November Is Native American Heritage Month

Saint Mary’s Native American and Indigenous Student Association (NAISA) kicked off a week of celebrating Native American Heritage Month with an event dedicated to exploring the intersections of Black and Indigenous identity. A collaboration between NAISA and the Black Student Union (BSU), “Black Indigenous Roots and Shared Experiences” was a panel-based event held over Zoom on November 9. The event hosted three panelists—Akinsanya Kambon, Aquene Azania, and Fred Clay.

SMC students Shilei Bell-Lipsey '22 and Collin Fisher ‘23, two members of BSU’s executive team, moderated the Q&A section of the panel. Their questions for the panelists ranged from if they had always known they were Black and Indigenous, and how to find their history if their family had limited knowledge, to how they navigated strife between these two communities. Panelists were also asked about their art and spiritualism, as well as their thoughts on the recent uptick of land acknowledgements (a statement that recognizes and thanks Indigenous Peoples for being stewards of the land). 

Akinsanya Kambon, an art professor at CSULB, Lieutenant of Culture for Sacramento’s Black Panther Party, former marine, and Vietnam veteran, started the event. He began with a discussion of his work in coalitions with other Black Panthers and how they united with Indigenous Peoples, as well as how he personally learned Indigenous history through elders in their community. History often leaves out Indigenous People’s stories, he said, such as in the Battle of Little Bighorn. Such a lack of perspective still occurs today. These people in this country are used to separating women and children from each other—when Trump did this, everybody tried to act about how horrible this is, and it is, but this is what Donald Trump and everyone else believes in. … They do what’s in their blood and what’s in their history.”

The second panelist, Aquene Azania—a traditional drummer and teacher of African, Choctaw, and Cuban descent—passionately addressed healing, traditional Native and African medicine, and ceremony. She spoke of how Afro-Indigenous people need to heal themselves first, and learn how to respect and reclaim their Indigenous ancestry. Healing and confronting anti-Blackness in shared communities also requires discussion. “I feel like if people understand that Black people have the same things that First Nations people have—that’s really really important. … As we deal with the union of our people, we also have to lift up Black people. That’s my prayer.”

The final panelist, Fred Clay, holds an MBA in Sustainability, is a 10-year project manager, and has also worked for 15 years in academic support services for disenfranchised Black and Brown youth. He spoke about contemporary Afro-Indigenous figures and their visibility, as well as how five civilized tribes—Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole—all owned slaves. Although mixed marriages were allowed and their offspring were acknowledged, slavery was still present in the past and mixing between the two went on: “You also have Seminole communities that mixed intentionally with Africans ... the manifestation of being owned by a Native versus being owned by an Englishman is that the natives incorporated, intermarried, intermingled, and acknowledged their mixed progeny.”

All three panelists emphasized embracing both their Black and Indigenous blood. Clay explained how perceptions of those with mixed heritage have changed positively over the years. Azania encouraged students to stand strong and stressed how knowing who she is made more people notice and approach her. Kambon declared that the greatest warriors to walk this Earth were Africans and Indigenous People. He was proud that people are continuing to fight the fight.

The event closed with thanking the attendees, asking how they felt and what knowledge they were taking away. Many of the student attendees responded that they felt inspired and unified, in solidarity with one another, feeling joy, connection, and awe. Clay personally thanked the attendees for having the courage to explore, dig deeper, contact elders and wisdom holders, and ask questions. 

To learn more about NAISA and BSU, follow their Instagrams at @smc_naisa and @smc.bsu. Learn more about SMC’s Intercultural Center here