Will Native Americans be left out of conversations about racial injustice?

Will Native Americans be left out of conversations about racial injustice?
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While the murder of George Floyd at the all-too-familiar hand of police brutality has created much needed discussions on the continuing racial disparities in America, Native Americans are left to wonder, will we get left out of this important conversation as well? 

While some folks would question whether anyone would give the time of day to hear grievances from such a small group, I challenge those skeptical; Our small population and our voices — not always heard — are the very reason as to why our voice should be heard just as loud.

Throughout our nation’s history, racial inequality has hit our tribal nations the hardest. From the inception of the United States, native people have had to face unprovoked attacks from the American military again and again, endure the manifest destiny philosophy of American territorial expansion that removed us from our homelands, to the stealing of our children and taking them to government boarding schools in attempts to eliminate the essence of our cultural heritage. Of course, there’s the ongoing racial disparities many tribal members face today in the forms of poverty, health disparities and inadequate housing. 

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Towns that line Indian reservations are the site of repeated attacks. An eighth-grade member of the Chippewa Nation was gunned down by police for allegedly having a “knife” on his person, a 21-year-old Navajo man was shot by police in Farmington, New Mexico for a domestic violence call, 39-year-old member of Chippewa Cree Tribe of Rocky Boy was shot by Poulsbo Police in Washington state, just to name a few. According to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, Native Americans are most likely to die at the hands of law enforcement. Unfortunately, it seems Native people are more than overrepresented when it comes to the amount of times we have to deal with police brutality.

COVID-19 has highlighted the inequalities that persist in Indian Country today. The pandemic ravaged tribal nations and communities like the Navajo Nation, which has seen 6,110 positive cases of COVID-19. According to the Indian Health Service (IHS) Navajo Service, 277 deaths have been reported as of June 9.

Since March, tribal nations have had to directly confront the onslaught of the coronavirus crisis head on. Unfortunately, tribal governments themselves were forced to implement incredibly restrictive travel orders and curfews in order to curtail the rapidly spreading and infectious COVID-19. Some medical centers like government-run IHS facilities are at full capacity and are dealing with what to do as the number of tribal members who are COVID-19 positive grows. Being “wards of the federal government, you have everything you need” as I keep hearing from my border town neighbors of European descent, but which federal government? One might think it would be a federal government belonging to a third world nation. As with everything, once again tribes are forced to do more with what little resources we have, feeling as though it was designed to fail.

Lack of resources, lack of medical equipment, lack of access to adequate medical services, lack of food, lack of water and lack of the basic necessities of life takes its toll. The land of opportunity doesn’t seem so substantial when it comes to the first people of this country. We do our best to make things work, as we always have. Mix in the draconian measures implemented to take away our freedom of movement as tribal members and we’re left with pent up anger and animosity — all of which have a boiling point. With a coronavirus crisis looming, all it took was another instance of police brutality — the killing of George Floyd —  and the protests that followed for Natives to say, “now the country can feel our pain as an oppressed people.”

Prayers from Native Americans go out to the family of George Floyd and other families who have lost a loved one due to police brutality. The pain and fury that resulted in the protests afterwards is only natural in the face of systemic racial disparagement — the oppressor kneeling on the oppressed.

I believe I can speak for a number of tribal members when the question is asked of us, “Who killed George Floyd?” We simply answer, everything and everyone that contributes to ongoing institutional discrimination.

Ryan Benally works with the Tribal Adult Education for tribal members to have equal access to education He continues to work closely with local tribes and entities such as the Utah Navajo Trust Fund, Red Mesa Chapter (Navajo Nation) Veteran Organization, and recently with the Utah Farmer’s Feeding Utah Navajos project and is a lifelong citizen of the Navajo Nation in Montezuma Creek, Utah.