by Kai Minosh
First published in 1981 and then in second edition in 1983, the book This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color was recognized from the very beginning as a game-changer. The works by (predominately queer) women of color challenged both white feminism and straight male activists of color to do more for the doubly and triply marginalized within their communities. Though by no means comprehensive, This Bridge Called My Back contained the writings of women from all kinds of backgrounds, coming together in common purpose.
When I read This Bridge Called My Back for the first time, long after having been involved with Indigenous, queer, feminist, and racial justice activist movements, I was astonished to see how many Native American women had been involved in the project: at least five of the contributors identified themselves as Native women.
“Blackfoot amiga Nisei hermana Down Home Up Souf Sistuh
sister El Barrio suburbia Korean The Bronx Lakota Menominee
Cubana Chinese Puertoriqueña reservation Chicana campañera”
These lines from the introduction amazed me. Running in both queer of color and Indigenous activist circles in the late 2000s and early 2010s, I had rarely seen Native points of reference interspersed among those of other people of color in the way that this quote does. Most Indigenous authors ignored the work of other women of color, and most other authors of color seemed to forget that Indigenous people are still present in the modern American racial landscape.
As I kept reading the writings of women of color, beginning in the 1980s, I began to see the connections that tied Native women to other women of color. The first full volume of poetry written by Chrystos, Not Vanishing, includes a poem titled “Meditation for Gloria Anzaldúa,” with whom she had collaborated for This Bridge Called My Back. Joy Harjo wrote a poem for Audre Lorde, “Anchorage,” and read “Reconciliation, a Prayer” at her memorial. When Beth Brant put together A Gathering of Spirit, the collection of Native women’s writing first published as a special edition of the lesbian literary magazine Sinister Wisdom, she was convinced to do so by its editors, Michelle Cliff and her white Jewish partner Adrienne Rich.
There was an entire network of queer women of color writers with whom queer Indigenous women were corresponding that was appearing right before my eyes. The tenderness of the exchanged poems and the depth of the friendships that had brought these women together inspired me. How had I not heard about this before?
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In Native circles these days, there is an attitude that has become popular which goes like this: Native Americans are not “people of color,” we are the original colonized inhabitants of this land, and calling us “people of color” lumps us in with minorities who do not have the same kind of claims to sovereignty that we have. And certainly, it is true that we are the original colonized inhabitants of this land, and we do have unique relationships with the government (in the US and Canada) that other groups do not generally have.
At the same time, though, we are also a racialized people, a group that has been designated as “brown” or “red” or quite simply not white. This contributes to our marginalization and oppression, making us a target for profiling and prejudice. Many of our experiences are shared by other groups of people of color: being targeted by police violence, being followed in stores and assumed a criminal, being victimized at high rates for murder and having our cases ignored by the authorities, being forced to undergo daily microagressions simply due to our appearance, among many other experiences.
Yet it is not solely Indigenous people who have let connections between us and other people of color be forgotten. Many non-Indigenous people of color forget, or are not aware of in the first place, the issues particular to Indigenous people. Often we are more concerned about our sovereignty as Indigenous nations than about rights given to us by the nation-state. Even the more radical folks of color who reject the notion of “rights” as a way to liberation can miss the importance of our political status as nations.
The lines quoted from This Bridge Called My Back so shocked me because, in the present, I rarely see Indigenous issues invoked alongside the issues of other people of color. Sometimes this comes from an urban-focused approach (even though about half of the Native population today lives in urban centers), other times it seems that people have merely forgotten that there are other ethnic groups besides white, Black, Latino, and Asian in the United States.
Of course, just including Native people alongside a slew of other ethnic groups is not enough to support Indigenous people. In order to begin rebuilding the bridges between communities, other people of color must also recognize our particular position as the colonized original peoples of this continent. While non-Indigenous people of color must start to see Indigenous uniqueness, for Indigenous people, our challenge is recognizing the commonalities that bind us to our cousins of color. All of us have been affected by the violence of colonization, imperialism, and racism, albeit in different ways. Becoming aware of the similarities and the differences in our experiences is essential to recreating links between our communities.
Those who have remembered and kept alive the long histories of connections between us have largely been activists and artists on the ground. From them, we can learn that personal relationships are key to political ones—that by befriending one another and becoming genuinely invested in one another’s lives, we also become invested in protecting each other’s lives. This may entail stepping outside of our normal circles. Those who work in rural or reservation areas may reach out to urban ones, and vice versa. Indigenous women, show up to a Black Student Union meeting (checking that non-Black people are welcome first) and get to know the folks there. Non-Indigenous women of color, attend the round dances at the local American Indian center and start to see familiar faces.
Make art together. Write poems for each other, make each other paintings. Share favorite books with each another. Go together to protests and listen to what everyone thinks about the issues. Argue with each other respectfully. Keep your heart open to what each of you has to say about their own life, and then take action together.
Our Indigenous and women of color foremothers saw the power of love and art to forge strong connections between individuals. Theirs are the tools that we can draw upon today to find strength in one another. It is up to each one of us to reach out, to challenge ourselves, and to be the links that will keep the bridges between us strong.
Want more from Kai? Read their work in BGD’s newest collection, The Solidarity Struggle: How People of Color Succeed and Fail At Showing Up For Each Other In the Fight For Freedom.
Kai Minosh is a Métis two-spirit living in the homelands of the Dakota people. They are a writer of fiction and nonfiction, an indigenous language advocate, and a disabled geek who is currently wrestling with the beast that is academia. In their work and their free time, Kai likes to dream about creating indigenous futures, building connections among oppressed peoples, and imagining worlds beyond this one.
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