On Friday, November 13, two things happened within "Occupy Oakland." First, as a follow up to the General Assembly's passage of the Memorandum of Solidarity With Indigenous Peoples on October 28, a small coalition of Native/Indigenous people – most of whom are residents of Oakland – convened the first teach-in on Indigenous Solidarity. Second, another group, involving Native/Indigenous elders, women, and their children, offered an inter-generational blessing to those gathered for the General Assembly.
These two things happened in a circle – the teach-in involved both Native/Indigenous peoples, interested and curious protesters, and those who came for the teach-in; the blessing involved Native/Indigenous elders, women, and their children. As several observed, the circle represented a wholeness and sense of relationship across generations and perspectives that is deeply important to the movement (its potential) and to the involvement of Native/Indigenous peoples within it.
(These two things also happened just hours before the second police raid on the encampment at Oscar Grant Plaza, a raid that was a part of a coordinated assault across the United States – funded and lobbied by big banks and their local/national representatives – on the “occupy” movement.)
While many, many more wonderful things happened as a result of these two events, I want to reflect on two things that were not so wonderful and in relation to an upcoming national holiday that wants to memorialize an historical relationship that did not and does not exist between Native/Indigenous people and those who define the United States.
During the teach-in, we attempted to focus discussion on the basic questions: What is your understanding of decolonization? What would it mean to decolonize Oakland?
Several individuals kept taking us off track, as is expected. But I want to remember and reflect on the one who insisted that while decolonization was “great,” it would only mean something if it was about “the Black man.” He spoke for a while about this before an African American woman walked across the circle and asked to allow others to speak. He insisted that it was not fair to ask him to be quiet, to interrupt him while he was talking, just so others could speak. He began to talk again. Many more others joined the request that he needed to allow for others to speak. He spoke very loudly that the movement was about “the Black man” and that this decolonization stuff had to be as well if it was going to matter. He finished and left the circle.
During the inter-generational blessing, an indigenous woman from Nicaragua offered a message from her ancestors to the protesters. She began:
“Welcome. We invite you to just be. To explore ancient ways of being with each other. The ancestors thank you for making space so that many voices can be heard. They have asked me to share a blessing for children now and for children of the next 7 generations, given to me by elder Jerry Tello. They say it is for all of you too. You are LOVED. You are a BLESSING. You are SACRED just the way you are. You have DIGNITY. You have WISDOM and GIFTS for the WHOLE…. The elders say we are in the process of reMEMBERing. To dismember means to take a body apart in pieces. So to remember is to recall what we once knew. But to reMEMBER is also about bringing the pieces back into wholeness. The ancestors are asking you to help build a NEW WORLD. A world where everyone is proud of where they come from. A world where everyone is invited to share their WISDOM and GIFTS with the whole….”
As she spoke, an individual sitting on the opposite side of me in the Oscar Grant Plaza amphitheater (and so out of my view) kept interrupting her with shouts that grew more and more angry. “Well, what are the ancestors doing about it?” “Come and camp with us if you want to have a say.” “I don’t like this, aren’t I allowed a voice to say I don’t like this?”
The push back against Native/Indigenous peoples’ perspectives during the teach-in and blessing was difficult to witness but important to learn from.
Most people in the United States, including those in the “occupy” movement, do not know enough about Native/Indigenous history, culture, or current politics to really understand what they hear from Native/Indigenous political critiques or cultural perspectives except as sound-bites that are fit into the pre-existing holes of history books (where all the real Indians are dead ones) or pop culture (where all the Indians are tragic, a.k.a. Avatar).
Much work is required to change this, not only to re-educate (and to speak in more meaningful ways than sound-bites), but to work with “occupy” protesters towards the entirely different state of political consciousness that comes with that education.
This education includes them not feeling threatened by Native/Indigenous demands for decolonization. Native/Indigenous self-determination does not come at the expense of everyone else. There is not a pie that is to be divvied up among the hungry. There is no pie.
There are important issues around which we can align together against state oppression, including but not limited to: federal corruption, corporate greed, police brutality, environmental destruction, health care, public education, labor rights. How might we think together about the links between the decade of foreclosures and a century plus of Native land dispossession? How might we think together about the disproportionate number of Native/Indigenous communities and communities "of color" being represented in prisons? How might we align for green jobs and infrastructure? How might we understand our poor health and lack of education as related? How might we work together to change these things?
This education also includes calling out and reforming the lack of cross-cultural respect and political inclusivity within the “occupy” movement as it is currently configured. It is one thing to claim a 99%, populist, unified experience of class-based exploitation under U.S. capitalism and its political system. It is quite another thing to respect that not all 99%ers are created equal. That the differences cross through, contain, and explode around the politics of race, gender, sexuality, ability, age. That those politics are about real historical and current differences in the experiences of communities and individuals with U.S. military and police violence, criminalization and incarceration, environmental exploitation and contamination, and the lack of health care and public education. How might our differences unite us?