Nelson Mandela: The Invisible History of Indigeneity

A few years ago, I was in conversation with American Indian Movement leader Russell Means when the subject of Nelson Mandela randomly came up. I said something along the lines that Mandela was such a unique inspiration of groundbreaking political ideas. Swiftly, as is the custom of Indian elders, I was rebuked. Mandela, I was informed, was the man he had been raised to be. His ideas were those of indigenous peoples around the world. Long held, time tested.

His uniqueness was that white people actually listened and tried out those ideas. His uniqueness was not in his ideas, it was in his ability to interact with the white world while still thinking and being the tribal chief he had been raised to be. His great accomplishment in the face of overwhelming assault: “He did not let whiteness invade his mind and his heart.”

Nelson Mandela(Image source)

The admonishment to me was that I had in fact succumbed to the white portrayal of Mandela. Honestly, if I ever knew, I did not consciously incorporate the information that Nelson Mandela was raised in the tribal society of the Xhosa. He was assumed to be a future leader of his people and trained for that eventuality. I had often marveled at how seamlessly his quotes about the land and the people and the values of humanity coincided with those of my native elders. However, I had never put together the fact that this was because he had listened and absorbed the same teachings from his native elders.

Only the release of Leonard Peltier could have inspired more joy and celebration in Indian Country than Mandela’s release from prison in 1990. See Peltier’s response to Mandela’s death here.

Mandela joined the call of many around the world for the release of Leonard Peltier. Mandela and most indigenous people see no difference between the circumstances which led to the formation of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and reasoned, sometimes violent, defense of life and liberty from government sponsored terrorism and the formation of the African National Congress (ANC) and the decision, made by Mandela himself, to form the military wing called Umkhonto we Sizwe, or the Spear of the Nation.

Mandela was released after 27 years for defending his homeland from segregation, violence and murder by an oppressive white government. Leonard Peltier has served 40 years for doing the same. Three U.S. presidents will travel to South Africa to honor Madiba, an indigenous freedom fighter. All three passed up the opportunity to free Leonard Peltier.

Leonard_Peltier(Image source)

Writers in Indian Country have challenged President Obama to honor Mandela by honoring his wish to see Peltier freed.

When he was elected the first black and indigenous president of South Africa, there were acknowledgements at all of the ceremonies in Indian Country of how “our brother” has assumed his rightful place as leader of his freed people. White education and white frames conditioned me to hear this in the same way as the accolades from white liberal groups around the world or the inheritors of white colonials in governments across the globe. It was not the same. Nelson Mandela was celebrated in Indian Country as an indigenous tribal leader, acting true to his hereditary teachings, elected to preside over a modern colonial nation state. It was as if an aboriginal leader had been elected Prime Minister of Australia or Canada.

It was as if Russell Means were elected President of the United States. Native leaders, particularly traditional leaders, saw this as a validation that indigenous ideas could survive and rise in a post colonial world. He was one of us. He stayed one of us. And he made them see us and hear us.

Mandela the man and South Africa the nation have been seen as a hallmark of race relations between blacks and whites around the globe and particularly in the United States. These are important, obviously. Musa Okwonga, British black poet and activist, provides a wonderful view of this with a simultaneous takedown of the whitewashing of Mandela entitled “He will never, ever be your minstrel.” Nelson Mandela’s kinship with people like Malcolm X and Dr. King are secure enough to survive this onslaught of white platitudes.

Madiba’s indigenous identity and ideas have, as is always the case, been whitewashed to invisibility. His constant references to the beauty, importance and identity marker of the land in his famous speeches and quotes are not viewed as the universal perspective of indigenous peoples everywhere. They are seen as inspiring quotes of a singular nature from a unique iconic figure. Chief Seattle and many other indigenous leaders have talked of the land and the people in this way for centuries. I am grateful to have lived in a time when the world listened, if only briefly and partially, to Nelson Mandela speak from an international microphone with the voice of an indigenous person. I am grateful that these words, if not their historic context, will be replicated and available for all to absorb.

As president, Mandela proposed the revolutionary “new” idea of truth and reconciliation to take the nation from its bloody past to its unified future. This idea relied heavily on the indigenous African tribal concept of ubuntu. (See Bishop Tutu’s explanation of this in No Future without Forgiveness or this extensive rundown of its meanings and application with a video from Mandela himself explaining it.)

Ubuntu has its corollary in most indigenous groups. The Lakota say mitakuye oyacin, meaning everything is related or we are all one. The ideas of forgiveness and survival with dignity have been echoed by many indigenous leaders toward white oppressors. A particularly poignant rendition is this message from a Choctaw chief in 1832 preparing to relocate his people on the long Trail of Tears that would see more than half of them die. If you listen, you will hear Madiba from prison refusing to be freed while his people are banned, President Mandela as he talks of South African reconciliation and retired global icon Mandela as he discusses how every man should have a house in sight of where he was born. Perhaps, you will hear as indigenous people hear through the cacophony of whitewash which obliterates indigenous people, land and ideas.


  1. Joe

    Shari, thanks for the great and savvy post. Nothing like it on the web, which suggests the white/non-indigenous bias in almost all the mass media, and online too.

    What do you make of the critiques of Mandela for slowly (apparently?) giving up on the idea of large-scale economic resource distribution that he had asserted while in prison and in his first years out, before being president. The left media accuse him of capitulating to neoliberalism?

  2. Shari Valentine Author

    There is a serious pragmatic streak in indigenous philosophy. It is hard to pin down and not predictable by mainstream standards but you can almost always predict it if you know the people and the situation.

    More importantly, indigenous thought has the continuing cyclical quality. My personal guess would be that he left the next stage for his successors. He said in 2007 when his grandson was selected to lead the Themba that he could now die happy.

    If I think of it as a political consultant I would say that he believed the legacy was important and redistribution was too radical to accomplish quickly and too messy to start without completing. Hoping the strong legacy and myth would foster it eventually.

    It is also fair to take note that the left media have only to write about policy. They never actually have to try to implement it. So, they can live in a written world of “ideal types” without having to roll up their sleeves and deal with the never ideal types that populate the halls of a legislative body, in an apartheid state no less.

    If faced with less redistribution or children starving when the U.S. and other corporations withdrew their investments in S. Africa, a pragmatic tribal leader would cut enough deals to keep the children fed and hope that the next generation would feed them better than he could.

    Realistically, many of those left media pundits would as well, but they don’t have too, because they can write in ideal types.

    Hard to know. It was so much for one man to do. From an indigenous perspective, it is ungrateful to speculate on what he maybe could/should have done when he literally gave his whole life to the struggle to make South Africa and its people better off. All you can give is your life to the people. If you have done that, and it does not meet the peoples needs, someone else must come to take up the struggle.


  1. The Indigenous Nelson Mandela | Roots of Justice

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