On his recent visit to the States, Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti challenged Americans by expressing solidarity with Native Americans who were also ethnically-cleansed from their lands. I say challenge because the issue is rarely addressed in activist circles; I rarely address it myself, I don't know how to think about it.
The other night I attended a panel for Israeli Apartheid Week at Columbia University at which the issue was front and center. It was titled, "And the Native Did Not Disappear: Challenging the Omnipresence of Colonialism from New York to Palestine," and sponsored by Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine and the Native American Council. From the description:
As two nations founded on the coming of primarily European settlers to a land upon which native people had existed and kept existing, the U.S. and Israel have much in common.
I heard only the first speaker as I was running to a Rashid Khalidi reading, but he was riveting. Simon Moya-Smith is a young Oglala Lakota who is studying at Columbia's School of Journalism. He runs a blog called, "I am not a Mascot," and he held the rapt attention of more than 200 people in the room for 20 minutes. Let me give you an account of his talk.
Moya-Smith began by addressing us in Oglala Lakota for a minute. Then he picked up in English: "What you heard right now is not a foreign language." In fact English is the foreign language to this land, he said.
Moya-Smith moved on to media misrepresentations of Native Americans. "For example, we don’t wear a costume," he said. The moccasins and bells -- "Our regalia is spiritual. You don’t say a priest is wearing a costume... And Frank Sinatra didn’t chant; he sang. [Media] recognize him as a singer. But when we sing, we’re chanting."
It is hurtful to him to constantly see monuments to people who encouraged or directed genocidal policies-- to go into Columbus Circle and see a monument to Columbus, and go to a school named after that man, to see icons of the first president. "George Washington said, you have to kill their crops. [i.e., don’t slaughter them outright]."
"It’s not something that happened. It’s something that’s happening. America is one big colony, and it’s still a colony. From the the Native American standpoint, it’s pretty shitty."
Moya-Smith said that when he went to college in Colorado and worked at Denver newspapers, he found that some people didn't recognize the genocide of the Native Americans, "because they’re still here." But genocides took place in the Holocaust and in Armenia, and those people are still here. So a different standard is used by the settler colonialists in the U.S.:
"They can’t smell their own shit, because it’s too close to home."
He said that one problem Native Americans have is that they’re so culturally visible but at the same time culturally invisible. The Mercedes Benz ad with the dreamcatcher hanging from it-- a visible representation. The Cleveland Indians baseball team. "But if I walk into a room, I don’t look like a Native American." And so he's invisible.
Sometimes people try to rationalize settler colonialism to him. "You have a laptop and a cellphone. That’s what it gave you... But what did it take away?" Moya-Smith's voice rose, with a curdle of pain: "It took away our language, our spirituality, our grandparents, kicking and screaming." He said that his grandparents were forcibly moved from the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota in a mid-20th-century effort to "save" the next generation of Native Americans.
"I wasn’t raised with my language or spirituality. I was born in a relocation city in Colorado. My family moved to Denver." When he went back to the reservation for pow-wows, he learned that others closer to the traditions called him "a concrete Indian."
People say that Native Americans should leave the reservation to improve themselves. But why? Where should they go? "This is our country, this is our land. This is our old country." When the Germans and Irish and French talk about leaving or going back to the old country, there's no question about where they can go. "You wouldn’t ask an Italian to leave Italy."
As a boy Moya-Smith began to resist the larger culture. He got sent home from school on Columbus Day every year because he refused to celebrate the colonizer by eating cupcakes for the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. He resented the fact that people made him an emissary of "Planet Indian," as if he shared a language and a creation story with the Seminole. "We have different languages. We have different creation stories." Just as France and Russia are separated.
Then Moya-Smith spoke of his personal effort to recover his traditions-- to learn the ceremonies and the dances, to no longer be Catholic. And he said the internet is fostering this recovery. There are now 5 or 6 Native American activists taking on the Washington Redskins over their name. "That’s Native American youth, stepping up." Moya-Smith believes the divide and conquer policy of the settler colonialist is at last being taken on. White men have said to these activists: "We’re honoring you Native Americans by saying Redskins. You’re a redskin. Don’t get mad."
But he asked us, do you think if the Washington football team were the blackskins, that would that be accepted?
"We have to sit back and have people tell us what we should be offended by. And what I’m offended by is America."
Moya-Smith related a recent joke on television: "Arizona is a hot place full of drunk Indians" (from the Mike and Molly show)." Or he walks out of school and sees a monument to Thomas Jefferson, who encouraged the extermination of his people. Or he goes to South Dakota and sees four rich dead white guys' faces, carved into his people's "holy site, our creation site-- but that’s OK, it will be a good tourist attraction.
"We’re up against Halloween parties. Thanksgiving, Columbus Day. We’re 1 percent of the population in our own land... I want us to come shouting back as loudly as we can, we’re done with your gloating and we’re not going away."
And you may think of settler colonialism as covered wagons, going west. But it's not. It's the cab outside on Broadway, it's someone walking on the street.
"We are all beneficiaries of native land. You are sitting on native land. That’s why we won’t shut up."