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A Tale of Two Cultures

Contrasting Outcomes In Flint and Standing Rock

On May 6th, 2017 the Trickster Art Gallery and Native Cultural Center in suburban Schaumburg, Illinois hosted a small gathering for the official launch of The Native Family Disaster Preparedness Handbook. The launch event was the culmination of a yearlong project to publish a first-of-its-kind comprehensive guide, designed through a collaborative effort of and Native and non-Native stakeholders. The Handbook’s purpose is to help bridge the disaster preparedness gap for residents living in Indian Country.

The National Tribal Emergency Management Council, and Native Public Media, contributed to the content of the 66-page spiral bound guide. It consolidates many aspects of preparing for natural and human-caused emergencies into a culturally relevant primer that can be used by Native families and other Tribal stakeholders.

As I prepared my remarks for the book launch, my thoughts drifted back to the prior week, when I was privileged to visit the Chickasaw Nation Cultural Center in Oklahoma. There, I was treated to a fascinating journey through the rich history of a proud Native nation.

Learning about the Chickasaw people reminded me of the personal struggle for survival that continues for people of color in our country today. In my ancestral history Black slaves were property, and they suffered the atrocities of a systematic and purposeful effort to conform them to the will of those who used free labor to build America’s economic prosperity.

But Native people were considered to be a more daunting problem than slaves for European settlers. They were viewed as real obstacles to progress by those who desired to control the land and its abundant natural resources. Although the Native people were nearly annihilated, they survived. Today their cultural identity remains vibrant, despite generations of broken treaties, discrimination, and generational trauma.

Throughout their history Native cultures have believed that the land and its resources are not the exclusive property of any individual or people, but here for the benefit of all mankind to be nurtured, and cherished. I learned that this sense of obligation as protectors of the land permeates through Native beliefs today, creating a lasting cultural bond.

My thoughts drifted the Flint Michigan water contamination crisis, where it’s mostly Black and poor citizens were caught unaware, and unprepared for a massive public health catastrophe that would traumatize and adversely impact current and future generations.

I thought of the Standing Rock movement, and witnessed with pride as over 500 Native Nations rallied together around a single theme..... survival. The Oceti Sakowin Camp was a historic gathering of Tribes, allies and people from all walks of life joining in solidarity to protest incursion of the Dakota Access Pipeline. While many who supported the protest were not directly affected, nonetheless, the issue mobilized the Native people around the common purpose of survival. Regardless of which side of the political debate one may choose, the movement and its galvanization of Native people certainly served to focus the world's attention to issues of protecting the environment and sacred sites that are the lifeblood of indigenous people.

Conversely, I pondered the question why the human-cause emergency in Flint had not resulted in a similar outcry and outrage from America's Black community, as was the case in the Dakota Pipeline incident. Except for a few local protests there was no large scale organized call to action---- no legislative or political agenda, and no nationwide groundswell of Black community support to address the Flint tragedy. In fact, the general apathy and indifference to the plight of the people who suffered and continue to suffer as a result of this event is something I find both perplexing and disappointing.

Today, Flint has largely dropped out of the national headlines, but the battles unleashed by the public-health disaster are far from over. Flint's residents still can't drink the water without a filter, requiring most families to rely on bottled water for everything from brushing their teeth to cooking and bathing. More than a dozen state and local officials have been criminally charged over Flint's poisoned water, including two former emergency managers who could face decades in prison if convicted, while the state's attorney general says that the investigation is ongoing.

Although few would disagree that the cultural bonds of Black family foundations were irreparably damaged by slavery, the need for a common sense of community is still vital to the future survival of our communities, especially in disasters. By holding ourselves and others accountable for the loss of life and damage to the health, economy, and safety of our communities, situations such as the one that occurred in Flint could be averted in the future. Moreover, the call to action for survival should have been a priority for all Black communities following the deaths of over 1,800 people in Hurricane Katrina. Most of those that perished were unprepared, entrusting their well-being and survival to others. Without community action, similar tragedies are almost certain to happen again.

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