I was born and raised as a descendant of enslaved Africans on Ute, Cheyenne and Arapaho land. I was born on the front range of the Rocky Mountains where Pike’s Peak's massive snowcapped summit caused the sun to set 20 minutes earlier. Raised on a small family ranch with pigs, sheep and llamas, I grew up emotionally connected and physically tethered to a land that was not my people’s.
At school, we learned about the First Nation tribes that originally settled the lands my family’s ranch rested on hundreds of years before my people were taken to this continent. We learned about the water crises of the Wild West when American settlers stole key positions along the Colorado River from First Nation peoples. We learned how, decades later, California and Nevada would fight with my home state of Colorado over the rights to that stolen water. We learned about the Trail of Tears and the Sand Creek Massacre.
Water, land and forced migration are central themes in Southwestern public education, though we seem to forget that when tribal governments assert their rights to their water. My white teachers generally taught this history as if it were a relic of a bygone era of time when “Indians” still walked the land and men were men. Obviously, any narrative that acknowledged ongoing complicity in oppression was rare and frowned upon by the conservative administration.
It was also frowned upon by my father, who refused to allow us to side with the European settlers in history class. My father took my siblings and me to the Black American West Museum in Denver when I was in elementary school. There I learned about the Exodusters and the buffalo soldiers. We learned about how our ancestors fled west hoping for freedom and autonomy.
My father told us other stories about buffalo soldiers refusing to fire upon wounded Indigenous soldiers. We learned that the term "buffalo soldier" was a term of respect and mutual admiration, and I learned to hold the term in personal reverence. After that visit as a young child, when my friends would play "cowboys and Indians," I would play the part of the stoic and honorable buffalo soldier.
In many ways, my father’s counternarrative was not much more accurate than the version I was taught in school. Nor did my desire to side with my dark-skinned brethren make playing “cowboys and Indians” any less problematic. In reality, the buffalo soldiers’ legacy was less cut-and-dried in the genocidal “Indian wars” that consumed the American West after the Civil War. Black men sought to get ahead by proving our people's loyalty to the newly reformed Union by participating in the most hallowed of American traditions: accumulation by dispossession. Similarly, members of the Cherokee nation attempted assimilation by owning slaves in the South. Our ancestors were not the clear-cut heroes we often think of when we are children.
The truth is, the relationship between Africans and the indigenous population of this continent has always been complicated. When Europeans first came to this continent, they enslaved much of the portion of the indigenous population they didn’t outright kill. Thus, by the time the first enslaved Africans reached the shores of Virginia in 1619, they were not the only unpaid and brutalized labor enriching the ruling class.
Though rarely mentioned in our public discourse about race, the reality is that black people’s place on the bottom of America’s caste system has always been contingent on the whims and material realities of white landowning America. Our modern formation of anti-blackness wasn’t automatic, and it wasn’t always a foregone conclusion. For instance, once the transcontinental railroad was completed, it simply became more expedient to white supremacist capitalism to deport Chinese and other Asian Pacific Islander workers and assimilate white ethnics than to expel black and Chicano workers who were still crucial to Southern and Southwestern agriculture, respectively. Our First Nation family was simply written out of modern history books and culturally erased while broken treaties, forced removals and “Indian schools” together facilitated a new era in American genocide.
I grew up wondering what would have happened if my enslaved ancestors had built more lasting common cause with our First Nation family. How might history been different if, during Bacon’s Rebellion, enslaved Africans and indentured servants had united with the Doeg tribe instead of against it? What would have happened if the buffalo soldiers had joined with the tribes at war with the Union or refused to fight in their genocidal wars? It is in this complicated, bloody context that I watch the historic resistance being mounted at Standing Rock.
As a prairie child in the age of global warming, I am well aware of how precious and finite fresh water is. I remember how fortunate we were to have well water during the droughts that devastated the Southwest in the early 2000s. I am reminded in this moment, as we are still struggling with poisoned water in Flint, Mich., and high lead levels in schools in my new home in Washington, D.C., the precarious nature of my people’s water supply.
Because my family could no longer afford my childhood home after the Great Recession, I am well aware of the displacement and broken promises that come when our economic security is placed in the hands of giant corporations. As the state and corporate power respond to peaceful protest with tear gas, I can only assume it is the same companies that provided the tools for repression in Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore, Milwaukee and Gaza. Living in D.C., with gentrification being heralded by bars called “homestead,” I cannot help noticing how black inner cities have become America’s new frontier land.
As I struggle against displacement in the former Chocolate City, I am forced to remember to whose land my home belongs. I am reminded of the violence of private property itself. As a black child of the land emotionally and physically, I yearn to find common cause with the only Americans who still have a spiritual connection to this land. Perhaps most poignantly, as tribal elders and youths come together to protect sacred sites on Sioux land, I am reminded that our generation is called to heal the wounds of ancestors. I am reminded, as I so often am recently, of my sister Mary Hook’s mandate:
The mandate for black people in this time is to avenge the suffering of our ancestors! To earn the respect of future generations! And be willing to be transformed in the service of the work!
#NoDAPL and the Red Warrior Camp present my people, black people, with a chance to build a legacy of which our descendants will be proud. We have an opportunity, in this moment, to write a story of resistance in which the dispossessed take back their land. We can write a new history in which the people whose ancestors worked this land—whose very bodies were the down payment on one of the most devastating empires in human history—stood in solidarity with the people whose homes and lands were stolen, burned and poisoned for the settler-colonial project that birthed that same empire.
We have a unique opportunity to reap the seeds of freedom that were sowed in the American Indian Movement and black liberation movements of the ’60s and ’70s. As dispossessed people on this continent, we have a sacred duty and blessed opportunity to connect to the land through solidarity with the Red Warrior Camp and bring new meaning to the red, black and green of our national flag. The blood, sweat and tears we shed in solidarity can consecrate this land for our descendants who will someday be able to pray to ancestors that found common cause against neocolonial exploitation, capitalistic privatization and state violence.
We can be the freedom fighters that our ancestors dreamed of, and the maroons our descendants will be inspired by.
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Aaron Goggans is a writer, activist, organizer and artist with Black Lives Matter D.C. and the founder of the Well Examined Life.