Indigenous And Black Leaders Express Solidarity Against Racial Injustice, Police Brutality

Jun 19, 2020

As a weekend of Juneteenth celebrations and demonstrations approaches in Tulsa, African Americans and Indigenous People are coming together in Oklahoma to show solidarity against racism and police brutality.

 


Apollonia Piña is no stranger to activism. Both her parents spoke out against injustices in their community-particularly when it came to Indigenous people in Oklahoma. 

"I grew up in a household where my mom has always been pretty outspoken," said Piña.

Apollonia Piña
Credit Shane Brown

Piña is a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation who works as a researcher and is a nursing school student with a background as an EMT.

"She told me from a very young age, starting in elementary school about some of the history of our tribe, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation," Piña said. "She told me about Andrew Jackson and what he did to my great-grandparents, how my great-grandparents were forcibly removed from our original homelands in Alabama to Oklahoma." 

Her dad was Chicano who passed away when she was 19. He taught her about the Brown Power movement and César Chavez and the activism he did organizing farmworkers in California's Central Valley. 

Piña is part of a chorus of Indigenous voices expressing their solidarity with African Americans who have experienced police brutality. Since the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, she and other Indigenous activists have taken to the streets to protest and call attention to what they feel is centuries worth of injustice.

"Disproportionately, it is Blacks and Native Americans that are the two ethnicities most likely to be killed by cops," Piña said. "So, I support Black Lives Matter. I support defunding the police."

Piña thinks more money needs to be put into the state's mental health care system.  

She got a crash course training as an EMT while in Germany. That's come in handy.  During some of the recent protests in Tulsa, she  treated a woman who was hit by a truck and took the sting out of the eyes of protesters who had been tear gassed. She says Tulsa has a lot of reckoning to do when it comes to how it treats Black and Native people in Oklahoma.

"One of the worst incidents of racial violence in America happened in our downtown," said Piña, referring to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. "The city has gotten better about addressing it, but it took a very long time for them to address it."

Devin Williams
Credit Shane Brown

Devin Williams is another street medic who has been volunteering during the protests along with Piña. He's Black and says that Indigenous and Black people have a complicated history in Oklahoma because some citizens of the Five Tribes fought on the side of the Confederacy. But, they have shared pain too.

"And so I think the first thing is to acknowledge the history between us," said Williams. "But now, we're all displaced, right. We're displaced from our lands, we've been displaced from our own wealth."

Williams lives in Bartlesville with his wife and two kids. He's a bartender and contributor to the radio show Focus: Black Oklahoma.

When he heard about the killing of George Floyd, he wanted to join the protests in Tulsa, but was worried about contracting COVID-19. But, he wanted to do something. He posted something on his Facebook page about doing a one man protest. He took some water, made a protest sign and headed to a popular intersection in town.

Pretty soon, people started to show up.

"They went and parked their cars. They just came out and people brought us water. More people came up and talked to us about it," Williams said. "It was just really amazing."

To show solidarity, Indigenous activists and Indigenous-led organizations like IllumiNative have been putting out messages all over social media supporting Black Lives Matter and the protests against police brutality.

Sarah Adams Cornell is Choctaw and is the President of the ACLU of Oklahoma's Board of Directors. She's also part of the organization The Aunty Project, which was created to help migrant children.

She says the time for solidarity among African Americans and Indigneous people is overdue. She also says she wants people in the Indigenous community to hold space for the African American people calling for change. 

"This is the time to focus on our black relatives and community members," Adams Cornell said. She said she's noticed some comments on Facebook and Twitter asking where the solidarity is for Native people who have been victims of police brutality.

"I would never want to say anything that overshadowed or overstepped that work," she said. 

She's been attending rallies in Oklahoma City and supporting Black Lives Matter because, "We do have shared histories of oppression."

According to the CDC, between 1995-2015, Native Americans had some of the highest rates of deadly encounters with the police per capita.

In 2019, Ronald Gene Given died in a Pottawattamie County jail. Given suffered from mental illness and his death in a rural Oklahoma jail sparked protests and calls for prosecution.

"We understand  that what happened-the decimation of Indigenous peoples centuries ago is a point of connection regarding the decimation that we have consistently experienced as Black Americans over the same centuries," said Quraysh Ali Lansana, the creator and executive producer of Focus: Black Oklahoma.

Ali Lansana says African Americans and Indigenous people have a complicated history here in Oklahoma because many African Americans came to Oklahoma as Freedmen with the five tribes. 

He sees solidarity and connection between the two groups because of their history of oppression and says both Indigenous and Black voices are louder now than they have ever been. That gives him hope.

"The need for that unity, for that solidarity is greater. It's always been great. There's never been a time when it hasn't been necessary," said Ali Lansana. "But it's very particularly necessary now because I believe the country is really at a tipping point. We have with our unified voices an opportunity to change the system and the way things have been."