By Hannah Lester

More than 300 people joined together Thursday night to ‘Become the Beloved Community’ and talk about how healing can happen for indigenous Americans and the descendants of enslaved Africans.

The ‘Good Trouble: Becoming the Beloved Community in the Midst of Racism, Inequality and COVID-19’ event was virtually held by Zoom for members of Auburn, Opelika, Lee County and guests from states around the country.

The virtual event was the second of the summer, a program put on by the Auburn University Becoming the Beloved Community Program.

“We are witnessing a pivotal time, a reckoning if you will, during these days of COVID-19 in the history of the United States,” said Joan Harrell, one of the hosts and leaders of the Becoming the Beloved Community movement.

The first event, held one month prior in June, focused on a variety of religious leaders across the community and the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement.

Thursday’s event placed a focus on not only the African-American residents of Lee County and America, but Native Americans and the struggles they face.

“We are giving honor to the indigenous people who resided first on the land of Alabama,” Harrell said.

Vance Blackfox, one of three guest speakers for the event, founder and director of Other+Wise, director of communions at the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition is a member of the Cherokee Nation.

Robin Risling, the second guest speaker and a practicing physician assistant, is a member of the Hoopa Valley Tribe.

The two shared their experiences as practicing members of their communities and outspoken individuals, and spoke about how the world views them and how racism affects both their nations and individual persons.

“While native communities certainly were not ideal in every aspect, there was a sense of beloved community,” Blackfox said. “There was a sense of beloved community for us in the way in which we interacted with one another.”

Interacting as a beloved community was a natural part of life for indigenous people, he said.

The phrase ‘Good Trouble’, coined by recently passed civil rights leader and activist John Lewis, describes doing work that may cause trouble but is absolutely necessary.

Blackfox said that for hundreds of years, ‘Good Trouble’ has been the work of indigenous people.

He said it is important to think about ‘Good Trouble’ and why it is necessary and asked the virtual audience if anyone knew where the greatest United States coronavirus hotspot is.

“A lot of folks don’t know that for COVID-19, for the coronavirus, the hotspot is the native people, the Navaho nation, the hotspot is traditional people,” Blackfox said.

The fact that not many people are even aware of this fact is proof that ‘Good Trouble’ is necessary, he said.

Risling said that her people were lucky; the Hoopa Valley Tribe was never removed from its land. However, not all indigenous people were treated so well.

The beloved community that already existed for indigenous people has been pulled apart, Blackfox said.

Hate, racism and injustice toward indigenous people is still felt today. Risling said that she copes by turning to the practices and ‘good medicine’ of her people through spirituality and natural healing.

“How do you intervene and be able to heal some of these old wounds,” she said. “It’s also about the situation that we face today … There’s many different levels to healing, there’s many different aspects to healing on a personal level and a much broader level as well. But it’s very important because the healing is a practice.”

Of course, the healing is not complete, Risling said. It is continuous.

Healing includes talking about history, Blackfox said, history in which indigenous children were ripped from their families and placed in boarding schools. Children were trained for jobs and sent back to their homes, where those jobs didn’t exist. 

Their heritage was erased, and when they returned, they no longer felt like they were home; they were outsiders, Blackfox said.

“Our hope is that, as we work with boarding school survivors in particular but with all of our elders and all of our generations, to make sure that everybody understands that their stories are valid and that their stories are valued,” he said. “That we have a little glimpse of that beloved community that we used to have back 500 years ago.”

Terrance Vickerstaff shared how his experiences as a Black man and his heritage as a descendent of enslaved Africans is linked to the heritage of those indigenous to Alabama.

Vickerstaff is a descendant of enslaved Africans from the Igbo, Fulani, Balanta, Bantu, Mende, Yoruba, Fulani and Hausa tribes.

“I am the manifestation of the joys, the horrors, the hopes and the dreams of enslaved Africans who came from west Georgia, crossing the Chattahoochee in 1836,” he said. “In the soil is the blood, the sweat, the tears and the bodies of those whose DNA I carry, yet those who worked and toiled to build a place out of the wilderness called Auburn, Alabama, it is at the intersection of an experience of hurt, horror and the unknown that my ancestors would meet the ancestors of the indigenous people, those persons that were already in East Alabama when we arrived.”

Vickerstaff said that for his ancestry, too, telling the story is important.

“So much was lost in the snatching of us from west Africa during the middle passage, and so when you combine language, ethnicity, culture and religion and you put it in the hull of a slave ship and then upon arrival, you’re separated, separated because of economics, what is the price on your head,” he said. “And so when your family who speaks your language, your family who worships likes you do, your family who understands your culture is stripped away, then what arises in us as west African children and sons and daughters of the African diaspora, what arises in us is fight and fortitude in order to be able to carve out what a new existence looks like.”

The event was supposed to include a question and answer session led by Harrell, along with breakout sessions for attendees.

Due to technical problems, participants instead provided suggestions in the Zoom chat for how they feel Lee County can ‘Become the Beloved Community’.

Many echoed each other in suggesting that schools and community members find ways to educate people and children on the history they aren’t currently taught, history on indigenous people and those who held this land first.