A few years ago I noticed, with the help of a friend, that there seemed to be an abundance of events in our community dedicated to raising awareness about the plight of Palestinian people. There was a lot of discussion about Israeli settlements encroaching on Palestinian villages and olive orchards, violence perpetrated at roadblocks, and a variety of other human rights violations.
My friend and I, who are both interested in indigenous issues closer to home, noticed a number of parallels between the relationship that Israelis have to Palestinians and the relationship that too many white people in the United States have to people of the American Indian Nations. Here we are descendants of the colonizers and the colonized, but perhaps Israel will look like the United States in a few generations if the forces of colonization prevail: with Palestinians treated as an extinct race of people, covered in a fourth-grade curriculum in lessons about their appreciation for having been taught Israeli ways. (The California Fourth Grade Mission Project teaches students about the Spanish missions in Alta California that were established by Catholic priests between 1769 to 1833 to spread Christianity among the local Native Americans in a major effort to colonize the Pacific Coast region.)
Many people in the Quaker community and many activists in our city are passionate about taking action for Palestinians. I have not been heavily involved in the Israeli-Palestinian effort, although what I hear and understand about the situation sounds tragic, and I understand why people want to help. But I wonder why these activists don’t feel called to do something about the way in which we ourselves either enact or at least benefit from the same type of human rights abuses perpetrated on the First Peoples of this continent we live on. I wonder why some folks in my community are willing to take a flight halfway around the world to be allies in the Palestinian struggle but don’t even know the names of the cultures that were and are displaced by our presence on the land we live on.
I in no way intend to imply that working to help the Palestinian people is not meaningful, important, or even crucial to reduce and mitigate suffering in the world. I can’t help wondering, however, if our energy could be used more effectively here, where we have citizenship and thus leverage to advocate for the rights and lives of American Indian people who are by no means extinct.
I recently attended a presentation about the human rights violations and attrition warfare tactics that the coal industry has been waging on the Dine reservation for decades. The speaker, Nadia Lucia Peralta, goes to the reservation yearly to support a family there. As she shared the ways in which these people’s sheep are taken away from them (impounded for “overgrazing” on land that is drained of water due to strip mining and slurry coal transportation), I was poignantly reminded of the stories I have heard about Palestinian olive orchards: two cultures, two traditional means of livelihood, and two empires coming in to take away the means of resilience.
It seems to me that leading by example has always been a part of Quaker efforts for social change. If folks would like the Israeli government and citizenry to take a stand for Palestinian justice, I hope that we are willing to do the same for Native Americans and stop pretending that indigenous struggle has somehow ended here or that there is nothing we can do about it. The Dine are in Arizona; their reservation sprawls across three states in the Four Corners region, and is the site of the most heavy resource extraction in the United States. We don’t need a plane ticket to get there, only a bus ticket or a car.
Another example is Mauna Kea, a mountain sacred to native Hawaiians and the site for a new observatory being built by TMT Observatory Corporation in cooperation with the University of Hawaii. The project could threaten freshwater aquifers, cross the tree line (a big no-no in Hawaiian religious tradition), and basically nullify the terms of the lease for this land, giving it away to the university in perpetuity instead of offering up the renewal for genuine public input when the lease expires. Native Hawaiians dedicated to protecting Mauna Kea blockaded the construction roadways to the proposed building site throughout spring and summer, leading to arrests for civil disobedience and the project being brought to the Hawaiian Supreme Court for review of the permitting process.
I am sure there are indigenous struggles closer to home for anyone reading this as well. They seem to be ubiquitous. One issue for many tribes today is being federally unrecognized, even though they were in the past. Being unrecognized means that the government does not have to honor treaties made with tribes. It also means it’s much harder for tribes to access sacred sites for traditional ceremonies, and therefore more difficult to maintain their culture. One example of Quakers supporting cultural resurgence is at Quaker Oaks Farm in Visalia, Calif., where the Wukchumni now hold an annual sweat lodge.
It is my intent and desire to act in solidarity with the indigenous people of this land we live on, and I know that I have much to learn. I cannot fully and accurately convey the feelings and concerns of a culture that is not my own, but I feel called to use my voice and words to bring awareness to these issues.
There are many publications and other resources from the American Indian community. I started following the Winnemem Wintu on Facebook (Chief Caleen Sisk is a powerhouse of inspirational leadership) and through that became aware of the Mauna Kea struggle and also News from Native California, a quarterly magazine devoted to California’s indigenous people, which has a Facebook page as well. The Wintu have worked with the native Maori people in New Zealand to return native Californian salmon home, where they are going extinct. These salmon were exported to New Zealand decades ago and are now naturalized in the rivers there. Indigenous people worldwide are working together to promote one another’s resiliency. I hope we can organize to support them.