GREAT FALLS, MONTANA – As protesters demand justice for George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis, many Native Americans in Montana are showing solidarity for black Americans.
Floyd, 46, died after pleading for his life as a white police officer pressed his knee into his neck. The incident sparked outrage, and protesters flooded cities worldwide, including Great Falls, Helena, Bozeman, Missoula and Billings, calling for justice and an end to systemic racism.
Resulting anger and frustration are compounded by the coronavirus pandemic, which illuminates inequity, as it disproportionately ravages minority communities.
A May report from the APM Research Lab found that the COVID-19 mortality rate for black Americans is 2.4 times higher than for white Americans. While the report acknowledged “limited and uneven data” regarding Indigenous populations, it stated that in New Mexico, which contains portions of the Navajo Nation, the Indigenous mortality rate is eight times as high as the white mortality rate.
Rep. Barbara Bessette (D-Great Falls), a Chippewa Cree tribal member, said, like coronavirus, she views systemic racism as a public health crisis.
“Minority communities have high health disparities, economic injustice and inadequate housing. This isn’t about just one incident but a myriad of things. What’s happening now is symptomatic of a much deeper ‘disease,'” she told the Great Falls Tribune.
As Floyd’s death sparks an anti-racism movement, some Native Americans wonder if they will be included in conversations of injustice and change.
Indian Education for All Instructional Coach Jordann Lankford said that while the growing movement provides an opportunity to discuss inequity, she is disappointed that other minorities have been excluded from the dialogue.
“I fear people in Montana will see these things and see the riots and think, ‘Well, that really doesn’t affect Montana because we don’t have a big black population here.’ But it’s not just a black and white issue — racial inequity affects all minority groups, and it needs to be an open dialogue, including everyone,” she said.
Craig Falcon, a Blackfeet tribal member who is running for council in Seville District No. 7, said that when it comes to conversations about racism, American Indians are often treated “like the forgotten stepchild of the family that no one likes.”
“The African American population often gets the spotlight on racism, but our struggle is very similar,” Falcon said. “We also deal with racism on a daily basis, so this touches home for us, too. Native Americans are often dehumanized and portrayed as savages. It seems like we get forgotten because America is ashamed, or embarrassed about its treatment of us.”
But, Ben Pease, an artist who, through his work, challenges cultural appropriation and confronts Indigenous stereotypes, said including Native voices in anti-racist movements “happens at a different trajectory and velocity.”
“This country is quite literally founded on stolen lands and the conquering of many peoples, thousands of tribes. But we have a small population; we don’t have a large representation in media. As individuals and culturally, we are not as vocal. We haven’t had a Dr. (Martin Luther) King or a Dr. Cornel West. We’ve had other scholars, activists and educators, but our voice is much smaller,” he said.
Lance Morris, 62, a member of the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes and local activist, said unrest is a familiar story in America.
He remembers the ransacking of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building, the burning of a courthouse in South Dakota and protests at Wounded Knee in the 1970s. He also attended Stewart Indian School, which, along with other boarding schools in the country, punished students for embracing their cultural identity.
It’s hard for Morris to reconcile new anti-racist movements with past injustices. He often wonders where the protesters were when he was fighting for equality.
“We’ve had the Indian Removal Act, Trail of Tears, ethnic cleansing and genocide. This man didn’t deserve to die, and it’s very tragic, but where were these people when we needed them to stand?” he said. “Indigenous women, men and children go missing and are murdered every day … where’s the outrage for them? Where’s the outrage for the generational trauma that people are still dealing with on reservations? We’re still being forgotten.”
Lankford works with Indigenous youth and often talks with them about how to effectively incite change.
She said she encourages students to confront, rather than confirm, stereotypes and worries that when people see riots and the destruction of property, it will be harder to have conversations about race.
“Absolutely, people should stand for what they believe in. We have the right to protest, but we have a moral responsibility to uphold, and there’s a line between protesting and anarchy,” she said. “I don’t want to teach children that this is how you get your way. I’m trying to teach kids how to rationally look at situations and make room for dialogue. Reacting violently is not going to allow people to listen to you.”
Artist Ben Pease disagrees.
“Personally, I think, how loud do you have to be to be heard? How many times do you have to die? How many African Americans have to die at the hands of the police for there to be systemic change? Rioting does work. Looting does work. Protesting does work,” he said. “People are speaking up, and if no one is listening, it takes yelling.”
While feelings of anger, frustration and exhaustion reverberate nationwide, many see the growing movement as a sign of hope.
Lankford likened the new movement to the #MeToo movement, which supports survivors of sexual violence.
“With the #MeToo movement, we saw a trickle-down effect that made a lot of room for conversation about missing and murdered Indigenous women. Even though the issue has been around for more than 500 years, that movement allowed Indigenous voices to be heard. It’s unfortunate that it takes a catastrophe for us to have an opening to talk about these things, but I hope the dialogue will stay open,” she said.
Falcon said he is proud of Montanans for speaking up.
“We don’t want these atrocities to happen to any person of any color, and it seems that people are finally fed up with racism,” he said.
Pease wrestles with his emotions on the topic but ultimately takes solace in local activism.
“This country was built to say that yes, white people are more valuable,” he said. “So, how am I supposed to feel? I’m angry, disappointed, scared and unsure of the future for myself, my children and their children. But there is hope. I am seeing a lot of beautiful things in our state of Montana, and I’m seeing people protest peacefully and race boundaries begin to dissolve.”
Rep. Bessette offered advice for Montanans who want to support the movement:
“Speak up if you see injustices, be a known ally for those who are disproportionately represented in these situations and, no matter what, vote.”