The #FlintWaterCrisis is Not just a Black Issue it is also an Indigenous Issue
by Kyle T. Mays, PhD
Introduction, Or Why I’m Mad
I write this piece with anger, outrage, and a love for humanity. I am angry because Governor Rick Snyder should be prosecuted as a criminal to the fullest extent that the law allows. I mean that. I am outraged because the people of Flint don’t have access to a basic human right: clean water. In spite of it all, I am also more in love with humanity because people on the ground are helping out where their state has failed them. I want to repeat: Governor Rick Snyder should face criminal prosecution. Flint is a majority Black city and the lack of clean water is a blatant form of environmental racism. Period.
However, two perspectives that I have seen in my social media disturb me. First, Native folks passively dismissing the #FlintWaterCrisis by saying things that amount to: “Well, Native people have dealt with the lack of water rights and the poisoning of our land for decades, so this is not new.” For instance, the Navajo Nation in the Southwest of Turtle Island has its own water crisis, with 40% lacking access to clean, running water. The lack of clean water goes back to World War II, when the U.S. engaged in practice bombings near Navajo Land. This past summer, the Gold King Mine released some 3 million gallons of contaminated water into a river that led to three states, including New Mexico, in which a part of the Navajo Nation resides.Therefore, I can understand why some Native people would argue that the issues facing Black residents in Flint are not new, and that everyone should pay closer attention to Native water issues on Native land. I am equally disturbed by how Black folks continue participating in the discourses of settler colonialism by rarely, if ever, acknowledging that Flint (and other places) is still Indigenous land, essentially stating, “this issue is anti-black because white folks like Governor Snyder is racist.” Both points are true, but the framing is unnecessarily limiting. Given my positionality as a Black/Anishinaabe person, I have a duty of sorts, to speak on the issue.
Brief History of Flint, Michigan
Flint, Michigan is about 60 plus miles (106 KM) northwest of Detroit. Flint was one of a few stopping points along the Saginaw Trail, which connected Detroit to Saginaw. This trails was the beginning of the first streets and highways in Detroit. Native groups once dominated Flint, like all cities in the U.S. I am not a historian of Flint, but surely the People of the Three Fires (Odawa, Potawatomi, Ojibwe) lived in the area. As my Métis niijii and colleague Dylan Miner notes, the Anishinaabeg called Flint “Muscatawing,” and used the area for a variety of purposes, including farming and hunting. The 1819 Treaty of Saginaw renamed the land “Grand Traverse,” and “deeded allotments to eleven Anishinaabeg indivdals” who were later removed.
Today, according to the U.S. Census, Native people make up .05% of the entire Flint population (It is important to note that how the census and Native people in cities consider who is Native is always drastically different; Native people are generally much more inclusive). So, the #FlintWaterCrisis is not just a Black issue, but also a Native issue. Of course one might respond, “well, isn’t this a white issue? Aren’t other people affected?” Yes, indeed they are. But that does not resolve the issue that Black folks are disproportionately impacted (and that this isn’t happening in the wealthy, surrounding suburbs!) and that all of this is happening on occupied Indigenous land, with Native people still living there.
The history of 20th century Flint is also interesting. William C. Durant founded General Motors in the first decade of the 20th century. Flint became a car-making hub for decades. I won’t recount that history in full, but do check out Michael Moore’s documentary, Roger and Me and how the closing of General Motors, and the sending of factories overseas, devastated Flint’s economy; the city never recovered. Massive unemployment and crime still persists. As a result, Flint is often on the FBI’s “murder capital of the U.S.” or “most dangerous cities” lists. When people are poor, have very few options, and are continually dehumanized, some internalize that feeling of hopelessness and take it out on those near them because they can’t see where the actual problem resides.
Natives/Blacks and Blacks/Natives: Can’t We All Just Get Along or Nah?
I understand the outrage of Native people. And you’re right: Black folks rarely acknowledge that they live on occupied land and benefit from (settler) colonialism; we have and continue to suffer under the grip of colonialism. But to frame the #FlintWaterCrisis in terms of “we have it worse than you” is to miss the point. I hate to say it, but this framing could be read as anti-Black and anti-urban-Indigenous. I’m not necessarily saying that (some) Native people are being anti-Black; nor am I necessarily saying that people are acting as culture cops, essentially saying that “real Indians” live on the reserve/ation. But I’m not going to dismiss those possibilities either. I know that anti-blackness exists in Indian Country; ask me how many times my family and I have been called niggers by Native people and how other Native folks have always questioned us because we were not “traditional” enough because we grew up in cities. Last time I checked, even cities used to be occupied, Indigenous land. Cities and Indigenous people did not develop separately. To frame the #FlintWaterCrisis only within the context of reserve/ation communities or simply a Black issue is not only harmful but dismissive of the urban Indigenous experience, which, in the case of Flint, is linked with the problems facing Black citizens.
Black folks must stop ignoring Native issues and realities. Black Americans ignoring Native people in their analysis is not new. But to ignore history, and Native people’s experience is problematic in a big-picture-sort-of-way. Flint was (and is) Anishinaabe land, and Indigenous people still live there. Black folks in America need to recognize that the world does not exist only in black and white, even if a white supremacist society has taught us this way of thinking of the world. Native people live in Flint, too, and have dealt with the poisoning of their water and taking of their land since settlers came and dispossessed Native people. The culprit today, again, is Governor Rick Snyder, a settler with power. This fundamental point must be made: Native people still exist, and some of us live right next to you, in cities throughout this country; sometimes, even, in the hood.
Water rights are a Black issue and a Native issue and a human rights issue. We may be denied our humanity by colonialism and white supremacy, but we don’t need to do that to one another. Black folks need to engage with the fact that they benefit from settler colonialism. READ THIS SENTENCE ALOUD: I am not saying that Black folks don’t deal with oppression or that Native people have it worse. I am not dismissing the legacy of enslavement. Black folks are not settlers like European Americans are, but they can also benefit from colonialism. Native folks need to remember that the reserve/ation is not the dominant experience of most Native people these days. Most of us in the U.S. live in cities like Flint. And that’s okay.
Multiple Forms of Oppression Can Exist at the Same Time
It sounds absurd to have to point this out these days, given how Black, Latinx, and Indigenous feminists have discussed intersectionality in many forms over the years, but I’ll reiterate it: two or more forms of oppression can exist simultaneously. Why it is so difficult for some to understand this is beyond me. But the poisoning of Native land and water and further eroding of their sovereignty can exist side-by-side with the poisoning of Black people in Flint. In short, colonialism and white supremacy can run in parallel; well, run us over at the same time. Until we acknowledge this, from both sides, we aren’t actually going to end any form of oppression.
In Closing (Or for a New Beginning)
We can and must do better. Inspired by Chickasaw scholar Jodi Byrd’s The Transit of Empire, we must all understand our position in a settler colonial and white supremacist society if we are serious about changing conditions. Given the long history of Black and Indigenous activism I know, without a doubt, “We gone be alright!”
To paraphrase the homie Sacramento Knoxx, an Anishinaabe/Chicanx Hip Hop artist from Detroit, can we have a “#BlackLivesMatter on Turtle Island?” Yes we can, and we will. Miigwetch for considering my words; I hope they’re helpful.
(Shortly after writing this, the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians donated $10,000 U.S. dollars to the #FlintWaterCrisis. Mad props to them).
Kyle T. Mays is a Black/Saginaw Anishinaabe historian of urban history, Afro-Indigenous studies, and Indigenous studies. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. You can follow him on Twitter @mays_kyle.