Members of the Idle No More movement for Indigenous sovereignty and to protect the land and water, at the Peoples’s Climate March in New York City, 22 September 2014. (Allan Lissner/Idle No More)
Members of the Idle No More movement for Indigenous sovereignty and to protect the land and water, at the Peoples’s Climate March in New York City, 22 September 2014. (Allan Lissner/Idle No More)

Comparison of Native Americans and Palestinians has become increasingly common. Thus arises a corresponding need to assess the problems and prospects of comparative analysis.  Because I teach American Indian and Indigenous Studies in the Arab World, I’ve been thinking frequently about how we might productively engage Natives from spaces of Palestine solidarity.

By Steven Salaita, whose latest book is Uncivil Rites:  Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom.

Note: the hyperlinks throughout this article lead to book recommendations in American Indian and Indigenous Studies.

There’s no way to adequately represent the heterogeneity of Native and Palestinian viewpoints, commitments and ambitions. It is unwise to present Indian Country and Palestine as stable sites of inquiry, especially if we approach them in tandem.

To compare Natives and Palestinians – or any constellation of discrete national communities – is to constantly balance the problems of vagueness with the value of structural critique.

The point of comparison isn’t to theorize uniformity, but to discover political and intellectual paradigms that traverse national, cultural and geopolitical boundaries.

Comparative work is exceptionally difficult; my sloppiness often inspires rejoinder and correction. Tension is a necessary element of meaningful dialogue.

We have to select which points of tension are worth navigating. Here I’m concerned with the perception that Natives are defeated and disinherited. This perception exists in the Arab World, but originates in Canada and the United States.

People often assume that Natives have been permanently dispossessed or exist as ahistorical monuments of conquest unable to access modernity, if they exist at all.

Based on this assumption, those concerned with the colonization of Palestine can be tempted to evoke Natives as the victims of a tragic fate that Palestinians must avoid.

This formulation, however well-intentioned, does a tremendous disservice to Natives. A less sanguine reading might observe that it reinforces an ongoing colonial erasure of Indigenous peoples in (and beyond) North America.

It is based on an inaccurate understanding of both the past and present. Of course we don’t want Palestinians to be forever deprived of their homeland or exist as romantic emblems of an irretrievable past. Nor do we want Israel to eternally occupy Palestine’s history.

But Indian Country isn’t an example of such closures having occurred. The United States and Canada haven’t yet managed to settle the matter of their permanent supremacy.

The necessity of decolonization

Natives representing hundreds of discrete nations currently fight for restitution, sovereignty, treaty rights, self-determination and liberation.

Indeed, it is in Indigenous communities around the world, many of them supposedly defeated or disappeared, where we find principled and innovative forms of decolonization.

Coast Salish territory, known to many as British Columbia, remains unceded. The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy) issues its own passports.

The Diné (Navajo) control a region much larger than historic Palestine. The Kanaka Maoli (Hawaiians) do not recognize US authority on their islands.

Ceremonial and spiritual practices have survived centuries of subjection. Native languages are increasingly taught and spoken. Scholars, artists and storytellers recover and accelerate sophisticated intellectual traditions.

Things aren’t all peachy. The US and Canadian governments remain in violation of numerous treaties and retain ultimate jurisdiction over tribal governance.

Poverty on certain reservations is acute. Corporations, often with the complicity of a neocolonial elite, dump pollution in Native communities. They also destroy sacred sites and extract precious resources. Police violence is extraordinary in Indian Country. Indigenous girls and women disappear at an alarming rate. Sports teams use racist language and imagery.

These problems illuminate the continued existence of colonization and the corresponding necessity of decolonization.

Palestine solidarity activists needn’t hold up Natives as either fabled warriors or cautionary failures. We can encounter them in the context of very real and relevant struggles for freedom.

Still undefeated

The image of the defeated Native arises from venerable discourses of conquest. Settler colonization relies onlinear histories and biological hierarchies.

The US and Canada have supposedly surpassed the mythical point where ceding land or authority would still make sense. The Natives lost. Those who survived are multicultural tokens or anthropological curiosities.

Much of this reasoning invokes the persistent idea that Natives exist outside of modernity. As objects of the past, representing a tragic but necessary era of American progress, Natives cannot raise legitimate claims in the present.

The model of Native Americans as Palestine’s nightmare scenario, then, reproduces the logic of settler colonization. The reproduction of that logic is often unwitting, but it is through circulation of unexamined orthodoxy that cultural exceptionalism most vigorously survives. Any notion that Natives lost is a triumph of US and Canadian colonial discourses.

I don’t want to suggest that the logic I critique is a standard or even normal perception among Palestine activist communities around the world. However, I have encountered some variation of “we don’t want to become like the Indians” enough times to say the formulation does exist.

Read, write, shout

Working on Palestine solidarity from the Arab World doesn’t necessitate the inclusion of Natives, though any analysis of Israeli settler colonization that ignores corresponding colonial projects will be limited.

Working on Palestine solidarity from North America, however, does necessitate emphasis on Natives. Casting aside the notion that Natives no longer exist or are relics of a tragic past means making ourselves available to assist their political aspirations.

For instance, to perform boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) activism in North America means being attuned to the horrors of settler colonization. Being attuned to those horrors should entail an understanding of its existence in the geographies we inhabit.

This isn’t to say that we must find ways to make Natives and Palestinians analogous. We merely need to recognize that our obligations extend beyond Palestine.

Those of us in North America inhabit contested spaces. Deciding to align with the native or the settler should be an easy choice.

What to do once that choice has been made?

Read as much as you can about Indigenous peoples in North America (and, preferably, on other continents).

Seek sites of protest, celebration and learning. Proffer the forms of support that you most appreciate in relation to Palestine solidarity activism.

In short, participate in the projects that enliven rather than ossify Indigenous peoples around the world.

The Native American model redefined

Despite my vigorous rejection of the disappearing Native paradigm, we can nonetheless find appropriate models for Palestinian nationalism among Native communities.

Instead of declaring that we don’t want Palestinians to become like Natives, it would be more accurate to think of Natives as a model for Palestinian resistance and survival. The point isn’t simply recognition, but to emphasize the need for decolonization in North America.

Natives are still around despite persistent attempts at physical extermination and centuries of forced assimilation. They vigorously contest land theft and violations of autonomy. They are at the forefront ofmovements to transform the US and Canada from plutocratic armories into spaces of equality and justice.

If Palestinians can similarly survive the brutal assault on their peoplehood, as they have done thus far, then it will be an achievement worthy of celebration. That Natives aren’t fully liberated doesn’t negate the value of thoughtful comparison; it amplifies the need to compare.

It likewise amplifies the need to make decolonization of North America a central feature of BDS activism in the US and Canada.

As long as we practice anti-Zionist ethics on colonized ground, we necessarily involve ourselves in the politics of Native independence, whether or not we’re aware of that involvement.

Those in the Arab World can explore the implications of discussing the United States and Canada as settler colonies rather than merely as imperial powers.

This sort of shift might generate greater recognition of Natives as contemporaneous agents and produce even deeper understanding of the conditions in North America that inform the colonization of Palestine.

Wherever we live, it is imperative to avoid replicating narratives of colonial triumph. Nobody interested in Palestine’s liberation should imagine an obliquely terrible future. The past is vexing enough. And the present is still unsettled.

We needn’t set Natives and Palestinians against one another in fixed iterations of linear history. It’s better to participate in the timeless models of resistance that disturb settlers on both sides of the Atlantic.


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