From Flint to Standing Rock: The Aligned Struggles of Black and Indigenous People

I recently saw one of those anecdotal Facebook posts, which intrigued me. One of my colleagues wondered whether the white presence at Standing Rock has been more validated than its counterpart at Black Lives Matter protests. Many opinions surfaced on the resulting thread; two in particular caught my attention. One person asked, “Native Americans, do they show up at any rallies other than their own?” Another mused, “now that the Army Corps of Engineers decreed that the pipeline must be rerouted, will the Water Defenders now progress to Flint, Michigan?”

This exchange got me thinking: where do these ideas come from, and how have blackness and indigeneity been conceived as inherently different? What does all of this have to do with the #FlintWaterCrisis, which is unfolding in a predominantly Black city, and Standing Rock, a sovereign Indigenous space, where one has been allowed to take place and the other has been stopped temporarily (big shout, Water Protectors!), even as both are rooted in stripping the most vulnerable of their inherent right to clean water? Moreover, what does these comparisons mean for Black and Indigenous solidarity futures?

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Photo courtesy of Vanessa Bowen.

There are several reasons why blackness and indigeneity have been considered separately. First, Blacks were brought to Turtle Island in order to be exploited for their labor. During the Civil War, while Blacks were fighting for their freedom, Abraham Lincoln’s administration was further dispossessing Indigenous people and waging war out west. The Dakota War of 1862, the largest massacre in U.S. history, is a case in point.

During the era of Reconstruction, which W. E. B. Du Bois would describe as a “splendid failure,” the settler state still required the labor of Black bodies and Indigenous land. For instance, the convict leasing system took hold, allowing private companies and plantations to continue exploiting Black labor, while southern states made a profit (see Blackmon 2008). Simultaneously, the federal government ended the treaty-making relationship with tribal nations with the passing of the Indian Appropriations Act of 1871. And, to further cement Black subordination and Indigenous dispossession, by 1887, Congress passed the Dawes Act; with the 1896 Supreme Court ruling on Plessy v. Ferguson, Jim Crow became law. By the late nineteenth century, the settler state could speak of Indigenous disappearance and simultaneously criminalize Black people, all to secure possessive investments in whiteness, or to secure what Cheryl Harris (1993) refers to as “whiteness as property.” The twentieth-century settler state believed they had conquered Indigenous land and bodies and secured Black subordination, such that whiteness was firmly planted.

Given this history, it is not surprising to see why Black and Indigenous struggles have been considered separately and falsely seen as mutually exclusive, with different aspirations and different goals. Black freedom struggles are often categorized as seeking civil and human rights within the settler state, whereas Indigenous peoples often view this form of inclusion as usurping self-determination (Deloria 1969). It is therefore possible to see how some might wonder whether Black folks have been to Standing Rock (they have) or whether Natives will travel to Flint (they have). But Standing Rock and Flint present alternative narratives—even renewed possibilities—of solidarity between Black and Indigenous people, acknowledging differences and commonalities.

In August 2016, members of the Black Lives Matter movement traveled to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation to demonstrate solidarity—that is, centering Indigenous sovereignty—with the Water Protectors, who are resisting the construction of the $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline. “Black Lives Matter stands with Standing Rock,” read the official statement of the Black Lives Matter Network. They continued, “we are clear that there is no Black liberation without Indigenous sovereignty.”

Flint and Standing Rock are doing important work in reimagining Black and Indigenous solidarities. For example, before Black Lives Matter went to Standing Rock, Indigenous people from Detroit went to Flint. Artists like SouFy and Sacramento Knoxx, both Anishinaabe and from southwest Detroit, made protest songs to bring awareness to the #FlintWaterCrisis; they also donated water and supplies to the residents of Flint. These Native people have and continue to work in solidarity with New Era Detroit and other Black organizations. Moreover, the Little River Band of Ottawa also donated $10,000 to assist with the #FlintWaterCrisis. These actions show that Black–Indigenous solidarity is real, not rhetorical.

At the #HipHop4Flint block party and filter give-away, held on April 9, 2016, where Black and Native folks brought water and hip-hop to the residents of Flint, SouFy stated, “all this water here ain from the people that’s supposed to be helping us, ain from the people who messed up the problem in the first place; it’s from people that are from different collectives and organizations throughout the country. It’s not the government. But that’s why we here, #HipHop4Flint, to do it our own way.” SouFy, who has also been to Standing Rock, recognizes the fact that Black and Native struggles, while racialized differently by the settler state, are not fundamentally different for, whether Black or Indigenous, clean water is a human right.

Coming to terms with the meaning of this moment of solidarity is difficult. And as history has shown us, moments of solidarity are as unpredictable as they are powerful. But we should appreciate this time as an opportunity to dream of freedoms that we have yet to know (see Kelley 2003). We should dream, imagine, and struggle for a new world where the oppression of Black and Indigenous people no longer exists, where settler colonialism and white supremacy, in all forms, end—abruptly. Even if it starts with bringing water and supplies, making protest songs, putting bodies on the line to stop the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, we must do it, and Black and Indigenous folks are showing us how.

Hip-hop continues to play a part in reimagining Black and Indigenous futures and is one way in which Black and Indigenous folks are fighting back. The homie Sacramento Knoxx puts it plainly: “get back, what / get back, black snake / like / get back, what, get back black snake / huh.”

References

Blackmon, Douglas A. 2008. Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. New York: Anchor Books.

Deloria, Jr., Vine. 1969. Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. New York: Macmillan.

Harris, Cheryl I. 1993. “Whiteness as Property.” Harvard Law Review 106, no. 8: 1707–91.

Kelley, Robin D. G. 2003. Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. Boston: Beacon Press.

About the Author

Kyle Mays (Black/Saginaw Chippewa) is a transdisciplinary scholar of urban history, Indigenous studies, and critical ethnic studies. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he is working on two projects: one explores Indigenous histories of modern Detroit, and the other examines the role of hip-hop in shaping contemporary Indigenous cultures and identities.