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New Wave Of Social Justice Finds Black And Indigenous Activists United

Brian Bull

This year has seen the Black Lives Matter movement gain greater national prominence, through protests over police brutality and systemic racism. Native Americans have had their voices elevated as well, owing to a shared history of oppression, cultural stereotypes, and conflicts with the federal government. 

For more than a century, The Pioneer statue stood on the University of Oregon campus. With bullwhip and rifle, many Oregonians saw him as representative of the settlers who traveled thousands of miles to tame the “Old West.”

Credit Rachael McDonald / KLCC
The toppled Pioneer Statue, after being dragged to the doorway of Johnson Hall.

The Pioneer’s journey took an unexpected turn in June, shortly after a teach-in by the Black Indigenous People of Color group.  Unidentified protesters pulled the statue to the ground, then dragged it onto the front steps of the U of O’s administration building.  A companion statue, the Pioneer Mother, was also toppled that day.

“My immediate response was, I wasn’t surprised,” said Jacob Billy, a recent graduate at the U of O.  “I was just wondering why it took this long, really.”

A member of the Yakama Nation, Billy said for years, many of his mentors and classmates implored administrators to remove the statues, or at least acknowledge the land’s original inhabitants with something similar.

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
Jacob Billy, Yakama Nation member, activist, and teacher.

“The Kalapuya were here and they were displaced. Say you’re living in your house, somebody comes up and says, ‘I like your house and the stuff in it…get out!’ That’s basically what happened.”

When The Pioneer statue was dedicated in 1919, the president of the Oregon Historical Society made references to “the Anglo-Saxon race” with “large powers of assimilation” which many people today see as an affirmation of white supremacy, and the imperialist concept of Manifest Destiny.

“So it’s glorified by these tales of pioneering, and of course, that they had to suffer in order to come across this land and settle it?  Well, Natives were already living here,” said Billy. 

Besides the displacement of Native Americans, Blacks were restricted by Oregon’s provisional government from owning land.  Those laws were only completely repealed in 1926.

That legacy of oppression has led both groups to rise together in recent months. In late June, an event was held in Owen Rose Garden, called “Indigenous Solidarity with Black Liberation.”  It drew about 150 people.

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
Indigenous Solidarity with Black Liberation event, June 28, 2020.

One speaker was Violet Johnson, a Hoopa Indian of Yurok Descent.

“This nation was built on stolen labor and stolen land,” she said through a megaphone. “…and for that, we have what we know today as this capitalistic country…”

Participants discussed George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis Police, and missing and murdered indigenous women. They also spoke of slavery, lynchings, and boarding schools, before circling a tipi. 

Credit Justin Katigbak / Underscore.news
Charise Cheney, associate professor of Indigenous, Race, and Ethnic Studies at the University of Oregon.

Nationally, Black and native activists have supported each other by knocking down statues of Confederate figures, or those associated with colonialism, like Christopher Columbus.  This intrigues Charise Cheney, an associate professor of Indigenous, Race, and Ethnic Studies at the U of O.

“The connections that people are making between white supremacy and anti-Blackness on the other hand, and white settler colonialism on the other hand, have been a breakthrough moment in American history,” she told KLCC. 

“I think we’re in this very exciting and scary moment, which is a moment of growth for the nation.”

Cheney said in her 49 years, she’s never seen such an outpouring of mutual support. 

“Indigenous communities have always been struggling, for example, against the use of mascots, against the destruction of sacred sites. But their numbers are so much smaller than other communities of color throughout the nation.  I do think that the broadening awareness of racism and white supremacy in the U.S. has helped to buoy Indigenous protesting.”

Credit Justin Katigbak / Underscore.news
Violet Johnson, a Hupa Valley Indian of Yurok descent, student, and activist.

“When the black community is uplifted, we’re all uplifted,” said Johnson.  She wants more events where Indigenous and Black activists support each other. Many came together to oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock, and they’re united again for the Black Lives Matter movement.  And there are more fights ahead.

“Our fight to protect Indigenous women also aligns with the Black community’s fight to protect Black women, particularly Black trans women, they’re experiencing absolutely disproportionate rates of violence.  We are also seeing extreme rates of violence against our Two Spirit and LGBTQ community members as well.”

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
Jacob Billy, where the Pioneer Mother used to sit.

Back at the U of O, Jacob Billy stared at the empty space where The Pioneer statue once stood. He likens the solidarity of Black and Indigenous activists to collectively pushing a snowball down a hill.  It’ll grow and gain momentum…and he’s looking forward to that partnership.

“In my language there’s no word for “I’, it’s just “us”.  So our mindset is like that.  People who are akin to us, who are human beings, for them to suffer is me suffering, and every one of them are important.”

Support for this coverage comes from Underscore-dot-news, a Portland, Oregon-based public service journalism organization.

Copyright 2020, KLCC.

Brian Bull joined the KLCC News Team in June 2016. In his 25+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (19 regional), the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.
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