Common struggles half a world apart

August 7, 2014

Native Americans' solidarity with Palestinians is tied to a common struggle against colonialism, write Caroline Gonzales and Ragina Johnson.

ALL OVER Indian Country, there has been an outpouring of support for Palestine. As the death toll nears 2,000 in Israel's latest bloody rampage in Gaza, the need to link our struggles and build resistance across borders becomes more and more clear.

For example, on July 17, a group of Navajo (Diné) protesters demonstrated outside of the Navajo Nation Council Chambers to stand in solidarity with the Palestinians and call for an end to the Navajo Nation's agricultural development and technological business partnership with the state of Israel.

"The demonstration was aimed at bringing awareness to the Palestine-Israel conflict to the Navajo people and to expose the hypocrisy of the Navajo Nation's financial ties with the colonial-settler state of Israel," said Texas-based Navajo activist Andrew Bennett. The Diné for Sanctions Against Israel are working toward a referendum to end the Navajo Nation's relationship with Israel in upcoming elections in October.

Late last year, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) became the third higher education association in the U.S.--after the Asian American Studies Association and American Studies Association--to vote to support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.

Navajo (Diné) activists demonstrate their solidarity with the people of Palestine
Navajo (Diné) activists demonstrate their solidarity with the people of Palestine (Marley Shebala)

NAISA's declaration of support put front and center the question of self-determination and rights for the indigenous people of Palestine:

NAISA is dedicated to free academic inquiry about, with, and by Indigenous communities. The NAISA Council protests the infringement of the academic freedom of Indigenous Palestinian academics and intellectuals in the Occupied Territories and Israel who are denied fundamental freedoms of movement, expression, and assembly, which we uphold.

As the elected council of an international community of Indigenous and allied non-Indigenous scholars, students, and public intellectuals who have studied and resisted the colonization and domination of Indigenous lands via settler state structures throughout the world, we strongly protest the illegal occupation of Palestinian lands and the legal structures of the Israeli state that systematically discriminate against Palestinians and other Indigenous peoples.

THE IDEA that the fates of Native Americans and Palestinians are connected comes easily to Native activists in the U.S. Besides the simple fact that an injury to one is an injury to all, American Indians, Aboriginals of Canada, and Indios in Central and South America share with Palestinians an ongoing history of settler-colonialism that includes dispossession of land, resources and culture, not to mention dehumanizing and outright genocidal policies.

One striking way to visualize the connectedness of Palestinians and Native Americans is to look at the maps showing land dispossession--from 1492 to 1890 for Native Americans and from 1946 to the present day for Palestinians.

There are differences in the historical experiences of Native Americans and Palestinians. The Zionist war of conquest against Palestine began more recently, and military atrocities committed against Palestinians continue to this day--mirroring the war crimes of the U.S. government against Native peoples carried out mainly during the 19th century and before, under its Manifest Destiny policies.

But there are very real commonalities in the day-to-day lives of Native Americans and Palestinians today.

Many Native Americans on reservations lack homes with running water and electricity, or access to decent education and health care--and they can't even count on the promise that they will have a home at all in the future because of abject poverty and high unemployment. Palestinians, even when they aren't enduring the barbarism of a military attack, suffer desperately from life under occupation in the West Bank and under siege in Gaza.

While the Israel Defense Forces terrorize the occupied territories, in the U.S., police patrol the boundaries of dwindling American Indian reservations. Like Palestinians, Native Americans suffer at the hands of the prison and criminal justice system far out of proportion to their numbers in the population.

The Palestinian Authority has no real governing control--what powers it does have are used against ordinary Palestinians, in collaboration with Israeli repression. In North America, whether the authority is the U.S. government, through its Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), or tribal councils and police forces, the mass of indigenous people lack the most basic democratic rights.

The impoverishment of the Native American population has been taking place for centuries, but it continues today with the theft of what little land and resources was left to Native peoples, especially by corporations thirsting for mineral wealth and other resources. Likewise, Israel continues its ongoing robbery of vital resources such as water and land in the West Bank, while Gaza remains besieged.

These are two peoples who face both a military and repressive occupying force, but also economic and political barriers that function like the walls of open prisons. The laws enacted in both Israel and the U.S. make Indigenous populations separate and unequal.

The common experience of settler colonialism has been underlined by Zionists themselves, who wish to legitimize the founding of Israel by pointing out that the "great democracy" of the U.S. depended on the colonization of the Native population. For example, the Israeli historian Benny Morris once said in an interview, "Even the great American democracy couldn't come to be without the forced extinction of Native Americans. There are times the overall, final good justifies terrible, cruel deeds."

As Steven Salaita wrote in an article at

The problems with invoking Native American genocide to rationalize Palestinian dispossession are legion. The most noteworthy problem speaks to the unresolved detritus of American history: Natives aren't objects of the past; they are living communities whose numbers are growing.

The United States is a settler nation, but its history hasn't been settled. Yet most people invoke Natives as if they lost a contest that entrapped them in the past--and this only if Natives are considered at all. As a result, most analyses of both domestic and foreign policies are inadequate, lacking a necessary context of continued colonization and resistance.

SALAITA'S FINAL point is important to remember: those living under occupation and colonial rule have always resisted their occupiers.

In North America today, a movement of Native and Indigenous peoples has been growing against the new land and resource theft carried out by energy corporations and the politicians beholden to them. The challenge to the undermining of treaties between tribes and nations in North America and the Canadian and U.S. governments is connected to protests against environmental devastation that is causing irreversible damage.

This resurging struggle has been projected and deepened by the work of Idle No More, a First Nations movement started in Canada, which has helped people realize how the movement for Indigenous rights and climate justice cannot be achieved without wider social justice.

In Gaza, Palestinians are demonized in the mainstream media for their resistance to the Israeli occupation and military attack. Even as the bombs drop on Gaza, Israeli leaders and the media claim that Hamas and their rockets are to blame for the war.

But Native peoples in America would not even exist if they hadn't resisted the project of founding the United States, which depended on obliterating them, alongside stealing their land.

Thus, American Indian Movement leaders such as Robert Robideau and Russell Means have been among the many people vocal in support of the Indigenous resistance in America and Palestine. Robideau, for example, stated: "The 'Gods' must be crazy to think that their programs of racism and genocide will stop freedom fighters around the world from carrying on with their struggles for liberation and self defense."

Lately, there have been a number of articles written in support of the growing BDS movement for Indian Country Today, which ask American Indians to confront their Islamophobia and, in turn, take up the Palestinian cause as their own.

For example, last December, Indian Country Today reported about several indigenous American scholars who would be speaking as part of a panel discussion called "Redwashing: Israeli Claims to Indigeneity and the Political Role of Native Americans," at the American University of Beirut. The debate that followed at the online publication about support for Palestine or Israel was the most prominent in recent memory.

Ryan Bellerose wrote in to support Israel, claiming that the author of the Indian Country Today article "doesn't understand that in fact Judeah and Samaria are not 'Palestinian' lands but the ancestral homeland of the Jewish nation." He went on to use outdated and racist archaeology, paired with religious justifications--ironically, some of the same themes used to validate the genocide of Native Americans.

Robert Warrior, a leading Indigenous scholar, activist and vocal supporter of Palestine for over 30 years, responded immediately to Bellerose with a sharp critique of Israel and its main sponsor, the U.S. government:

What pays for the occupation and the settlements is the more than $3 billion in taxpayer dollars the U.S. sends to the state of Israel every year. That's more money than the U.S. sends to any other foreign country (not to mention more than it spends on the BIA). The issues of illegal land confiscation and violence-driven occupation resonate with me as an Osage, but I am also concerned as a taxpayer about what the U.S. is doing with my taxes and in my name.

Thanks to American Indian scholars like Joanne Barker (Delaware), Melanie Yazzie (Navajo), Nick Estes (Lakota), and Kent Lebsock (Lakota), the strong connections between the indigenous peoples of the Americas and Palestine have been solidified with continued actions, as well as presentations at conferences referenced in Indian Country Today articles. Idle No More has also paired up with activists in Palestine for solidarity actions, including an amazing poster project the depicts the ties between the two peoples resisting colonialism.

THIS WORK has set the stage for the current demonstrations across Indian Country to protest the ongoing genocide in Gaza. These are a step forward for all our struggles across borders.

Erica Violet Lee, an international youth leader in the Idle No More movement, gave voice to the urgency of this struggle:

For Indigenous people of Turtle Island, supporting the Palestinian struggle is of significance. We know what it is to be denied our right to life by colonizers who could not see our humanity; those who only viewed our bodies as obstacles to possessing the land and its resources.

In solidarity, Native Americans work to prevent the loss of Palestinian homelands, because we recognize that what is occurring is not just a loss of land, but an erasure of our knowledge, our history and our ancestors. We must stand up for people under colonial occupation to assert their sovereignty and dream of lives without the ever-present fear of death.

We see the numbers posted every day from the comfort of our homes on the other side of the world, and it's so easy to reduce genocide to that number. Fifty-two one day, then 71, and 91 the next. We forget those numbers represent individuals who had families, stories, knowledge to share, and valuable skills to contribute to our world. Any number greater than zero is a loss for all of us.

In this moment of horror and outrage at the murder of our brothers and sisters in Palestine, there is hope that we can march towards real justice and human dignity by building an international movement that rejects all borders and sets a goal of ending war, imperialism and colonialism--even if achieving this goal is decades in the future.

We must continue this struggle today by challenging the racism and lies of the Zionist project to colonize Palestine and drive out the Palestinian people. By linking together our struggles against colonialism, those in the streets today for Palestinian liberation and fighting for BDS against Israel can be in the streets for First Nations that are still fighting for self-determination and justice.

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