Every year, I take friends to the Wounded Knee Massacre site to share this important story about my Oglala Lakota Nation. On December 29, 1890, more than 300 men, women, and children were killed by the U.S. Cavalry on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
It’s a narrative that is not popular, but always needs to be acknowledged. As the person who narrates this visit, I’ve often thought about what it must be like to take a tour about a historical atrocity that was not my own community’s.
In August, I found myself thinking about Wounded Knee and our Oglala Lakota Nation—but from West Africa. There, I took part in a “400-Year Return” trip organized by the NAACP to commemorate the 1619 arrival of the first Africans in the Virginia colony.
As different as the histories of Native people and enslaved Africans are, I wanted to bear witness. As we walked in the footsteps of people who were enslaved, I thought about how powerful it could be if our communities can work toward a more accurate historical narrative. This narrative change work happens everyday with our Oglala oyate (people) through language preservation efforts and traditional ceremonies held throughout the year. And that narrative must be one that honors the sacrifices and contributions of Native people through loss of life and land, and Black Americans through loss of freedom during slavery.
The trip started in Jamestown, Virginia, the territory of the Powhatan people. It was also the site where the Church of England was first established in the United States and began propagating the doctrine of “discovery”—a false notion that tried to justify the taking of lands and slavery. A prayer vigil was held here to mark the start of the “maafa,” the African holocaust also known as the slave trade.
I joined the group in Accra, Ghana, at a gala hosted by the office of the President of Ghana. There, we were welcomed by Amos Brown, the president of the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP. Brown was only one of the eight students in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s social philosophy class at Morehouse College in 1962—right in the midst of the civil rights movement.
At Assin Manso, we walked in the river where the captives Africans took their last bath in Africa before being marched and shackled miles to a slave castle. There, the newly bathed slaves would be sold for higher prices. Despite this ugly history, my fellow travelers found ways to honor the Akan societies of West Africa, sharing the names of its chiefs while walking toward the river. I was struck by how the Akan governed themselves by chieftainships and communally in leadership societies, like in my Lakota community. And another similarity: Prominent women, affectionately called “nana” in Ghana, are important advisors who wield influence within the community.
On the second day, we visited the Cape Coast Castle, one of the coastal European trading forts from which slave ships disembarked. It was the same place President Obama and his family visited in 2009. The castle was built with little regard for the 1,500 slaves housed in dark holding cells built with no sanitation drains. They were kept in subhuman conditions for months at a time before they had to make to the weeks- or months-long Middle Passage journey to the Americas. They left through one of the world’s most famous portals, “The Door of No Return,” the last point in Africa they would ever see.
It was astonishing to witness African Americans getting closer to their historical origins. Though the history of my people is full of government violence and efforts at erasing our culture, I can count back eight generations of my ancestors. I can name them, and I know where I am from. Even if our ancestral lands were taken from us, we still have oral history tying us to these places for years before Europeans arrived on our territory. That ability to know one’s identity and the land from where your family originated has been systematically denied to Black Americans since the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
I found myself saying a prayer and telling myself “never again” that day at Cape Coast Castle. I wished the enslaved African ancestors of my fellows travelers found peace with the return of their relatives—just I believed that some of the millions stolen and held captive in slaves castles all along the coast of Africa had prayed to return themselves.