This is the 4th episode of the excellent SHIFT the Narrative series, a project of Seeding Sovereignty. The biographies of Owl and Kali Reis are at the end of this.
Kali “K.O” Mequinonoag Reis, Seaconke Wampanoag and Cherokee Nations & Owl, Ramapough Munsee Lenape Nation
We will be speaking with Kali “K.O” Mequinonoag Reis and Owl. Kali, Seaconke Wampanoag and Cherokee Nations, is the first mixed Native American Female World Champion Boxer. Owl, Ramapough Munsee Lenape Nation, is an attorney working at the intersection of human rights, Indigenous rights and the environment.
The Seaconke Wampanoag and Ramapough Munsee Lenape Nations are not federally recognized, though they are recognized by the states that engross their territories. We will discuss the ongoing fight for sovereignty with the understanding that there are many pitfalls to federal recognition but why it is necessary to protect land rights. This is an important conversation considering the current crisis the Mashpee Wampanoag Nation is facing as their land trust has been revoked during COVID-19. An important part of this discussion will delve into what it is like to be Indigenous after 400 + years of living with European and African ancestry.
You can watch the entire program at the following link:
Several speakers talked about the violence in Minneapolis due to the police killing of George Floyd. Violence is all too common for black and indigenous people.
Steven Smith (Owl) started with a prayer of thanks to the earth, waters, wind and fire. He was speaking in his native language, which he was learning as a way to preserve that language. He said when he was at Standing Rock it was suggested that people start with a prayer when they were going to speak.
He spoke about genocide and dispossession. One thing they were doing to maintain their identity was bringing their language back.
Next the following video clip was shown, that contains parts from the videos American Native, and Real Indian with John Trudell.
There a many steps to get Federal recognition There is discrimination, lumping anyone not White into one classification. In the past there were laws making it legal to kill natives. Native people would go into hiding for survival, hiding their identity,
There is currently a crisis because the Mashpee Wampanoag Nation’s land trust has been revoked. They do have state recognition. Their land is only 25 miles from Manhattan. The land is poor and rocky, so they were left alone until transportation became important. Then the land was valuable and attempts were made to take it away using zoning and taxes. It got to the point that permission was needed to put up a tipi.
Kali spoke about how complex it is for a tribal nation to be recognized and the need to be able to claim what had always been theirs.
S.A. Lawrence-Welch said the colonial system was meant to erase peoples and was successful at times.
One question was whether tribes with heavy African ancestry have a harder time getting recognition?
Kali Reis said the double rejection of being black and native made it harder to get help.
S.A. Lawrence-Welch talked about the Hollywood image of what is Indian. And images from folk lore.
Owl said that darker skin was like gravity, with even more force pulling you down. Mentioned COVID-19 does not discriminate.
African ancestry made identity more difficult. The first enslaved people in New Jersey were Native people. African people came to natives for help. Both were resistance fighters.
As a river doesn’t have a single source, ancestry often doesn’t either. In Virginia, in the past when asked about race the only choices were white or black, no in between. No native. A matter of genocide to define us in ways that erase us as a people.
Christine Nobiss-how we think of indigeneity is deeper that black or native. An imperialist notion of divide and conquer. Also related to border imperialism. All linked to institutional White supremacy.
Owl pointed out how important this election is. He gave an example of the current president saying things like Republicans should not vote for a certain bill related to native interests because it is supported by “Pocahontas” Warren, for example.
Kali talked about registering to vote and getting Native country engage politically. Need to know politics if going to be effective. Set example by voting,
Not solve problems in 90 minutes. Beginning steps.
Disheartening work in politics. How to use the challenge to make change?
Kali – question who I am. Got caught up in other people’s perception of me. Learned to have faith in my indigenous traditions. Questions from own community. Not black, white. Go internally to be proud of who I was. Give young people to courage to be what they are. Internal struggle.
Owl – the mountains are our protectors and our correctors. The mountains teach us. Different relationship to land.
Regarding the Census– automatically defaults to black or white if you only indicate native.
DNA test results?
OWL for me being native is about relationships.
Kali – delicate approach, want to claim they are now native American. Can overstep boundaries. No one can teach you to be indigenous. Educate yourself. Not something to advertise “I am indigenous”
Christine – there is a form of privilege that cannot be brought into the equation.
Steven Smith (Owl) – Son of William Alfred Smith, Esquire, who spent his early childhood in the Ramapo mountains and grandson of Ira Smith, professor and educator from Hillburn, NY. Steven D. Smith received his bachelor of arts in political science from the University of California at Santa Cruz and his doctorate of jurisprudence from the University of California at Berkeley. Mr. Smith studied Mexican culture and history as a Pacific Rim scholar of the University of California for which he wrote an essay on an afro-mestizo community on the pacific coast of Mexico. Mr. Smith has traveled and lived extensively in Latin America and the Caribbean including Mexico, Cuba, Haiti, Guyana and Ecuador. Mr. Smith has taught and lectured on a wide variety of subjects including business law at Virginia Tech, science, technology and law for Virginia Tech and the University of Richmond School of Law, and introductory law for high school students. He has lectured on diverse subjects such as telecommunications policy, trade policy, environmental law, and the human rights of indigenous people. Steven Smith is a member of the California bar and Virginia bar of attorneys. Mr. Smith has assisted Navajo, Tohono O’odham, and Guyanese villagers with major environmental issues in national courts and before Congress and the United Nations.
Fighting to maintain identity can lead some to doubt themselves.
Kali “K.O” Mequinonoag Reis is the first mixed Native American Female World Champion Boxer. Kali (Kaylee) has racked up a 16-7-5kos record, three WORLD titles in the Middleweight division and is currently ranked #1 in the US & #2 in the world in the Welterweight Division. She has traveled all around the world to compete proudly representing who she is as a mixed Indigenous woman and was the FIRST Female Boxing match to be aired on HBO May 5, 2018 with over 1.4 Millions viewers. Raised in a single parent household by her mother Patricia “ Gentle Rain, she is the youngest of five children. Mequinonoag, meaning “Many Feathers, Many Talents” is her Native name given to her by her mother. Kali’s mixed background includes lineage from the Seaconke Wampanoag, Cherokee and Nipmuc tribes as well as ancestry from the Cape Verde Islands.
“Boxing is how I pray, every punch is a prayer”. Kali started in boxing as a means to express herself through some very difficult & trying times surrounding identity, victimization, societal acceptance and the absence of her father around the age of 13. What started as a means to let anger out turned into a much more meaningful journey for Kali. She has taken her “fight” beyond the ropes. Kali also works as a residential counselor at St Marys Home for Children mentoring young girls ages 12-18. Her experiences as a young girl motivates her to be a beacon of positivity and hope for these young girls. Kali is also an advocate for ALL young adults, especially in Native Country. Kali has a passion for those struggling with addiction, suicide, depression, genetic genocide as well as MMIW movement. She hopes to continue to use her platform she has build with her gift of boxing to continue to shed light on what Indigenous peoples have been fighting against for centuries. FIGHT4ALLNATIONS is Kali “KO’s” slogan and it is what she will continue to do however she needs to for the people.