Protests calling for examinations of police procedures and civil rights took place in almost every major city across the U.S. in recent months. The country has seen corporations rethink their logos and advertising, the dismantling of statues and monuments, and the Washington NFL team agree to replace its mascot. Citizen Potawatomi Nation Supreme Court Chief Justice and Indigenous rights scholar Angela Riley sat down with Hownikan to discuss these events in the context of Indian Country. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Do you think actions like removing memorials for Christopher Columbus are important as the country reexamines its history?
“I think these actions are incredibly important. They are, by definition, symbolic acts because the statues and monuments themselves are symbolic of past events and our history. But at the same time, they’re much more than symbolic acts because they represent a groundswell of changing opinion by Americans and not just people of color but of society as a whole, of really trying to reckon with the history of the United States, the process of colonization, the impacts of slavery and the ongoing costs of that history to people living today. I have been very heartened to see that there’s been a lot of support for revisiting some of these things. There’s a wide range of activities that have taken place. Some of them have been more socially disruptive, including graffiti and rioting. So there’s been a spectrum of events. But at the core of it is to protest around markers that commemorate, if not actually celebrate, some of the people and events of the past that have actually caused enormous harm to people of color. I think being able to be critical of those and even engage in activism around removing those from public spaces, has been a really positive event.”
What has yet to be accomplished in teaching Native American history in schools specifically?
“I think this is a really important facet of coming to terms with our history and of movements toward social justice and racial justice. … And I have found that people are A. very ignorant of the history, B. embarrassed that they know so little about our own history as a country with regard to Indigenous peoples and tribal rights and C. remarkably open minded about learning about it. They just have never had anybody tell them anything. They have so little experience, so I have found that to be very heartening.
“I really feel like the fundamental level, education is one of the key components of really moving the needle with regard to race relations in the U.S. Events like the land run and the romanticization of the formation of the state of Oklahoma, for example, is in and of itself something that really needs to be taught in a much more nuanced way. If students are going to learn about the land run, they should also, of course, learn about the removal of the tribes to the Indian Territory. They should learn about the subsequent Supreme Court cases like Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock, where tribes challenged the power of the United States government to break our treaties and to take our lands, and the Supreme Court upheld that power. So all of those kinds of things should be taught as part of a really, really critical historical moment for our state and not just one very romanticized version of how Oklahoma came to be.”
What compelled you to write the opinion piece published by The New York Times titled Aunt Jemima is Gone. Can we finally end all racist branding?
“It was inspired by where the country was going in terms of protest. I’ve written extensively about Indian mascots and names and monuments and all of those things in the past in my scholarly writing, which is much longer and much more in-depth and a lot less easy to access for a lot of readers. So it’s something that’s been on my mind for a long time.
“My coauthor is an intellectual property professor at Berkeley, and she and I have written in the past about Indigenous rights as well. It was really what we saw as a critical moment to try to draw a thread between the Black Lives Matter movement, the efforts by those leading the anti-racism movement, and trying to make the American public realize how symbols and monuments do matter and how they reflect a particular vision of the country, one that excludes at least the equal rights of many people. And we just saw it as a really powerful moment to draw on all of that activism and all of that momentum to highlight the ongoing problematic nature of the of the Washington team’s name. It was a convergence of events, and it seemed like the right time. I’ve done a lot of research on the name of the Washington team. I’ve done a lot of writing on Indian mascots in general. To me, the name of the Washington team was just such a no brainer. Its roots are so clearly racist. They are based in actual public documents and information regarding putting bounties on the skins of Native people, including children, to remove them from territories for white settlement. I felt very passionate about it, and it’s something that I wrote with that passion in mind. And it has been really incredible to see the swift movement by the team in light of increasing social pressure to change the name.”
Being a lawyer and CPN’s Chief Justice, how does law play into this discussion?
“One thing that I think is important for me as a Potawatomi tribal member is to really think about how Native governance and issues that relate to Indian-ness both converge with the anti-racism movement in the United States in general, but also depart from it. And part of that, of course, is understanding that Native Americans experience enormous racial discrimination in this country, just like other people of color. In my own experience and talking to and knowing so many people in Indian Country, and let’s say particularly in places like border towns, the rates of incarceration of Native people are disproportionate to those of other minorities. The rates of violence against Native women on reservations are higher than rates of violence against any other women of color in the United States. And the list goes on. The racial discrimination component is a shared experience of people of color in the United States, and I think it’s really important that we’re part of a coalition of an anti-racist movement.
“At the same time, there’s something really unique about Indian-ness in the United States, and that’s tribal sovereignty — that we are members of Indian nations, that we operate and run our own governments. We have all the powers inherent to our sovereignty. And so as a Justice for me and thinking about the role of law, I’ve really tried to focus on what I have written about as good Native governance; that the best thing we can do to protect our tribal sovereignty is to live our sovereignty and to be good governments, to be functional but really to just be thriving, Indigenous nations. And so for me, that’s the place where I think I can make the greatest intervention or be the most support to tribal sovereignty is to uphold the rule of law, to engage in good governance and to be part of a thriving Native Nation.”