Enslaved By Native Americans: Why I Helped Create Indigenous Peoples Day in Los Angeles

I took a step toward reconciliation after learning about the violence inflicted upon my ancestors.
10/09/2017 01:30 pm ET Updated Oct 09, 2017
David McNew via Getty Images

A little known historical fact is that many thousands of African slaves were owned by Native Americans.  Whether Indigenous People adopted the European system of slavery in an attempt to assimilate or compete economically is a topic for another conversation. After the Emancipation Proclamation freed them, the former slaves names were recorded in the Freedman Rolls of the Five Civilized Tribes.  My ancestors were among them.

Discovering my ancestors walked the Trail of Tears as slaves rattled me to the core. Until then, I assumed my family was owned by white people and I placed my resentment with them and their generational beneficiaries. I shared collective American guilt about our historical and continued mistreatment of Native Americans. I deeply identified with Native Americans because, like so many black families, my grandparents explained away our visually obvious mixture of heritage by claiming that we are part Native American ― that is to say that we are not a product of rape by white slave masters but a product of love with a fellow oppressed people.

I buried the myriad of dilemmas and muddling of heroes and villains presented by this revelation for years. The waters were already muddy enough. Even when pummeled with news stories of crushing racial transgressions, I couldn’t write off all white people because, not only was my own father a white man, he was proof positive that even the most privileged white man could have a lovely, principled soul. Without knowing, he had already taught me the answer to my dilemma, namely, that it is wrong to judge a group of people by the mistakes of a few.

...now is the time to dismantle the monuments and celebrations that never should have been erected in the first place."

So, as a descendant of African slaves owned by Native Americans, it was a humbling and healing experience, as a Commissioner for the City of Los Angeles Human Relations Commission, to recommend and advocate for the replacement of Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day. The city adopted the recommendation in August and Los Angeles County followed suit in October.

Tasked with exploring citywide issues of inclusion and justice, the Commission found, like so many across the nation, that now is the time to dismantle the monuments and celebrations that never should have been erected in the first place. It is time to address old wrongs, mend old wounds and commit to a factual, accurate, complex telling of our collective story. This is not rewriting history, but telling it the way it is, and, in doing so, recognizing the original settlers of this beautiful place we call home.

Yes, there are dangers in revisiting the heroes of old. As humanity grows and culture evolves, every generation is at risk of condemnation if judged by the latest modern standards. The distinction here is that we are not judging by unattainable contemporary standards, but rather the standards in 1492. The indiscriminate torture and killing of innocent men, women and children has always been murder, it has always shocked the conscious. It was condemned then and it should not be celebrated now. 

Helping create a holiday for my ancestral slave masters is not something I ever thought I’d do. Given my flesh and blood were bought and sold into bondage by Native Americans, I did not take this endeavor lightly. I acutely understand no one is without sin. Yet, even with my family’s deeply troubled history with Native Americans, I could see this step at reconciliation with the original people of this land was an inevitable and necessary marker on the road to a more perfect union. Columbus Day is a misplaced monument which needs to be removed.  While we are at it, the lexicon of every Angeleno should include the word Tongva, who are the original Native American settlers of Los Angeles.

I have great respect for the many Angelenos who were vocal in favor of retaining Columbus Day, namely, the Italian American community whose strong heritage and enormous contributions are vital to this city. While I appreciate the kinder, gentler story we were told as children, if our societal goals really include healing, justice, inclusion and unity, we have to start by telling the truth. And in light of that truth, I wouldn’t insult the Italian American community by associating it with the barbarism of Columbus and his men.

Let the holidays, celebrations and monuments be erected to the proponents of humanity, peace, justice and the principles for which this nation stands. Let the rest be relegated to museums and history books as cautionary tales.  

Los Angeles is scheduled to celebrate its first Indigenous People’s Day on October 14, 2019.  I hope it is humbling and healing for all of us.

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