Alaska Natives call for justice in solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter

June 8, 2020

Across the country and around the world, people are calling for justice following the death of George Floyd in Minnesota and the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, in Georgia, and Breonna Taylor, in Kentucky. Floyd died after being pinned to the ground by a white police officer for almost nine minutes. Two white men were arrested and charged with Arbery's death. A third man filmed them chasing him through the streets of a South Georgia community. He was later shot. Plainclothes police officers shot Taylor in her apartment while serving a "no-knock" warrant. 

For more than a week, protesters have taken to the streets across America, sharing the message that Black lives matter. 

"It was important to create space for us to acknowledge the horrible injustices that continue and to love up our Black brothers and sisters," said Elizabeth La quen naay Medicine Crow, president and CEO of First Alaskans Institute. "It is about their lives, and as the Native peoples of this country, we hold them up in their time of need." 

Throughout Alaska, from Southeast to the North Slope, Alaska Native leaders and community members are standing in solidarity with the movement. 

Standing under a covered patio sheltered from the rain, Medicine Crow and other community members in Kake gathered together to share words of strength and compassion. 

Around the state over the weekend, organizers held "I Can't Breathe" rallies, for the words Floyd spoke while the officer pinned him to the ground. 

"Black lives are not up for debate," said Erica Purruq Khan, of Utqiaġvik. 

She is one of many people who have taken to social media to share her message.

Across the Arctic and in other parts of the state, people have shared stories and photos and set frames for their profile pictures bearing the words "Natives for #BlackLivesMatter." 

There is a parallel history, in many ways, shared by African Americans and Indigenous people in this country. It is a history shaped by colonialism and systemic racism, said Charlene Aqpik Apok, gender justice and healing director at Native Movement. 

"I do think that truly, this movement and this amount of solidarity can only come from a place of love," she said. "We have a common context of struggle. We can draw parallel lines of colonization and our paths have been intertwined. The foundation of what we work upon and the solution of what we're moving towards is grounded in a very deep love for one another. And we wouldn't be able to walk this path and we are not going to be able to walk this path to justice without keeping ourselves grounded in that." 

First Alaskans Institute, Native Movement and Native Peoples Action issued a joint statement the same day as one of the in-person protests in Anchorage. 

"As Indigenous people, we are born with innate intergenerational love and respect for our people, all walks of life and beings in the natural and spiritual world. We are taught that we carry responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of one another, and that we must follow through with this responsibility in community as our people have done for generations," it reads. "We are protectors." 

Enough is enough, it continues. 

"Too many truths about the history of this country have been carefully hidden behind a veil for too long, and it's our peoples who suffer and labor under that criminal ignorance," said Ayyu Qassataq, vice president of First Alaskans Institute, speaking at the rally. "The time for healing and justice is upon us." 

She, like many others around the state, pointed to shared struggles and a need for fellowship. 

"This country was built on stolen Indigenous lands on the backs of stolen African peoples, and our destinies have been intertwined ever since," she said. 

Structural racism and "active disenfranchisement" of Black and Indigenous communities continue to plague them to this day, she said. She shared examples of what she called "state sanctioned violence" and said it takes many different forms, including "excessive targeting and law enforcement brutality, criminal maltreatment and negligence in our jails and correctional facilities (and) lack of protection, follow-through" for sexual assault victims. 

"These incidents are not isolated. They are not new," said Apok. "There is a historical context to this all. Up here in Alaska, our numbers tell the same story. We have the same amounts of violence against people of color and what's happening down there is not different than the things that our communities are facing up here." 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Native and Black or African American people are killed by police and other law enforcement at a higher rate than any other racial demographics. 

"We share the pain of our fathers, uncles, brothers, sons being taken from our families and communities before their time," Qassataq said. 

"Alaska Natives and African Americans both face racism on the daily — but imagine being half-Native and half-Black as my son was both," said Kotzebue's Eva Gregg, who now lives in Anchorage. 

Gregg believes racism played a role in her son's death; he was shot by a white man in 2018. 

"I have been thinking about the tyranny people of color have been facing since who knows when but I know for Alaska, rape, murder and genocide have been happening to us for over 300 years. For African Americans, that has been happening since slavery so I can understand why they are so angry. Who wouldn't be after generations of historical trauma?" said Gregg, who is Inupiaq. "The hate people have for others must stop. I don't know how or what that looks like but maybe if we start from a place of love and respect, we can do better for our future generations."

That mutual respect came through when the Anchorage protest was in the planning stage. Apok and others said organizers offered to hold space for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. It is not the same issue, but it is connected through history, Apok said. 

"It still overwhelms me with that amount of love that they have, too, even in their grief and for everything that they're going through in a time that's meant to call to action and provide safety and recognition of everything they have historically gone through, that they would still acknowledge and bring us into that conversation," she said. "It overwhelms me with the amount of love this work is being done with."

And so, it is through that love and shared strength and memory and history that many Alaska Native people have stepped forward to speak out for justice and healing. 

"I stand with Black and brown people in the fight to break down the systems of oppression that continue to allow racism, violence and murder be excusable in our country, Solidarity is power. The collective uprising started generations ago," said Adrienne Blatchford, who is Inupiaq. "As an Indigenous woman and mother with a connection to a sacred place, I also have a connection to the trauma endured by my people whose land and children were stolen, languages and ceremony silenced. Black liberation and Indigenous sovereignty are intertwined. Showing up in solidarity, holding space, using my voice is a part of a healing journey so our future generations will no longer have to fight this battle. When they are free, we are free."

Source: Alaska Natives call for justice in solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter - The Arctic Sounder