While the relationship between Palestinian and Native American struggles against settler-colonialism should always have been obvious, the connection was rarely made until fairly recently.
Mainstream Western media was expectedly oblivious to or dismissive of both struggles to begin with, and Arab media, as US-Arab author and academician Steven Salaita explained, subscribed to the belief that Native Americans were already “defeated and disinherited”.
This meant that when a comparison was ever made, the Native American narrative was perceived as a fast-forwarded version of the current Palestinian narrative.
Based on the assumption — that of the permanent dispossession and defeat of the Natives — “those concerned with the colonisation of Palestine can be tempted to evoke Natives as the victims of a tragic fate that Palestinians must avoid,” Salaita wrote in the Electronic Intifada.
Yet this is simply not true. Native Americans, despite centuries of government-led genocide, denial or rights and breaking of numerous treaties, are yet to concede their right to exist and be recognised, displaying what has proved to be a noble, protracted fight.
Neither did Palestinians. In fact, this very collective resistance to oppression is the most defining trait shared between both groups.
While modern forms of communication technologies are yet to provide access to media platforms that are equitably available to all groups — especially those who are the most disaffected, poor classes — social media and other online platforms had revolutionised and globalised solidarity.
Now that the New York Times, for example, has lost its monopoly on informing and editorialising, numerous alternatives, albeit smaller and not as well-funded, are free to fill the unexplored discourse, one that mattered little to the elite of traditional media.
Currently, no amount of mainstream media propaganda can possibly delink Palestinian rights from the history of apartheid in South Africa or the struggle of Native Americans.
While it is unfortunate that such a narrative — that of global solidarity between oppressed groups around the world — has not permeated global awareness to be a centre of a worldwide discussion until recently, it is worth noting, in fact celebrating, that the solidarity discourse is making serious headway.
Compassions now abound between Palestinians and Native Americans. And it’s about time.
This comparison imposed and manifested itself recently when thousands of Native Americans resurrected the fighting spirit of their forefathers as they stood in unprecedented unity to contest an oil company’s desecration of their sacred land in North Dakota. Considering its burdened historical context, this has been one of the most moving events in recent memory.
The Dakota Nation is justifiably alarmed by the prospect that its water supplies will be polluted by the massive pipeline which, if completed will extend across four states and stretch over 1,100 miles.
While the issue of water rights in that region may seem extraneous to most of us, it should in fact be a matter of urgency and relevance, considering inhumane neoliberal economic practices are metamorphosing, with the constant aim of placing profits before people everywhere in the world.
Understanding the significance of the fight for the unity and future of Native American, hundreds of tribes have mobilised not only to protect the water of the Dakota Nation, but also to reassert their common fight for justice which has still not been settled after many years.
Expectedly, the mobilisation of the tribes has been met with state violence. Rather than appreciating the serious grievances of the tribes, particularly those in the Standing Rock Reservation, the state governor summoned all law enforcement agencies and activated the National Guard. The standoff has been marred by state violence and many arrests, and is still ongoing.
Nevertheless, the current mobilisation of Native American tribes — and the massive solidarity they have garnered — is far greater than the struggle against a money-hungry corporation, backed by an aggressive state apparatus. It is about the spirit of the Native people of that land, who have suffered a prolonged genocide aimed at their complete eradication.
Thanks to many activists and intellectuals, the similarities between the Native and Palestinian struggles are now being articulated in earnest. The genocide of the Native Americans, similar to the ongoing destruction of the Palestinian nation, is one of the lowest points of human morality. It is particularly disheartening that there are yet to be serious attempts at addressing this grave injustice.
For 500 years, Native Americans have witnessed every attempt at erasing them from the face of the planet. Their numbers dwindled from ten million before the arrival of Europeans in North America to less than 300,000 at the turn of the 20th century, as they were exterminated by colonial wars and ravaged by foreign diseases.
Calls to destroy Native Americans were hardly implicit: Spencer Phips, Lieutenant Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Province issued this statement in 1755 on behalf of King George II: “His Majesty’s subjects to embrace all opportunities of pursuing, captivating, killing and destroying all and every of the aforesaid Indians.”
A century later, in 1851, California Governor Peter H. Burnett made this declaration: “A war of extermination will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race becomes extinct.”
Methods of extermination differed, from outright murder to disease-infected blankets, to, as of today’s standoff, threatening their most viable resource: water.
Yet, somehow, the spirit of Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and numerous brave chiefs and warriors still roam the plains, urging their people to stand up and carry on with an overdue fight for justice and rights.
Palestinians have always felt that the legacy of the Native Americans is similar to their own.
“Our names: branching leaves of divine speech; birds that soar higher than a gun. You who come from beyond the sea, bent on war; don’t cut down the tree of our names; don’t gallop your flaming horses across the open plains.”
These were a few of the lines in Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s seminal poem, “Speech of the Red Indian.”
I recall the day that magnificent piece of Arabic literature was first published in full in Palestine’s ‘Al-Quds’ newspaper. At the time, I was a teenager in a refugee camp in Gaza. I read it with much trepidation and giddiness - carefully, slowly, and repeatedly. Those who could read, recited it out loud to those who could not.
Many tears were shed on that day, mostly because we all knew too well that we, in fact, were the ‘Red Indians.’ They were us.
Long before feminist critical theory coined the term ‘intersectionality’ — which contends that oppression is interconnected and one oppressive institution cannot be examined in isolation from others, Palestinians — as other victims of genocidal settler-colonialism — fully comprehended and held such a belief.
Palestinians are losing their lives, land and olive trees as they stand up to Israeli tanks and bulldozers. Their reality is a replay of similar experiences faced and still being confronted by Native Americans. Well into the 21st century, the Native American-Palestinian struggle remains one and the same.
“Our pastures are sacred, our spirits inspired,
The stars are luminous words where our fable is legible from beginning to end..”
Wrote Mahmoud Darwish, of the Native Americans. Of the Palestinians.
Dr Ramzy Baroud is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story.