Chao Soi Cheong / AP Photos
At 9:03 am on September 11, 2001 the Hijacked Plane of United Airlines Flight 175 from Boston crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center in New York City

The Day White Innocence Died: An Indigenous Take on #September11

Gyasi Ross

I remember the day, 9/11/2001, like it was yesterday.

I was a student in New York City.  I’d been living there for a while at that time—I was still adjusting to being in the big city. I was a Native kid, a rez boy who grew up as a hip-hop head, and so I was living out my childhood fantasy of living in the birthplace of hip-hop while going to school and trying to pay my monthly rent.

Not easy. 

I had class at nine o’clock that morning on September 11. I had a formula—it took me eight minutes to get dressed, wrap my hair in a t-shirt (on fleek!) and get to class.  That meant that I could sleep until 8:52 in the morning.  I always listened to the radio when I slept, so my dreams were often influenced by whatever I heard on the radio.  I’ve done that since I was a little kid—I remember having nightmares about playing basketball with the “Thriller” version of Michael Jackson when I was little guy and I tumbled many, many times with Boy George as well!

But I digress.

On this particular morning—September 11—I remember hitting “snooze” in the morning time and going back to sleep. When I passed back out, I remember dreaming about a plane, a small crop duster in my dream, hitting a small building and falling to the ground. When I woke up, I hurried through my five-minute “get ready” routine—splash water in my face, brush my teeth, wrap my hair in a t-shirt and throw on the cleanest clothes in my room. Out of my apartment as quickly as I could!

At that time, my apartment was ONE block away from my school so I could make it in literally no time.  When I rounded the corner from my block to the school, there were hundreds of people just standing outside on the corner and in the street.  Now granted, this is New York City, White Harlem, so hundreds of people on a random street is not necessarily earth-shattering news.  Yet, this was different—people were crying in the street, people looked confused in the street, and most important, these folks were right in front of my school, which was not really a sexy or fun street to hang out on.

Plus, it was 9 in the morning—I made it just in time for class.  There were never hundreds of people there at 9 in the morning when class just started. 

I saw my dear friend Vanessa and ran over to her.  At that time, there were virtually no Natives at my school so Vanessa and I hung very, very close together and supported each other protectively. When I saw Vanessa, she was crying, so I asked her what was wrong. 

“You haven’t heard?” she asked me as if I was the most oblivious person in the world, which apparently I was.

“Heard what?” I asked her, confirming my ignorance and obliviousness. 

Vanessa answered incredulously, “Somebody flew a plane into the World Trade Center. There was also one that went down at the Pentagon. I don’t know if anything else happened down in Virginia…”

At that point, I knew why Vanessa was crying so passionately; her brother was stationed in Virginia.  The scale of the destruction and tragedy still hadn’t dawned on me—I just wanted to find out if her brother was okay.  At that moment I also understood why I had the weird dream about the crop duster running into a building—I heard that news on the radio right before I woke up and it crept into my subconscious.  Unfortunately, we couldn’t call to find out if her brother was okay; all the phone lines were compromised, even landlines.  That remained the case for almost a week.  I later learned that my mom thought I was dead because she had never been to New York—how would she know that I was on the complete opposite side of Manhattan?

I thought I was dead too.  When I learned of the destruction and evil behind the plane crashes, I figured that somebody was coming back to finish us off.  There were bomb threats so everybody returned to their apartments and were no longer in the streets. I’m a country boy, a rez boy—this stuff was making no sense to me. I wanted to be home, on the rez, where people cry together and laugh together, where we mourn together, feel fear together and face death together. I remember when the smell crept uptown and I could smell the fire and destruction and it forced me to close my apartment window despite the late summer heat. I wished I could share that claustrophobia with someone. 

But this was the city, not my homelands, where everyone knows each other.  Instead, this was a place with millions and millions of people within extremely close quarters and nobody knows each other. 

It was weird. Not scary—I was cool dying, if that’s what was gonna happen. I was just sad that I couldn’t get my mom and my little brother on the phone to tell them that I loved them first. 

Two women hold each other in shock and grief on Sep. 11, 2001 after planes crashed into the Twin Towers in New York City

Obviously I didn’t die. Obviously a lot of information came out later that showed the enormity of the day that I didn’t understand initially. Obviously it was much, much bigger than my little take on the day.  Turns out that September 11th is probably the most important date in recent history—that date became the excuse for a whole new branch of government, a racist war against a nation that had nothing to do with that date, a racist war against an idea, terrorism, that is impossible to win.  Because of that date, we’re still spending hundreds of millions of dollars a day on a war that had nothing to do with September 11th that could be instead dedicated to education, health care, social security, veterans’ benefits or any number of more worthwhile things. 

It was undoubtedly a tragedy. But September 11th wasn’t a surprise, at least not for Native people and many people of color. No, Native people were already well aware of how destructive and evil people could be. How did we know? AMERICA TAUGHT US THAT; really, September 11th was only a surprise for white people and for those who didn’t realize that America had already perpetrated many September 11ths of its own. Native people knew that. We knew that America had a whole bunch of blood on its hands and that there was always a harvest season, always a reckoning. Sir Isaac Newton gave that harvest a name in his Third Law of Motion, that every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

Oh yeah, that means that there will be more September 11ths as well—it’s inevitable unless America works to acknowledge and reconcile with its many victims of domestic terrorism against its own people. We see that energy right now—the current distrust of the federal government, the distrust of law enforcement and peoples’ movements of all colors that don’t believe in the legitimacy of the “powers that be,” like Idle No More, the Occupy Movement, Black Lives Matter and the Tea Party. Obviously the viewpoints of those various movements are vastly different, but the energy is largely the same.

“We don’t believe you. This Nation is build upon raw power and deceit and not freedom, equality or opportunity.”

There will be more September 11ths unless we change, folks. God forbid, but unless we do something it will happen. There will be rectification for the Marias Massacre, for the Sand Creek Massacre, for Wounded Knee, for North Tulsa/Black Wall Street, the Mankato mass hanging, the Red Summer of 1919, Joe Coe, Emmett Till, internment camps of Japanese, Chinese Exclusion Act, slavery, Jim Crow, genocide, forced tubal ligation of Native women, Tuskegee experiments, etc., etc., etc. 

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In the words of Ron Burgundy, “It’s science.” So, how do we stop this horrible cycle? Acknowledgment. Conversation. Painful conversation. Hell, restitution, reparations. Not punitive—just what the US owes. To wit, honor treaties with Native people and recognize aboriginal title, whether that be via monetary compensation (a disgusting compromise for many Native people, yet one that acknowledges practical realities) or specific performance. Monetary compensation for black folks for 40 acres and a mule—what is that in today’s dollars? 

Formally apologize. Acknowledge. Treat us as human beings—the inhumane way that many white folks on this continent treated people of color for 400 years still influences the way they perceive us today, hence the incredibly disproportionate amount of deaths for Native and Black people at the hands of law enforcement.

Not civil rights-- human rights—treat us like human beings.

Otherwise there will be more September 11ths. It’s physics. Natural law. We’re stuck with each other—none of us are going anyplace. But acknowledgment, reconciliation and restitution of America’s past crimes will move help us move to a new age, where we can get past these historical demons and actually start living in the 21st Century.

God bless the families of all who were harmed by September 11th. God also bless the families devastated by all instances of terrorism, including those perpetrated by the United States.



Gyasi Ross, Editor at Large
Blackfeet Nation/Suquamish Territories
Twitter: @BigIndianGyasi


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Sammy7's picture
Submitted by Sammy7 on
A supranational sovereignty of an intellectual elite and bankers believes that the highest right and moral duty is limitless capital accumulation. They believe it to be an ethical absolute, a supreme goal, and a natural and absolute good. They believe in all forms of conquering including mass death as a natural right and law. Their beliefs are perversions of past great philosophical thinkers. Their followers consider themselves super patriots. A false flag operation like 9/11 is justifiable and even moral and right in pursuit of the supreme goal of limitless capital accumulation. It (9/11) was geo-strategic and generated support for the resource wars of Iraq and Afghanistan. Unknowingly solders are asked to give their lives for this, and do. All armed action is now sold as defense against terrorism. Soon it will become clear that anyone who does not support the highest right and moral duty of limitless capital accumulation through perpetual war will be deemed unfit to exist. That is the historical flow of Fascist belief systems, mass death. We’ve been here before.

scd's picture
Submitted by scd on
People will believe what they want to believe. My point of interest about 9/11 has always been at the Pentagon. There has been much debate about it being hit by a plane or not. My question is and always has been this. How on EARTH can a plane of that size fly well below 100 feet and hit a building and NO HUMAN BEING nor VIDEO of ANY kind SEE IT? Not one human being was an eye witness to the plane flying that low to the ground and hit that building. People SAW the planes that hit the twin towers, right? There is even video evidence of it. Where are the eye witnesses that saw the plane that hit the Pentagon? I KNOW about the white mans propaganda when there is an agenda he has up his sleeve. I personally do not believe anything that Bush said about 9/11 NOTHING! If you don't think that Bush wouldn't sacrifice american lives for his personal agenda, whatever that may have been, then you don't know the white man! The killing of my ancestors is proof enough for me. You can believe what you want!

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
You're absolutely right, Gyasi! The U.S. might avert some of the future 9/11 by acknowledging that they've treated (and are treating) people like dirt. The problem with that is that they'd have to admit to some wrong-doings in the process. That may be why so many people in the U.S. like the bloated gas-bag of a politician, Donald Trump - he exudes the notion that White People don't have to apologize for anything . . . EVER!

talyn's picture
Submitted by talyn on
Painful truths, but true nonetheless. I wish they would start with teaching a more accurate history of early European arrivals and American colonialism in schools. The Columbus fairy tale is particularly maddening, and sickening in light of the truth. And the other day one of my oldest boy's teachers was explaining his activities and progress, and how his reading group was reading a 'fun story' about the adventures of a boy who is at one point, kidnapped by Indians! And then suddenly she looks at me in horror and asks me if my son knows HE is Indian! I fear I just sat there with my mouth open while she decided it was not that big a deal because the tribe mentioned is not his tribe. Huh? How the hell am I supposed to (politely) respond to that? It is no wonder the American education system produces a population with no regard for indigenous rights or past atrocities. It teaches that indigenous Americans no longer exist and nothing that bad happened, anyway. How this rainbows and unicorns version reconciles nothing bad happening with entire nations wiped out, I don't know.

Steve Brown
Submitted by Steve Brown on
Thank you for the excellent commentary. I used to think, "there will be more Vietnams if we do not learn." There were. And they get worse. We may not be able to change the past, but we definitely can learn from it, and by learning we can shape a better future.

calvintatsey's picture
Submitted by calvintatsey on
I don’t have anything against Gyasi Ross, I’ve never seen him and if it’s not already obvious, I do not know him personally. However, I guess that he’s an enrolled member of The Blackfeet Tribe of Montana and something or other of the “Suquamish Territories,” whatever that is, but I think that I’d heard somewhere that it concerns an Indian tribe in Washington State. I’m close friends with one of his first cousins on our reservation where I live and I know most, if not all of his relatives on my reservation and I suppose that if I wanted to, I could ask Ross’ first cousin and learn everything that I have ever wanted to know about Ross, but only if I wanted to know more than I know now, but I don’t because I don’t. No, I have nothing personal either for or against Ross, but I do have concerns with how, if I’d heard this correctly from his first cousin, how Ross grew up within his Suquamish Territories connections in Washington State and spent very little time here on The Blackfeet Indian Reservation; however, every time that I read him he appears to be attempting to monopolize both tribal identities and both locations, Montana and Washington State as his deepest personal and identifiable connections of personal growth and overall formation, which according to how he apparently alludes, served to form him as one complete and obviously intelligent and motivated, part Siksawpeequan (black man), part Blackfeet, part Nawpeequan (white man) and again if I’d heard this correctly, part Suquamish Territories, or whatever, individual. Those are my concerns, which involve me, Ross, a comparison of sorts and the very little time that I’d actually spent visiting Washington State, plus the majority of my growing up time spent on my Indian reservation within the Blackfeet Tribe and within the state of Montana. Thus, similar to Ross and his visits only, to Montana, since I’d only visited Washington State, but also similar to Ross and his spending the majority of his growing up years upon his Washington State Indian reservation, where I’d spent the majority of my life in Montana on The Blackfeet Indian Reservation, in comparison to what Ross apparently attempts to pass off and since I’d only visited Washington State, can I also, rightfully attempt to monopolize both locations as mine for my literary, identity purposes? In terminus, I’m a humble writer from Montana residing full time and having always resided full time upon my Indian reservation and within my tribe, The Blackfeet Tribe of Montana. Ross is a highly educated director, writer and attorney, but ethics only considered, can Ross rightfully, legitimately and ethically claim to command both locations as his personal lifetime forums? I think not and I also think that anyone with EGO enough to even make an attempt at monopolizing such a big and broad forum to make it theirs only, perhaps requires inquiry.