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To Decolonize Indigenous Lands, We Must Also Abolish Police and Prisons

Abolishing the systems and institutions that propagate white supremacy is an important step toward decolonization.

Native American protesters and supporters gather at the Black Hills, now the site of Mount Rushmore, on July 3, 2020, in Keystone, South Dakota.

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The movement to decolonize Indigenous lands is intimately connected to the movement to abolish police and prisons. As the idea of decolonization is discussed among wider circles, we must recognize this interconnectedness, especially in the midst of a resurgent Black Lives Matter movement that calls for the defunding — and, in fact, the dismantling — of police.

Both decolonization and abolition are not simply seeking an end result. Instead they are continuous creative processes: an imagining of life beyond prisons and the theft of land. They require creativity and a willingness to move beyond the structures of white supremacy that impact all of our lives on a scale from the local to the global, and occupy the “common-sense” perceptions of the world around us. When statements are made such as, “We can give land back” or “We can exist without prisons,” some people are perplexed, others are scared, and some will defiantly argue that it is not possible. Imagining a world beyond what we know and experience on a daily basis can be extremely difficult.

Neither abolition nor decolonization are metaphors. Both movements want what they say — an end to policing and prisons, and an end to land theft and return of the land to Native peoples — and argue that it is fully possible to have an end to the prisons and policing, and to end colonization and therefore, for Native peoples to have their lands back.

Both movements are meant to benefit everyone, not just Black people or Indigenous people. White supremacy – a structure of social organization and human dominance — shapes imprisonment, enslavement, capitalism, conquest, genocide and land theft. It is premised on the consumption of one’s life for another. This structure eats at the being of those who are not in the position of authority, and includes consuming the land.

Increasingly, people of color are selectively incorporated into positions of authority and are actively shaping white supremacy to be multicultural. The police, for example, are rapidly increasing their ranks to include people of color. Another example is how universities have included Indigenous peoples in writing and performing land acknowledgment statements in lieu of giving land back. This authoritative inclusionary process is similar to the inclusion of people of color into capitalism as workers and business owners.

However, this selective inclusion should not be mistaken for an end to Euro-Americans being the historical and ongoing beneficiaries of white supremacy who accumulated wealth and land. Rather, the inclusion of people of color further solidifies white supremacy, positioning it as a structure that can be reformed. As abolitionist scholar and activist Dylan Rodriguez explains, white supremacy is “a flexible and changing apparatus of power.” Abolition and decolonization are actively engaged in creatively imagining an end to white supremacy, rather than fashioning ways to include more people in its institutions.

California Indians, as they call themselves, have experienced extreme forms of racial violence since the beginning of colonization in 1769. Their populations plummeted, and for some tribes there were few survivors of genocide. They were enslaved through Anglo-American law in the 1850s and ‘60s, with a slave market in downtown Los Angeles. The laws enacted by California’s legislature functioned much like the Black codes where “vagrancy” was used by the criminal legal system to force Indians into captivity and involuntary labor. The first governor of California, Peter Burnett, declared a war of extermination against the Indian. The sheriff of Mariposa County announced that “the Indian” was outlawed and authorized militias to kill any Indian on site as long as the killers buried the dead and told law enforcement where and how many they had killed. The state of California authorized payment of over $1 million to individuals and militias for killing Indians. This money was reimbursed by the federal government.

During the Spanish era the missions enslaved Indigenous people, holding them captive and forcing them to work. Most historians have disavowed enslavement at the missions, some saying the conditions were “slavery-like,” but not enslavement due to Native people not being held as chattel. I would argue that mission studies scholars have not been creative enough to utilize the teachings and theories developed through the radical Black tradition. Utilizing the scholarship of Orlando Patterson and others, coupled with the experience and stories of California Indians themselves, it is clear that the missions were racial slave regimes, and included a natal alienation of the missionized from the lived experience of their ancestors. As land is central to a Native world and understanding of self, the natal alienation also worked to separate Native people from their relationship to land. Although they struggled to maintain ties to their ancestors, they did so under the threat of racialized violence.

The Spanish military were the patrollers of the missions, and if Native people escaped from their captivity, they would be swiftly hunted down and punished by means of the lash and confinement in the stockade. If a child ran away to be with her mother, her mother would also be severely punished. As a colony, California begins through the racialized technologies of both slavery and the prison. The monjerio, the girl’s dormitory within the mission complex, was a racialized and gendered prison. The incarcerated Native girls, as young as six years old, were taken away from their families and locked in buildings whose confines have been compared to the slave ships that transported African slaves across the middle passage. The young Native girls were particularly susceptible to sexual violence, and the only release from their imprisonment was through marriage, thereby further institutionalizing heteropatriarchy. The logics of white supremacy in California, beginning with the mission system, were transformed, added to, and augmented by Mexican colonialism, and then that of the United States, which brought with them centuries of a distinct form of anti-Blackness.

There is much to be compared, both historically and contemporarily, between the experiences of Black folks and Indigenous people in California. Black people’s experience of the middle passage and their racialization as Black is not the same as California Indian experiences of natal alienation. The two are on different scales based on space and time. Yet the suffering at the level of ontology due to natal alienation is part of a related conversation. How do Black people and California Indians whose ancestors were enslaved become whole again? The worlds of their ancestors are gone forever. The worlds of California Indian ancestors are our lands, our cultures, and our names for ourselves. What we were dispossessed of, is something that we cannot know. We can theorize, we can imagine, we can dream, we can relearn our languages and songs, and we can even regain sovereignty, but none of us will ever have the ability to fully comprehend what we have lost, because we have never lived the lives our ancestors did. As Tongva scholar Cindi Alvitre has stated: “We live in a continual state of mourning.” We mourn our loss, the desecration of our lands, and the way that our dead have been treated as objects. Despite our prolonged state of mourning, Tongva people have continued to creatively resist, including through political organizing, but also through song, dance, story, poetry, art, canoeing and language learning. All of this is part of the long movement toward decolonization.

Through white supremacy, we are not viewed as human beings, but merely human, as objects like our lands, to be consumed, converted and controlled. Abolition can be a project that brings together diverse communities who have had their lives, their being, taken from them, and creates and grows ways of living beyond.

One such possible way of living beyond is viewing ourselves in relation to the Earth as guests. In the Tongva language, the word for guests is kuuyam. Our ancestors had well-established protocols on how to welcome people as guests. When the first colonizers came through our territories, we welcomed them, offered them food and a place to stay. I know that we can learn from these protocols, and we can continue to be welcoming. The Earth herself continues to be welcoming despite how she has been treated with disrespect. She continues to offer us food and a place to live. If we are going to transcend white supremacy, we have to think creatively about how we are not only in relation to one another, but also to the Earth. Kuuyam is a creative re-imagining of human relationships to place, beyond the structures of white supremacy.

I would like to end with a simple, and yet incredibly complex ask: Please give our lands back. This request is radical, and yet there shouldn’t be anything radical about it. If people can acknowledge it was stolen, they can give it back. For example, public and state lands, such as city, county, state and national parks can be returned to and stewarded by the tribe whose territory it is within. There are examples of this already happening. For instance, in collaboration with the Wiyot Tribe, the Eureka, California, city council has returned over 200 acres of coastal land.

Like abolition, giving land back is often difficult for people to comprehend as a real possibility. If we have any job to do, it’s to help people see that it is possible. With our lands freed from the clutches of white supremacy, we can collectively abolish the prison, and through the abolition of the prison, Native people can regain their lands. These projects are intimately connected. Acknowledging that you are on Native land is a great first step, but let’s move beyond the land acknowledgement: View us as human beings and do what is right. Give the land back.

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