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Voices ᐋ ᐄᔮᔨᐧᒫᓂᐧᐃᒡ

A moral compass

BY Maïtée Labrecque-Saganash Feb 28, 2022

February is Black History Month. For the occasion, I watched the very necessary documentary Dreamland: The Burning of Black Wall Street that tells the stories of the African-American communities who fled the South to settle in Oklahoma in what was still considered “Indian Territory” at the time.

After the Indian Removal Act, Indigenous peoples in the Deep South were forced from their lands to make way for settlers. This massive displacement of Native Americans that took place between 1831 and 1833 is still known today as the Trail of Tears. As I mentioned here before, many African-Americans enslaved by Indigenous folks were part of the Trail of Tears. To assimilate the “Five Civilized Tribes” into American society, the government strongly encouraged certain Indigenous communities to own Black slaves.

After the Civil War and the abolition of slavery under Abraham Lincoln (the same guy who was hanging Dakota men in Minnesota in 1862), Oklahoma became a diverse land of Black and Indigenous communities. Black folks fleeing racial segregation under Jim Crow laws and the violence of the Ku Klux Klan found a place of opportunity. Both Natives and Black people didn’t want Oklahoma to become a state; everyone was aware that statehood and joining the Union would lead to the same problems of racial violence through state regulations. The goal here was different: being able to own land and achieve self-determination through wealth like the White man was doing. 

By the 1890s, formerly enslaved Black folks were receiving reparations through land allotments and started to thrive in Oklahoma. Owning land opened the door for opportunities such as creating businesses. In Tulsa, the agglomerations of successful Black business owners kept attracting more Black folks. This wealthy Black community led to the rise of the Greenwood District, also known as the “Black Wall Street”.

Unfortunately, the idea of Black people becoming as wealthy – if not more – than the people who once enslaved them was unacceptable for many. In 1921, the Greenwood District went up in flames during an orgy of lynching and looting. Hundreds were killed by white mobs that were armed and deputized by local authorities. 

How do we achieve Indigenous sovereignty and Black liberation if we can’t achieve self-determination through wealth? Is “Land Back” really land back if we have to buy it from our oppressors? These are all questions I ask myself, especially after seeing many demonstrators in Ottawa carrying hateful symbols like Confederate flags and swastikas. How do we reconcile both philosophies in our communities: gaining power by becoming an important economic player in the system, or overthrow the system altogether? Do we participate in an economic system deeply rooted in land dispossession and resource extractions, or do we put all our energy into dreaming of something new?

I don’t think Canada will ever acknowledge that a racist doctrine like Terra Nullius and genocide allowed its creation, because it would compromise its legitimacy. Should we wait for Canada to suddenly have a moral compass, or should we become better at playing their game? I don’t have the answer to this, but I sometimes allow myself to dream of something better for my people by imagining new cards than those my oppressors dealt me.

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Maïtée Labrecque-Saganash is Cree from Waswanipi, and is the Nation’s newest columnist. She is an activist and writer who also has a regular column in Montreal’s French Metro Newspaper.