AICH files
Muhammad Ali and Clyde Bellecourt, plus Monica Montoya (Lorraine Canoe's daughter) and Judy Tarrant (now Fields). 1974

Muhammad Ali Stood Up for Native Americans Every Chance He Could

Alex Jacobs

“I am America. I am the part you won't recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.” - Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali’s family claimed some Native American heritage, though as we know in history, ancestry often gets lost. What we do know was Ali had an Irish great grandfather who came to the southern United States and married a woman who was described as Moorish.That description could possibly mean she had mixed Native American ancestry.

Ali’s family history also states his ancestors were slaves in the pre-Civil War era and the name Clay was prominent in Louisville. Ali was named after a prominent white abolitionist, Cassius Marcellus Clay, who fought and killed some of his slave-owning opponents.

Ali says in his biography, The Greatest, that if his family had any relation to the Kentucky political family of Henry Clay, statesman, orator, politician and brother to Cassius, it was as “slaves who were raped as property.”

The Clay family owned slaves and released them before and after the Civil War. What Ali was trying to expound was the published theory, that as far as “society” was concerned, any good that blacks accomplished could be accounted for by tracing back to “white blood.”

Muhammad Ali did foolish things due to his youthful, naïve nature and the demands of celebrity. His first trip to Africa contained highlights and lowlights. Ali’s indoctrination into the Nation of Islam and its self-professed prophet, Elijah Muhammad, would cloud his judgment. Not long after joining the Nation of Islam and accepting Elijah Muhammad as a teacher, he turned his back on his friend Malcolm X for his “betrayal” to the Nation and Elijah.

Ali later said that his betrayal of Malcolm X was a mistake he regretted most of his life. Ali was badly advised by Elijah Muhammad, and after “the Prophet” passed, Ali converted to the Sunni version of Islam and preached peace and tolerance as he understood those to be the basic tenets of Islam. Muslims throughout the world admire him for standing up for his beliefs, for being a people’s champion and for being an ambassador for peace, love and understanding.

Ali’s passing has brought out universal acclaim of an international hero, a social justice warrior who fought for the powerless and spoke for the voiceless. Although a prizefighter, in the second half of his life his fights were about religious freedom and tolerance. He will still be criticized as a conscientious objector to the draft who refused to kill other human beings for political agendas. That will never go away for patriots who will always recount their pain and the deaths of their comrades in battle. But Ali was not a draft-dodger nor a privileged avoider, like many white politicians of today.

Now we have social media trolls who will bait us with insulting remarks. One current meme is that Ali said more inflammatory remarks than Donald Trump ever has. Context is everything. When Ali won in the ring, all the powerless felt that victory as they did when Joe Louis won and would ride that celebratory feeling as long as they could. And when he lost, the racists would jeer and taunt because Ali stood for more than wins in a ring. He stood up and fought back within the law and his religious beliefs against the modern concepts of slavery, slave-masters and social domination. His titles were taken from him illegally and the repression against him was immoral and unethical, but he always stood his ground, no matter the consequences.

Trump against Ali would be a dream match of oratorical skills, where we would see the bully beaten badly. Donald Trump has bared something dark in the soul of America and even if he loses badly in November, American politics may never be the same. Ali’s passing represents the passing of an era, unless as Gyasi Ross says, we seek out and support a new generation of outspoken and courageous leaders.

Ali has been awarded all the accolades that sports and media could offer. Yes, Muhammad Ali can be called the greatest. He made social justice relevant but now commercialism has quieted many top athletes and kept “role models” from speaking out. Call him a transcendent personality but please don’t say he transcended race. He wanted you to know he was the best, he was black, he was Muslim, that his people came up as slaves and he would always fight that history and its Jim Crow legacy, all over the world.

Muhammad Ali stood up for Native Americans every chance he could. He supported The Longest Walk in 1978 at events in New York City and walked with them into Washington D.C. In 1990 he saved a peace delegation with Arvol Looking Horse in Iraq as the first Gulf War approached.

Nadema Agard, a native artist born in New York City, recalls the time Mohawk activist Lorraine Canoe and others at the American Indian Community House took the ferry to the Statue of Liberty with Ali to be at the press conference he had called to support A.I.M. She recounts how he told the press, “Look at all these good-looking Indian people, aren’t they beautiful, aren’t you jealous?”

Then he turned back to the Indians and said, “Let’s attack them!”

"I know where I'm going and I know the truth, and I don't have to be what you want me to be. I'm free to be what I want."  - Muhammad Ali

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alexjacobs's picture
Submitted by alexjacobs on
Nadema Agard asked me to include Joan Garabedian (Cherokee) who was an important person at the Statue of Liberty event/press conference and often hosted AIM support events at AICH and in NYC. I also did not know that Lorraine Canoe walked on recently, she helped me out on my last visit to AICH and NYC.