Banks with her mom on the day she graduated from her master's
program. Today Banks is confident in her self-identity, proudly
African-American and Native American. (Photo courtesy of Roicia
Banks at the Arizona Capitol, on the day she spoke at the
Women's March in Phoenix in January 2017. (Photo courtesy
of Roicia Banks)
Banks speaking at the Women's March in Phoenix in January
2017. (Photo courtesy of Roicia Banks)
Roicia Banks went to graduate school in Texas, and when she
was there, people said to her, "Natives still are alive?"
Natives, as in Native Americans.
Laughing, she continued, "Are you kidding me? Yes, we're alive."
Banks, who is from Arizona, is undeniably a modern American
woman. She is also Native American.
And although until the Dakota Access Pipeline protests
Native Americans as a modern people rarely graced the national
headlines or broke into the modern American psyche, many do lead
lives, on and off reservations.
Banks grew up primarily on a reservation. She's culturally Hopi
and registered in a tribe just a different one than her adopted
family. But although she was entirely brought up in Hopi culture,
even on the reservation, there were times where she was treated
as if she didn't belong.
She's racially mixed black and Native American
and on the reservation there was not a lot of diversity. In school,
the kids would bully her, she said, taunt her with, "Oh, you have
People would call her the N-word in and out of school.
She said growing up was centered around proving that she was
"Native enough" to belong to the culture that she belonged to.
"I was always working twice as hard as the next person to be
as good or better," said Banks.
She got good grades, learned the language quicker than her siblings,
knew her history, the ceremonies, in order "to prove that I am worthy.
I am Hopi. I belong. Just because I might be racially identifiable
as black, hey, I'm your sister. I'm included, too."
At home, she was especially close to her mom and grandfather.
But no one in Bank's immediate family was black either, and sometimes
family members would crack stereotypical jokes about her liking
watermelon or fried chicken. She said there were so many subtle
and not-so-subtle messages in popular culture, school history books
and at home, that said being black was just not as good.
In her high school, there were a couple younger girls who were
also black and Native American. And she said they became inseparable,
because they understood what living that reality meant.
"We had all suffered some sort of racial discrimination on our
native American side that We're all able to say, 'Oh that happened
to me, too,'" she said. "Like the teasing, the bantering, the hair
the scrubbing your skin raw because you want it to be lighter."
After high school, Banks got a scholarship to college, and with
confident black female professors, role models, mentors, friends
and a lot of studying, her negative sense of identity started to
The fact that there are black Native Americans is not unusual.
Historian Arica Coleman said the two groups have mixed since the
beginning of modern America.
What's also not unusual? The racism.
"The racism within Native communities is it's intense,"
That has to do with how white colonizers defined race, as a
hard and set thing, how they defined racial hierarchies and what
she describes as "the myth of racial purity."
In the United States, she said the idea was, "blacks are tainted
their blood, their biology is tainted, and so you don't want
to be tainted, do you?"
A person could be "guilty" of being black with just one drop
of black blood or simply by associating. When native tribes were
given land by the U.S. government starting in the 1800s, Coleman
said they were told, "If you are going to mix and mingle with these
people and bring them into your tribe, that means that you are no
longer Indian. You are black and you have no right to these lands."
Jim Crow-era laws didn't help assuage sentiments, either.
Today, an open conversation among Native Americans about racism
is still touchy if not, taboo.
"To see yourself as a participant in the colonialism that you
say you hate is a problem," Coleman explained.
Especially, if you are ongoing victim of institutionalized discrimination,
like Native Americans.
And amongst African-Americans, saying you're part Native can
be problematic, even though there is a long history of African Americans
of Native descent.
"The interpretation is that, 'So, you don't want to be black?
So, you think you're better than everybody else?'" said Coleman,
who is also of black and Native descent.
Banks has dealt with that, too.
Today, Banks has her bachelor's and master's degrees, not a
common achievement for a kid from her hometown. At 27, she's a social
worker, is involved with activism and also mentors Native American
She has become confidant in who she is.
But not too long ago, her mom's biological son told her, "You
got to choose. Either you want to be black or you want to be Native."
Frustrated, Banks continued, "I definitely don't have to choose.
I'm definitely both, and if you can't get down with that. Then that's
Today, the two are not on speaking terms.
"I had to work really hard to figure out who I am and embrace
who I am," Banks said.
In January, Banks was invited to speak at the Women's March
in Phoenix, as a representative of both African-American and Native
She has actually always been interested in politics, and she
dreamed, even as a kid, of being president.
And a black Native American female president? Maybe one day,
in the not too distant future, this country will be ready.