossess Indigenous people in the United States as in Palestine. They build pipelines and cheer on racist mascots. They erase Black and Indigenous peoples from school curricula, they ponder our absence in administrative positions, they tolerate us, they see us as minorities, rather than as squarely human.
For example, at the entrance to the American Museum of Natural History, there is a statue depicting Theodore Roosevelt on horseback, flanked by an African man and an Indigenous man ostensibly from a Great Plains tribe, who each look out in gratitude or perhaps silent acquiescence.
(Image Credit: Caitlin Ochs for the New York Times)
The statue thus represents two Indigenous people: one from Africa and one from Turtle Island. This statue has been the site of numerous protests, including one in 1971 led by members of the American Indian Youth Council. Reprising this tradition, since 2016, the Indigenous-led collective Decolonize This Place has held actions there on Columbus Day. Last year, their Anti-Columbus Day tour was co-hosted by No New Jails NYC, a grassroots organization calling to close the Rikers Island jail complex and prevent the DeBlasio administration from spending an estimated $10 Billion on new prisons in New York City. In this instance, the disproportionate effects of the carceral state on Black and Latinx people were positioned alongside—and in concert with—calls from Indigenous peoples for a decolonial future. In this vision, the liberation of all Black and Brown people demands the dismantling not just of white supremacist statues, but of white supremacy itself.
The Museum’s directorship has consistently defended the monument over the past several years. But this past Sunday they reversed course, asking New York City if they could remove it, a request that has now been granted. This reversal is of course due to the mounting pressure from Black and Indigenous movements. And perhaps the fear that this Roosevelt would join the ranks of the toppled and burned.
We are witnessing (and participating in) a movement of divestment from white supremacy, from its logics and its structures, which necessarily entails a rethinking of place, of where we are, and how we got here. Black and Indigenous people today are showing us how to divest from police violence, from the racist structures, the edifice, that has sustained white supremacy for centuries.
Let us take where we are now. Stony Brook University is situated on the ancestral homelands of the Setalcott people. We ignore this place and its history. We do not know the songs that were sung to it, the medicines it once provided, the people it once sustained. This is stolen land.
Stony Brook is also a site of early slave trading by the English when New York was a still a colony. The bodies of those enslaved Africans and of these Indian “savages,” are buried a stone’s throw away from here in Laurel Hill Cemetery. We never acknowledge their presence, we never ask their permission to be here, we never regard them as part this place. We are too busy complaining about the lack of parking to know that this place is where Black and Indigenous people resisted white supremacy together.
Calls to divest from the carceral state, to abolish the police, are a logical extension of the requirement that we not simply reexamine how power functions in this country to produce subjects of the law and subjects outside the law, but to actively work to divest from the machinery of white supremacy. This requires divestment from whiteness itself, from the ways of knowing the world that make white supremacy the only way of seeing and relating to our bodies and our desires. It requires divestment from the structures that have built up what it means to be racialized by default, marginalized by default.
For this to happen, white and non-Black people need to become uncomfortable. Neither Black liberation nor decolonization can be reduced to multicultural inclusion or its corollary, “diversity”. Liberation means giving Indigenous people our land back. It means abolishing the police, because the police have never ever been about protecting Black and Brown people. It means reparations for Black people. It means honoring treaty obligations. It means building coalitions based on a shared sense of freedom, rather than on fear. And rather than on guilt. It means honestly appraising not what, but how we know and see and move throughout this world, this place where we are now. And this also means confronting anti-Blackness in Indian Country, in our own tribes and our families. And it means working with Black people and Black-Indigenous people to end white supremacy.
I want to end, then, with a statement in Cherokee that Black lives are sacred: anigvhnage danvnv ulsgediyu.
(Image credit: ᏩᏕ ᎦᎵᏍᎨᏫ and Keli Gonzales)
* I would like to thank T.J. Tallie for pointing out to me the insufficient treatment of anti-Blackness among non-Freedmen Cherokees in an earlier draft of this text. It is my responsibility to be accountable and do better.