Debbie Reese
May 17 · 5 min read

The I in #31DaysIBPOC is for Indigenous.

The B is for Black.

The POC is for People of Color.

Can an Indigenous person be Black?

Yes.

Can an Indigenous person be a person of color?

Yes.

So why, you might wonder does the I have to be in there, at all?

These are my thoughts on that question.

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The I in Indigenous is me.

I’m tribally enrolled at Nambé Pueblo, a sovereign tribal nation. What I look like doesn’t matter because nations determine who their citizens are.

The United States does it. France does it. That’s something a sovereign nation does. Determining who its people are is the starting point for a nations existence.

As I drafted this post for #31DaysBIPOC, I paused again and again. I’ve deleted words, sentences, and paragraphs. Nothing is ever permanent. Things happen. There’s always an exception to a statement that anybody (me) makes! I don’t want to lead people astray with what I write. So — let’s hold onto this truth as we move through what I write in this post and as you move through the days ahead: Racist people — especially when they are in positions of power — wreak havoc on people who don’t look like them.

When Dr. Kim Parker asked me to write for the series, I thought my contribution could be one that could help teachers know a bit more about Native people. But there’s so much you have to unlearn! You literally have hundreds of years of unlearning to do.

Knowing who Indigenous people are starts with knowing that this land — currently known as the United States — was not an empty land. On it were millions of people from thousands of distinct nations that had interactions with each other. Those nations of people had their own languages and stories and songs and foods and religions and histories of trade with other nations, near and far, and we also had our own systems of government.

Contrary to what textbooks suggest, we were not primitive people. We were societies of people. Europeans who came here knew that, and so, when conflicts occurred, leaders of Native Nations had diplomatic negotiations with leaders of European nations (and then with leaders of the United States). Of course, we all know that people violated terms of the agreements (treaties) that were the outcome of those negotiations, but the fundamental concept I want you to hold in your mind is that we were — and are — nations.

Today, there are over 500 tribal nations that have nation-to-nation relationships with the United States. There are many others who are trying to re-establish their nation-to-nation relationship, and still others who are trying to establish that relationship.

Each one has the right to decide who its citizens or tribal members are. To the best of my knowledge, nobody makes decisions based on how someone looks.

That’s good, but there’s a downside to my “appearance doesn’t matter” statement. There’s a lot of people who think they are Native because of a story in their family about an ancestor being Native. Many of them find others in their area that say that too, and they form groups, choose names for their “tribe” and create websites. Because so much of US society is ignorant about Native sovereignty, these individuals and groups can flourish and — frankly — feed that cycle of ignorance! Without a doubt, they love the identity they’re claiming, but not knowing about sovereignty means they inadvertently harm the well-being of the very identity they claim!

What I’d like teachers to know is this:

  • There’s hundreds of tribal nations in the US, today. Within any one of them, its citizens or tribal members will have a range of physical appearance. Citizens of the US range tremendously in appearance.
  • Teachers who want to give students accurate information about Indigenous peoples must start by thinking of us as nations. Thinking of us only as cultural groups similar to other cultural groups erases the most significant aspect of who we are: nations with sovereign rights to determine who our citizens are.

To understand these ideas requires a lot of work because there’s so much to undo. There are resources, though, to help you! One place to start is Tribal Nations and the United States: An Introduction written by people at the National Congress of American Indians. It is packed with info — and it is available at no cost. At my website, American Indians in Children’s Literature, I have a short essay called Are We “People of Color” that expands on what I’ve said here. If you want to dive into some legal concepts specific to Native peoples, head over to your local library and ask for Matthew Fletcher’s Federal Indian Law published in 2016. Nation to Nation is an exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian, but it is also a book that you will find tremendously helpful! I hope you put those items on your summer reading list and that you’ll use what you learn when you are teaching, next year.

I’ve not said much at all about stereotypes and how they hurt us, but that’s part and parcel of this post. Stereotyping of Native peoples is so pervasive! Mascots don’t honor us; they hurt us! So much of what is done in school hurts us! Think, for a moment, of Native parents in Oklahoma whose children are expected to don frontier attire and race across the school grounds to claim land in reenactments of the land rush! Or Native parents whose children are asked to make paper bag vests and construction paper headdresses to wear for a “First Thankgiving” reenactment. And what about the many writing activities where teachers ask kids to journal about being with Lewis and Clark, or on the Oregon Trail.

We want our children to enjoy school. We want your classrooms to be places that affirms our existence but we’re always wary, with good reason. You — dear teacher — have the power to change what goes on in your classroom. Change can happen but first you have to be willing to admit that what you’ve been doing is wrong. For some of you it will be uncomfortable to admit that, but that’s where we start: admitting ignorance and taking steps to do better. As I’ve read through the #31DaysIBPOC, I’ve learned a lot about my own ignorance. I look forward to learning from what Ebony Elizabeth Thomas says, tomorrow. I hope you do, too.

This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Challenge, a month-long movement to feature the voices of Indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars.

Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by Tricia Ebarvia titled “How do we show up?” (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch upon the rest of the blog circle).

You can read all of the blog posts this month here.

Debbie Reese

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