Kyle T. Mays, a scholar of Indigenous studies, Afro-Indigenous studies and urban studies visited the University of Michigan Friday to speak on the relationships between urban development and Indigenous peoples. About 70 people filled the room to hear his talk on the intersectionality of Blackness and indigeneity and the relationship between urban studies and Indigenous peoples.
Mays is an assistant professor in the Department of African American Studies, the American Indian Studies Center and the Department of History at the University of California, Los Angeles. The talk was based on his recent book manuscript titled “‘Detroit vs. Every (Body)’: Dispossession, Resistance and Transformation in a Modern American City, 1870-2016,” which examines settler colonialism, indigeneity and dispossession.
Mays first defined dispossession, connecting Native dispossession to the displacement of Black people in Detroit.
“By dispossession I mean the taking of land from native people, removing them and making them invisible to European settlers,” Mays said. “But dispossession is not solely about land … There is some dispossession culturally … and the connection between, for instance, the displacement of poor, working-class Black people today is not far removed from Indigenous dispossession.”
Mays discussed land reparations, where land taken from Native peoples by white settlers would ultimately be returned to them.
“I advocate that should be the end goal,” he said. “We should actively be trying to take down white supremacy and that would mean returning land to Native people … It’s happened on a smaller scale, I suppose, in South Africa. You see it on social media, where all of the Indigenous South Africans are reclaiming their land back from the white farmers.”
One of Mays’ key points during his talk was the interrelation between Black and Native communities. Emphasizing the erasure of Native oppression, Mays noted many challenges Black communities have faced in Michigan are also faced by Native peoples.
“These might seem like Black issues, the Flint water crisis, water being shut off in Detroit,” Mays said. “But they’re also Native issues, for those living in Southeast Michigan. We sort of erased that part of the narrative and discussion.”
Mays also put forth questions for the urban studies and urban planning fields, emphasizing the importance of having perspectives of Indigenous peoples in the field.
“In what ways has urban studies and planning contributed to the dispossession of Indigenous peoples?” Mays said. “What are the best practices to include Indigenous voices in urban studies and planning? And how can we center the voices of those peoples to have transformative practices?”
The talk ended with Mays pointing out the majority of Indigenous peoples still live in urban spaces. Urban planners, he said, should look to Indigenous peoples when thinking of the future of urban spaces, making sure to be cognizant of their role in the displacement of Indigenous peoples.
“Indigenous peoples are not idly sitting by,” he said. “They continue to show us what urban planning can look like. Urban spaces were historically Indigenous lands. We built on it, but they didn’t just pack up and go … It would behoove urban studies to follow the lead of Indigenous peoples into the possibilities in the meaning of the ‘urban’ and to think long and hard about what anticolonial urban studies looks like.”
The event was hosted by The Detroit School, a student-led interdisciplinary initiative funded through Rackham Graduate School which presents conversations on urban studies. Rackham student Robert Pfaff, a co-student coordinator of The Detroit School, said the talks primarily focus on shrinking cities.
“The traditional growth model of cities is known as the Chicago School, which says cities will always be growing and how you plan for a growing city,” Pfaff said. “Detroit has sort of proven to be the counterexample of that where it’s a shrinking city with, at least until recently, a population that was decreasing. There was the need to address different city issues and city services that were declining within the city, and how that contested the former growth model of urban planning.”
Rackham student Aya Waller-Bey came to the talk wanting to learn more about the challenges Detroiters currently face. As a native Detroiter, she said she often views its affairs through the lens of her family. Waller-Bey said after the talk, she had a clearer idea of the struggles Indigenous peoples face in Michigan, specifically in the Detroit area.
“What the event showed me is just the amount of erasure that has occurred on Native American influence and presence,” Waller-Bey said. “Because Detroit is a predominantly Black city, I grew up seeing a very homogenous kind of representation of Detroit, I saw people who looked like me. So it shifted my orientation in that respect.”
Waller-Bey added she was still struggling with the idea of returning land if the land being returned would be taken from Detroiters who are also being oppressed.
“There was a really poignant question that came up in the talk and it’s, ‘When did you get here?’” Waller-Bey said. “I think that’s a really interesting question to ask particularly to the native Black Detroiters … The thought of land being taken, it’s being taken from whom? Taken from Detroiters who are already being oppressed to give to people who are also oppressed … It’s just a very difficult thing for me to see what that would look like in practice and I’m still grappling with it.”
Pfaff said Mays’s talk helped him realize the need to further examine mainstream ideas of urban planning and urban studies to better understand how the fields should work with Indigenous peoples.
“If we question a capitalistic growth model, or the need to own land, that allows us to really ask other questions, like the ones that he raised,” Pfaff said. “How can we properly address issues of indigeneity, or issues of race, or issues of reparations or issues of dispossession of land and water, more accurately than beyond the capitalist model? Or beyond the model of just what is necessarily urban, if this is even the correct form of growth.”
Reporter Sonia Lee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.