‘What Binds Us Together’: On What It Means to Support Indigenous Liberation

December 20, 2020

A depiction by the Navajo artist Remy of 16-year-old Fawzi al-Junaidi arrested by Israeli soldiers. (Photo: File)

By Benay Blend

In a recent interview with Michael Arria, Sumaya Awad and Brian Bean discuss their book Palestine: A Socialist Introduction (2020). The collection argues that socialism should be viewed as an important element in the struggle to liberate Palestine.

“What binds us together,” concludes Awad, “is our class politics. The working class together is what will build a new kind of world and a different system. And what that means is standing with the oppressed outside of our borders and with Palestine.”

While class is a clear connection around which to build campaigns, there are other avenues to explore. For example, in “The Liberation of Palestine Represents an Alternative Path for Native Americans,” Nick Estes (Lower Brule Sioux Tribe) describes Palestine as “the moral barometer of Indigenous North America,” thus adding the Indigeneity that Awad touches on to the commonalities that bind activists to the cause of Palestine.

Responding to the controversy that erupted in Santa Fe, New Mexico over a series of pro-Palestinian murals drawn by a local Navajo artist, Elena Ortiz (Ohkay Owingeh) expands on the historical connections between the Indigenous here and in Occupied Palestine.

“The images on that stucco wall,” explains Ortiz, “show the truth of settler colonialism and the effects it has on indigenous people. They were put there to show solidarity with our Palestinian relatives in the face of brutal occupation; to illuminate injustice and shed light on this nation’s complicity in Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people.”

In that vein, she stresses the importance of acknowledging that the founding of the United States was a process that involved displacing and exploiting Indigenous nations that were living on the land prior to European conquest, a process very similar to the establishment, too, of the state of Israel.

Elaborating on the contradictions between Santa Fe’s reputation as a liberal “art center and home to vibrant Native cultures,” Ortiz asks how a Native-installed art exhibit could cause so much controversy. “Because it illuminates a truth that many people do not want to face?” she speculates, or, perhaps, it offends a lot of people?

In reality, those most offended were local Zionists who assumed the role of victim. “Why is Israel singled out as an aggressor when there are many troubled spots in the world?” asked Rabbi Berel Levertov of the Santa Fe Jewish Center-Chabad. “There are many facets to the story and to highlight Israel is just anti-semitic propaganda.”

Preferring a portrayal that depicts “normalization” of relations between the two—a “work of art depicting…Jews and Arabs living in Peace”—Levertov offered up an image very fitting, too, of Santa Fe, a City Different that hides its racism beneath a veneer of faux adobe.

Several months later another controversy arose when Native people and their comrades succeeded in taking down a memorial ostensibly to Union soldiers. As Elena Ortiz explains, those same combatants participated in massacring Native people and removing them from their homelands.

“Under the shadow of that obelisk,” Ortiz asserts, “on Tewa homelands, in a place we call O’gha Po’geh, we still exist,” despite ongoing efforts by some to prove the opposite.

Alan Webber, the liberal mayor of Santa Fe who might seem a likely ally, proposed a belated Cultures, Histories, Art, Reconciliation and Truth committee. Tasked with replacing other controversial monuments with alternate public art, the commission bears resemblance to similar efforts towards “normalizing” Israeli/Palestinian relations.

Indigenous activists know better, specifically that there can be no peace until there is substantive justice. Elena Ortiz, daughter of the late Alphonso Ortiz, an anthropology professor who was my mentor at the University of New Mexico, says that “the city’s mood and dialogue” have exposed much deeper problems.

“Santa Fe, with its pseudo-liberal, left-leaning politics, thinks it’s somehow above” racial tensions that elsewhere have been exposed.

“But when you look at the vitriol that has come out since the obelisk, we’re peeling back this onion and we’re showing the racism that is endemic in Santa Fe. And we’re showing that, hey, Donald Trump doesn’t have anything on Santa Fe and this racism is so systemic.”

A city that bears a liberal façade, but in which racist and anti-Palestinian sentiments have exploded, Santa Fe is a perfect example of the ways in which Indigeneity unites solidarity activists around the cause of liberation, but at the same time exposes that sometimes a wing of the left-liberal camp declines to be on board.

Finally, President-elect Joe Biden’s selection of New Mexico Congressmember Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) as secretary of the interior owes much to Indigenous movements who organized around land back as well as an end to fracking on and around Native land. An historic first, Haaland’s appointment marks a significant turn-around for an agency that for much of the nation’s history played a central role in the dislocation and abuse of all Indigenous tribes.

“That was a very, very important step for the Biden administration,” says Winona LaDuke, executive director of Honor the Earth, rural development economist and Native American activist. “Indian people know how to take care of this land.” ·

According to the Red Nation, Haaland’s nomination is also significant because she hails from a state that ranks fifth in the country for oil and gas production, much of which is on Indigenous land claimed by the federal and state governments. Moreover, the group explains,

“these conditions, and ongoing struggle against them, put NM at the center of the land back movement — in which a first step is returning public lands back to Indigenous people for any kind of sound environmental policy. Because of this context, Haaland’s appointment is significant.”

Because Haaland has taken a position against fracking on public land and has supported Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) legislation, her selection plays out within this context.

“We have yet to see, however, how this will all play out when she becomes secretary of DOI,” concludes the Red Nation statement. “Regardless, movements are pushing in this direction.”

“While there is widespread agreement among Native people that European colonialism and Indigenous genocide is criminal and immoral,” writes Nick Estes, “there are a surprisingly high number of Native politicians, elites, and public figures who don’t extend the same sympathies to Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims.” He continues that the term “anti-Palestinian opportunism” describes “how profitable and career-advancing it is for Indigenous people to align with the Zionist project.”

The future Secretary of the Interior falls into this category. “It’s profound to think about the history of this country’s policies to exterminate Native Americans and the resilience of our ancestors that gave me a place here today,” Haaland said.

Nevertheless, she does not view Palestine in the same light. For example, during her campaign for US Congress, Haaland compared Native Americans getting the right to vote in New Mexico in 1948 to the creation of the state of Israel. Reflecting on this statement, Estes concludes that “Haaland’s opportunism demonstrates that she is anything but an ally to Palestine and more of an opportunist willing to throw Palestinians under the bus when it benefits her political career.”

Recalling a panel in which she participated during the Palestine Writes festival, author and activist Susan Albuhawa explained that “true solidarity has a cost. What is it really worth to the oppressed if it’s easy and cheap and popular? Solidarity matters most when it’s hard, unpopular, and costly.”

Hopefully, in her upcoming appointed position, Haaland will use her platform to point out the ties that bind the Indigenous in this country with their relatives the Palestinians. Both have undergone ethnic cleansing and displacement, parallel experiences that should be called for what it is, crimes against humanity.

Recounting how the Intifada changed the political trajectory of the Palestinian people, Ramzy Baroud explains that “thanks to the Intifada, the Palestinian people have demonstrated their own capacity at challenging Israel without having their own military, challenging the Palestinian leadership by organically generating their own leaders, confronting the Arabs and, in fact, the whole world, regarding their own moral and legal responsibilities towards Palestine and the Palestinian people.”

Perhaps it is this acknowledgment of the need for a grassroots struggle against colonialism that is the tie that binds Indigenous resistance around the world. Commemorating the 2020 election which saw the ouster of Donald Trump, the Red Nation put out the following statement. Regarding what needs to be done, it puts forward the following view on socialism as the tie that binds.

“The battle of ideas against the ideology of greed and individualism, and the need for communal organization are key…Indigenous peoples, peoples of tribal nations, peoples of Maroon communities, peoples of the land have lived before capitalism and against capitalism. They have cultivated relations with each other and the land that do not rely on conquest and surplus but bring abundance and joy and dignity to all. These communal forms should be developed and become schools for freedom. We call these schools for Indigenous socialism. Join us in the struggle to create a better future.”

“To be a socialist you must be a principled champion for Palestine (p. 6),” write Awad and Bean. Their book bears out that certainly, this is true.

– Benay Blend earned her doctorate in American Studies from the University of New Mexico. Her scholarly works include Douglas Vakoch and Sam Mickey, Eds. (2017), “’Neither Homeland Nor Exile are Words’: ‘Situated Knowledge’ in the Works of Palestinian and Native American Writers”. She contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle.

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