No invitation: Why Native American groups weren’t protesting Unite the Right

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Ben Walters took part in the Native American Student Union purification ceremony August 30 at the Jefferson statue after the white nationalist torch march through Grounds August 11. Photo by Eze Amos Ben Walters took part in the Native American Student Union purification ceremony August 30 at the Jefferson statue after the white nationalist torch march through Grounds August 11. Photo by Eze Amos

By John Last

On August 12, the streets around Emancipation Park were a riot of color: socialist red, antifa black, the white robes of clergy, bright rainbow flags.

But in this broad coalition of anti-racist activists, at least one group was missing: Virginia’s Native American tribes.

In organizing their response to the display of white supremacy at Unite the Right, none of the anti-racist solidarity organizations extended invitations to local Native American advocacy groups or tribes, according to multiple organizers and tribal sources.

For some, that’s the way they wanted it.

“We wouldn’t have been involved with it anyway,” says Chief Dean Branham of the Monacan Indian Nation, the indigenous people of Charlottesville’s region. “I don’t have any problem with those statues…I just don’t think it’s an Indian issue.”

For Branham, the demonstration was about “black and white issue[s].” But even within his own tribe, there are those who believe Native Americans should engage with the growing anti-racist movement.

“I think there are a lot more examples of hate and oppression to be considered,” says Karenne Wood, a member of the Monacan Indian Nation and director of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities’ Indian Heritage Program. “It’s not just about two groups of people.”

Virginia’s racial laws once saw no distinction between Native Americans and African-Americans. From 1924 to 1967, the Racial Integrity Act categorized all non-whites as “colored,” a legacy that still prevents many Virginia tribes from obtaining federal recognition.

Today, white nationalists like Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler declare white Europeans to be the “indigenous” people of America, while Native Americans face many of the same structural inequalities as African-Americans.

Native Americans have the highest rates of poverty of any ethnic group in the commonwealth and are most likely to be the victim of a violent crime. In 2014, the Center for Disease Control found Native Americans are just as likely as African-Americans to be killed by police.

Even when it comes to statues, Native Americans have a shared cause with demonstrators.

The city’s central statue of explorers Lewis and Clark has been criticized for depicting Sacagawea, their guide, in a crouching, submissive pose. Another, at the Corner, depicts George Rogers Clark and soldiers with rifles threatening retreating Native Americans. Its inscription reads “Conqueror of the Northwest.”

“I do a little grimace every time I walk by that statue,” says Ben Walters, vice president of UVA’s Native American Student Union. “It’s even more of a reminder…than a statue of Lee of how this country embraces its prejudiced past.”

Both monuments are contemporaries of the statue of Lee at the center of the August protest, erected at the height of racial segregation.

According to Wood, Walters and other activists, Native Americans are badly underrepresented in local anti-racist groups. Wood believes it’s one reason they were not considered when organizers sought allies for the demonstration.

“We’re still that invisible in the American narrative,” says Wood. “That’s what it really boils down to.”

“There’s a lack of awareness of Native American issues in the activist community,” says Evan Knappenburger, the media liaison for the Charlottesville Center for Peace and Justice, which helped support events August 12 in McGuffey Park. “It’s a very systemic-level issue.”

Showing Up for Racial Justice and Solidarity Cville, two of the main organizing groups, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Other organizers say Native American groups were not contacted because many of the organizations involved were formed only months ago.

Community activist Walt Heinecke, who secured the permits for events in McGuffey and Justice parks on the day of the rally, says the participants came down to “who contacted me once it was public knowledge that I had the permits and who didn’t.”

Heinecke did invite native activist Guy Lopez, a member of the Dakota Nation and a graduate of UVA. Though announced as a speaker, he did not speak at the event.

“I wish other Native American organizations would have reached out,” says Heinecke.

With scant resources of their own, Walters and Wood say partnering with other organizations is essential to having their issues heard.

For the student group, the events of the summer are seen as a reason to break the ice with other activists and bring Native American issues into the discussion.

“Natives have been overlooked for a really long time, so it’s time to change that attitude,” says Native American Student Union president Halle Buckles. “It’s not about who’s had it worse, it’s not about which statue has caused more hurt…it’s about [making] other people feel safe here.”

But Wood is more cautious. She says the legacy of mistreatment means many Native Americans may still not be ready to participate in activism.

“Monacan people still feel racially distinct and they don’t want to attract more problems,” she says. “Their parents lived through horrific oppression. …They’re not ready to stand up unless they have to.”

 Correction September 21: Ben Walters was misidentified in the original version.

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