Thing About Skins: Happy Black History Month Part. 1

Flint’s Poisoned Water, Slavery & Human Experimentation: Black History Month for Natives

Gyasi Ross

“Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shore, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society.”

- Martin Luther King, Jr.


I grew up a Native kid in largely Native communities with a Native mom, Native dad and Native siblings. My standard of coolness was pow-wow dancers and Native basketball players—I loved all the manifestations of everyday Nativeness around, both good and bad.

Still, like most of America I was also fascinated by black culture. America LOVES black culture, even though they don’t always like to admit it—Natives are no different. Between all the Native hip-hop artists you meet at any particular pow-wow or all the Native kids speaking ebonics and doing the Nay Nay, you realize that younger Natives also appreciate the coolness.

Honestly, I didn’t even realize that it was “black culture” at the time—it was just “cool stuff.” I mean, put bluntly, black folks just seemed to always do cool stuff. I started breakdancing at an early age on the rural reservation because Turbo was just cool with his broom and I tried to Moonwalk because Michael Jackson was just so cool in Billie Jean! I also loved basketball because Michael Jordan was just cool, as was Prince, The Last Dragon (“sho nuff!”) and Junkyard Dog. It may have been conscious, but I don’t think so.

Man, these cats are cool.

As politically incorrect as it was to say, black folks were simply cooler than the white folks that were so prevalent in pop culture at the time. It’s true! Also, my family was always racially aware—in the same way that my family values reading and pow-wow dancing, we also value brown skin and strong genes. And since there were no Native people on TV or in the music videos, it was always cool to see some melanin on there when black folks were there.  TC on Magnum PI, Alfonso on Silver Spoons.


I later discovered that there were some genetic leanings toward TC and Michael and Turbo. See, I didn’t really notice any difference in any of my respective family members’ skin tones when I was a kid—they were all just beautiful shades of brown.  But later I found out that I had a biological/genetic kinship to the black folks I thought were so cool—“Oh damn my dad is half black. That makes me a quarter black. I guess that means that I’m SUPER cool since Native people and black people are the two coolest groups of people in the world!” Two different types of beautiful brownness.  The pursuit to learn more about my black heritage has led me to learn many beautiful, ugly and powerful things that I imagine is very similar to when some folks learn of their Native ancestry. I’ll talk more about those things at a later date. 

That’s cool.

In addition to my own ancestry, I’ve made it a point to learn more about black folks within the United States generally. It’s my duty to learn about and honor and love all of my ancestors; doing so helps us to understand ourselves better and therefore to evolve. We should want to learn and teach our babies about every drop of DNA that we have in our ancestry. Still, I realized that ancestry does not necessarily equal culture. For example, despite having black ancestry I cannot claim that I speak for black people because I wasn’t raised within black culture. That would be weird/wrong to for me to do so.

Similarly, it’s weird when a white person or a black person who wasn’t raised within Native culture finds a Native ancestor and then thinks that they’re empowered or entitled to speak on behalf of Native people. Many times those people take stupid positions that are at odds with most cultural Natives—“Well I’m part Native and I think it’s ok that Donald Trump and Jeb Bush speak for Native people.”

No—that’s not your place. Just like it’s not my place.  We have to earn that.  

I’ve consistently found how similar the racism that Native people and black people have experienced has been within the United States.  Oh sure, the execution of that racism is unique—for example, racism against Native people largely happened by trying to assimilate Native people into white society while racism against black people came by trying to keep them out of white society.  But looking at the history of racism in America, pretty much every evil thing that white people did to Native people later happened to black people.

I think that’s what Martin Luther King was trying to say: the infrastructure of white racism was already tested, tried and true before Africans were stolen away from their homelands and arrived on this continent. By then, white people had the template down—“We can do what we want to these Africans and this is how we justify it. It worked before with the Indians.”

The way America treats its Indigenous people is prophecy for black folks. Canaries in the coal mine. 

Dehumanization by religious decree? Check. Slavery? Check. Rape of women to further domination? Check. Labeled as a “problem” when white people no longer know what to do with you? Check. Meaning: after Natives would not die out, white people began to call Native people the “Indian Problem” because they didn’t know what to do with us. Similarly, after slavery black folks became the “Negro Problem” because white folks figured they just couldn’t stay on this continent after the sordid history between whites and blacks.

So many connections.

And those connections continued—from medical experimentation on black and Native bodies (Tuskegee experiments, forced tubal ligation of Native women) to education (capriciously assigning Native and black students to special education as well as capricious punishments different than for white students) to redlining legislative districts. 

Lots of examples. 

I suppose the major difference in the treatment of the two groups was, looking back at history, two things: 1) land and 2) economics.  Specifically, 1) Natives had land and white people wanted that land and so white people had a vested interest in getting Natives out of the picture by any means necessary. Initially that meant simply killing the Natives and then later making them blend into white society so the land would be available. Whereas with black folks, the 2) economics of the situation dictated that white people did not want to kill black folks because slaves were expensive and were much worth much more alive than dead. 

But most other forms of racism happened largely the same, just at different times. 

Which brings me to today.  The treatment of Natives again foretold how black folks would be treated.

When I heard about the disgusting water that disproportionately affects black people in Flint, Michigan, my first thought was “There it goes again—using methods to harm black folks that were used to harm/kill Natives.”  The Western Shoshone Nation, the Oglala Lakota, Navajo people, Hopi and the Spokane people all have contaminated water on their reservations as a result of uranium mining for decades. The result of this contaminated water? It’s pretty obvious—almost every single one of those Native homelands has a heightened proliferation of cancer cases.  Not saying that it’s deliberate or not deliberate—I couldn’t speculate. Irrespective of whether there is intentionality behind any of these actions—from Flint to the Reservation—doesn’t matter.

It shows that the respective governments involved—whether the federal government in the instance of the Native nations or the state and city in Flint—just don’t care. History tells us that the government simply doesn’t care about Native people and black people as it cares for white people and this seems to be one of the latest manifestations of that. 

We’re going to talk about more shared experiences in this series and talk about tangible ways to work together to improve life for both groups.  Liberation. We’re also going to talk honestly about times that have strained the relationship between Natives and blacks.  In the grand scheme of things, those strains were small and usually because of outside agitation.  Still, we’ll talk about them for the history and to have a stronger basis to work together. We have to—we may be the only people that can share our experiences with each other and not think that we’re crazy.  In that way, as Martin Luther King, Jr. prophesied Native people and black people are stuck together by experience and it would be foolish not to learn from each other. We can learn so much from each other; I have some suggestions. 

Happy Black History Month.  Native style. 

Wesley Roach, Skan Photography

Gyasi Ross, Editor at Large

Blackfeet Nation/Suquamish Territories

Twitter: @BigIndianGyasi

Instagram: BigIndianGyasi


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florm's picture
Submitted by florm on
I always enjoy your writing, and its pretty cool to learn about your experience. Looking forward to the whole series bc these are such complex issues. In our area, if someone is 25% still, its rare. We do not have a reservation and for a long time, our traditions and culture were not available for everyone. And, still, my family made a huge point to share this land with us in a way that we'd be forever tied and understand their experience. You bring up a good point - this issue of 'speaking for all black people.' Did you grow up with black culture at home? If you did, would be ok for you to be part of black culture and that not everything you say has to mean 'speaking for black people?' Every time a black person or mixed black person speaks, no one assumes they are speaking for all black people. Our way of shaming and criticizing people for engaging, speaking, expressing their history creatively is harmful. In our community, I am trying to create a new process for people who return or come back into the community so we can avoid the silliness that comes with Blood Quantum talk among ourselves and that hurts people so much. Anyway, another perspective from a community where we have 0 100%, and haven't for nearly a 100 years. You always bring up good topics and engaging dialogue.

WSullivan's picture
Submitted by WSullivan on
African-Americans were pivotal to the development of jazz, a unique American art form, but many - both within and outside the jazz community - are unaware of the contributions that Native Americans have made, and continue to make, to the development of this art form. You can learn much more about that, situated in a historical context, here:

Stephanie LaMarr Dyer
Stephanie LaMar...
Submitted by Stephanie LaMar... on
Tremendous Thanks for your article sharing insight and ideas from a fresh progressive standpoint and making the connections to Black Americans. The honesty and desire to learn about your who we are is noteworthy and appreciated. So many want to deny the "black side" of who they are when they discover black in the bloodline. The two histories tied together is rich and makes it all stronger. It can get no better than that indeed. I honor you for loving the whole of who you are! Continue to walk confidently in the earth, bearing real truth with boldness...

Stephanie LaMarr Dyer
Stephanie LaMar...
Submitted by Stephanie LaMar... on
The archive photo posted in this article is an amazing treasure! If possible, can we learn a little more about who is in the photo and any details? For example, is this a "blended" family or is the chief the father of the two young boys. Either way, an absolutely beautiful family pic! Again, I am enjoying your truth--thanks so much for making these significant historical connections visible in a photograph!