How to Fight Anti-Indigenous Racism: From AOC’s Apology to the Non-Apologies of Almost Everyone Else

Jan 23, 2019
4:35 PM

Two weeks ago popular Latina lawmaker Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made the mistake of ​tweeting​ the notoriously ​anti-Indigenous​ and ​anti-Black​ phrase, “We are a nation of immigrants.”

To which prominent Indigenous (​Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate​) scholar ​Dr. Kim Tallbear​ ​said:

Because ​anti-Indigenous​ and ​anti-black​ structural racism throughout Latin-America is severe, it is important for Latinxs to scrutinize remarks like Ocasio-Cortez’s.

Six days later, Ocasio-Cortez tweeted an ​apology​ to an Indigenous woman, pointing out her error, even promising to do better. Her apology is out of the ordinary, as it is rare for leaders to apologize to Indigenous Peoples at all, let alone sincerely.

What is more, Indigenous women like ​Rebecca Nagle​ (​Cherokee​) and ​Dr. Katherine Crocker​ (Kanza​) responded to Ocasio-Cortez’s apology with gravitas.

Nagle ​responded​:

Crocker ​tweeted this:

Why should this matter to the nation?

We continue to see attacks on Indigenous Peoples in the United States. From ​missing and murdered Indigenous women​, to ​Standing Rock​, to ​tribal sovereignty​ and beyond. And yet Americans are largely ignorant about the 573+ Indigenous Nations in the U.S., with those living nearest to reservations being ​more biased on average​.

Anti-indigenous structural racism is embedded in American culture, which is why Indigenous Nations have ceaselessly been attacked. This week’s ​MAGA hat boys taunting and disrespecting a Native Elder​ is just the latest example.

Though anti-Indigenous structural racism is perpetuated overtly by the MAGA hat Covington Catholic boys, it is also perpetuated by people like Elizabeth Warren, Kevin Hart, and recently Lydia Polgreen and her Huffington Post in their defense of Elizabeth Warren’s anti-Indigenous behavior.

The Covington Catholic Boys

Indian Country​ Today’s ​Vincent​ Shilling​ ​reported​ ​on MAGA-hat-clad Covington Catholic High School students taunting and trying to intimidate Nathan Phillips, an Omaha Native American Elder and veteran who was the only adult to intervene in a large confrontation to try to keep the peace. ​Videos of the incident went viral​. Outraged was sparked.

The high school and its diocese ​apologized​ to “Native Americans in general” and also to Nathan Phillips, condemning the actions of the students.

However, the family of the smirking student at the center of the viral videos ​hired a PR firm​ (how normal and honest-seeming) according to CNN, to craft and release a ​statement, denying all wrong-doing and trying to place blame on the Native American elder. Which has helped white journalists try to ​defend the white children​. This is the type of effective gaslighting strategy Trump uses​ all the time, so it should be no surprise Trump-youths are doing the same.

And of course the Racist-in-Chief ​tweeted in favor​ of his Trump-youth, compounding the anti-Indigenous racism those boys spread that day.

While the Covington Catholic Boys, and ​MAGA hats as potent symbols of racism​, are the most obvious easily identifiable case of anti-indigenous behavior, looking at outrageous examples from the Right only serves to ​obscure all types of insidious anti-Indigenous racism​ that also comes from the Left and gaslights Indigenous people just the same.

Elizabeth Warren

Presidential hopeful Senator Elizabeth Warren is perpetuating anti-Indigenous racism too.

Nagle’s and Tallbear’s interactions with Ocasio-Cortez’s anti-Indigenous tweet are particularly striking because they have also prominently called out Elizabeth Warren. Both her false claim to being part Cherokee, and her harmful politicization of ​DNA testing​. Nagle and Tallbear are therefore Indigenous voices Warren is ignoring by refusing to apologize.

In regards to Warren’s claims to Cherokee ancestry, Rebecca Nagle lays out in her 2017 ​op-ed​ why Warren’s claim to being part Cherokee is incorrect, both according to research into her ancestors and ​according to the sovereign Cherokee nation​, and also why her claims are harmful to Indigenous Peoples.

Dr. Tallbear’s currently pinned tweet is a ​Twitter thread of refutations of Warren’s Native ancestry claims by Indigenous experts​. And Tallbear wrote of Warren’s DNA testing political stunt this year in a recent ​article​, “Raised on settler narratives… Warren… would ‘play Indian’ in a quest to absorb the original inhabitants of this land, whom the state has failed to completely exterminate.”

Warren has not apologized, and her years of disrespect is made all the more apparent in contrast to the fact that it only took six days for Ocasio-Cortez to sincerely and publicly apologize.

What About Non-White Americans?

Yet it’s too easy for racial minorities to point to white Americans like MAGA hat Trump youth and Warren demonstrating anti-Indigenous behavior.

Dr. Tallbear has ​said​ “…it’s a racially diverse group [that] is invested in disappearing us.” We need to acknowledge that what she is saying is true, and analyze what that means for us non-white Americans.

Alfonso Cuarón, Kevin Hart, and Lydia Polgreen are examples of non-white Americans who are also currently part of the problem of perpetuating anti-indigenous racism.

This year, Mexican ​Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is an award-winning machine. Non-Indigenous people have praised Indigenous representation by actress Yalitza Aparicio, ​even Latinx film critics​. However, Roma is in reality about Indigenous erasure​, according to Cherokee professor Joseph M. Pierce. Meaning Cuarón’s white or mestizo control of the story “harnesses indigeneity to do the work of white supremacy,” making Roma as racially problematic as movies like ​The Help​ and ​Green Book​.

Celebrity Kevin Hart gave his one-year-old a “Cowboys and Indians” birthday party, for which he was called out. ​Hart’s response on his own podcast​ was to call it “dumb shit” and the world “stupid.” He did not apologize. Later on a radio show, he still said it was unreasonable for him to apologize because he didn’t have “malicious intent,” and then after being condescending he gave an ​insincere half-hearted apology​.

It is well-known that intent does not equal impact.

Lydia Polgreen and the HuffPost published a story by a white woman, Jennifer Bendery, to dismiss Indigenous voices like Nagle’s and Tallbear’s in regard to Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test. This type of tactic reminds me of how Fox News will use a ​“Taco trucks on every corner”​ Mexican-American as support for their political perspective. The story was tantamount to whitesplaining and defending Warren’s white-supremacist behavior, while being divisive and trying to make Indigenous women experts invisible. Not to mention the online ​attacks it brings​ to Indigenous women like Tallbear.

To make matters worse, the ​Native American Journalists Association​ (NAJA) composed and sent ​a letter to Polgreen​ and the HuffPost, laying out why Bendery’s article was problematic, and asking for an apology.

It has been reported by The Wrap that the HuffPost stood by their story​, callously rejecting NAJA’s perspectives about their own 573+​ nations. Which effectively prioritizes non-Indigenous journalists’ voices above Indigenous journalists’ voices.

Polgreen​ and Hart are being highlighted to show that oppressed Americans, even from the most oppressed groups in the U.S., are not impervious to perpetuating white-supremacist anti-Indigenous racism. Whereas it seems Mexicans and Chicanxs in America wouldn’t even think of asking Cuarón to address his perpetuation of white supremacy in Roma.

Warren, Hart, and Polgreen are examples of what Ocasio-Cortez could have done to make her mistake worse. And it does not reflect well on Latinxs for her to get a pass from us like Cuarón has received.

Overall, as ​America is structured as a white supremacist society​, all Americans are socialized into this country’s style of racism​. Thus all we can do is resist by learning to not be racist, and apologize as Ocasio-Cortez did when we make an error.

By noting only white offenders, non-white-Americans can mistakenly ignore anti-Indigenous racism in our own communities. Latinxs and others should emulate Ocasio-Cortez’s behavior after we make a racist mistake, because we cannot grow into an anti-racist society without doing so. And in this regard, let us not be like the Elizabeth Warrens, Jennifer Benderies, Alfonso Cuaróns, Kevin Harts, and Lydia Polgreens of the world.

And yes, let’s definitely not condone the behavior of the Covington Catholic boys.


Fabián Chávez is a Chicanx writer born and raised in East San Jose CA, currently living in MA, pursuing his English B.A. at UMASS Boston. He tweets from @FabianHorologst.