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From Palestine to Turtle Island: musings on border crossings

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Note:  I wrote this essay in mid-March, as I once again pondered the ease of travel I enjoy here on Turtle Island, because of my US passport.  I had just spent a few days with a group of grassroots activists exploring ways we can further connect our various communities’ struggles against state-sanctioned violence.  Following that retreat, I crossed from Arizona into Mexico through the divided town of Nogales, a city that illustrates the [email protected] saying that “we didn’t’ cross the border, the border crossed us.”  My experience at that border reminded me of my experience entering Palestine through the King Hussein Bridge (“Allenby Bridge”), where Israeli occupation soldiers, whose very presence there is illegal, determine who can and cannot enter the West Bank.  Two weeks later, on Land Day, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip launched the Great Return March. As the Palestinians announced their plans, Israel lined up over 100 snipers with orders to shoot anyone attempting to “infiltrate,” as if displaced refugees attempting to return could ever be said to be “infiltrating.  The massacre that ensued—not “clashes,” not “riots,” but a massacre—was predictable, given Israel’s record, but even the quasi-certainty that there would be casualties would not stop the Palestinians from asserting their rights, and reminding the world that the border and occupation are illegal. In the US, activists organized emergency rallies denouncing the massacre, at which the now familiar chant could be heard, “From Palestine to Mexico, All the Walls Have Got to Go.”

Like most Palestinians who understand that the question of Palestine is one of settler-colonialism, and that our struggle for liberation is above all a decolonial struggle, I am acutely aware of my own position in North America as a beneficiary of settler-colonialism here.  Claiming that my ancestors “did not come on the Mayflower” does not make things right; if anything, it suggests that I believe the colonization of this land is a thing of the past, rather than an ongoing reality for its Indigenous peoples. Yet as we look around Turtle Island, from Standing Rock to Louisiana to Washington state, where I live,  we see that government-sponsored land theft and dispossession continue to take place today. Displaced from their ancestral and sacred lands centuries ago, then pushed onto desolate reservations, this continent’s indigenous nations and tribes are still losing land to this day, as a result of political and environmental racism, frequently aggravated by the lack of federal recognition.  The lack of recognition results in no federal relief when disaster strikes, as it did in 2010, when the BP Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, devastating Houma Nation land in the Gulf of Mexico.  Because the Houma are not federally recognized, they received no government relief after the BP oil spill, just as they had received none after the floods caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2003.   Also in Louisiana, the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw have lost 98% of their land since 1955, due in large part to oil and gas drilling, and they are looking at yet another relocation—meaning further displacement—as their only chance of survival.  And in Washington state, the Duwamish are still not recognized as a tribe, even though the city of Seattle is named after their chief, Seathl, and the Duwamish river empties into Elliot Bay, formerly known as Duwamish Bay, in downtown Seattle.  The Duwamish river is severely polluted with carcinogenic contaminants from industrial production, as well as fecal matter from sewage overflow and failing septic tanks. These are only three examples, this whole continent is exploited desecrated land, scarred by multiple swathes of environmental devastation and trails of tears.

This abuse is similar to the land and natural resources theft Palestinians continue to experience today, from Nabi Saleh, whose struggle is making global headlines thanks to the Tamimis’ weekly protests, and the recent arrest of Ahed Tamimi,  to the “unrecognized” Bedouin villages in the Naqab, some of which, like Araqib, have been destroyed multiple times.  Al-Araqib itself has been destroyed over 100 times, even as its residents refuse to leave it.  Indeed, the parallels between the Palestinian people, and the indigenous peoples of this land are so strong that, as Nadya Tannous wrote, upon arriving to Standing Rock as a member of the Palestine Youth Movement delegation during the 2016 standoff:  “I felt the similarities in my bones.”

Palestinians hold young Israelis accountable today for their plight, not only their grandparents and great-grandparents, who first dispossessed us in 1948.  We maintain that our Nakba is ongoing, since we are still dispossessed, and because our political, civil, and human rights continue to be violated in 2018, as they were in 1917, when Britain offered our homeland to Europe’s Zionist Jews.  Even as we acknowledge the magnitude of the Holocaust, we insist that two wrongs do not make a right. If anything, we are horrified at the fact that the survivors of genocide would engage in similar practices against another people. Because of that awareness, while we are refugees here in the US, we nevertheless must be accountable for our own impact on this continent, today.

Acknowledging that we are on colonized land, and naming that land when we speak, while certainly respectful, is not enough.  I have always felt ambivalent about starting a talk or meeting with the recognition that we are on stolen land, a common practice among progressive groups. This ambivalence is in no way due to my reluctance to acknowledge that I am a beneficiary of settler-colonialism, rather it is because I feel that, in effect if not in intent, it is most frequently little more than an empty, formulaic gesture.  The few days I spent with my Native friends cemented in me the determination not just to recognize that all of Turtle Continent is indigenous (something I already grasped), but that my decolonial struggle, as a Palestinian, is incomplete if I do not link it with the decolonial struggle on this continent.  More than ever before, as we discussed the need to liberate the land, I felt that, if I am not an active part of the solution, then I am contributing to the problem.

Especially, asking for less restrictive immigration policies, which would allow more refugees into the US, feels to me like an act of extreme arrogance, as it suggests that we have the right to offer hospitality here.  I, for one, question the entitlement that would make someone chant “From Palestine to Mexico, All the walls have got to go,” without first being fully engaged in the indigenous struggle for self-determination here. My solidarity stretches from Palestine to Turtle Island, but it is not my prerogative to demand that more refugees be allowed into the US, the colonizer country that took over Turtle Island, unless its original inhabitants welcome the newcomers.

In my experience, many of the indigenous of this land are indeed a welcoming people, because they understand the circumstances of the political refugees coming here. I have heard indigenous leaders refer to Palestinians as “our relatives.”  Sky Bird Black Owl, the first woman to give birth at Standing Rock during the protests against the Dakota Pipeline, wore a kuffiyeh that she later wrapped her baby in, and the Palestinian scarf could be seen on many indigenous water protectors.

As Palestinians, we are opposed to the Apartheid Wall that hacks away at our country from within, as much as we hate the borders that prevent us from returning to our homeland.  For well over a year, my desktop photo was of the Palestinian breach of the Apartheid Wall, an image that gave me both happiness and hope. As I crossed into Mexico from Arizona, I also could not help but notice that the border, the wall, crosses an otherwise united indigenous community, while cementing the privileges of the settler-colonizers.  Once I had crossed into the Mexican part of Nogales, I moved freely, welcomed by the locals who gently guided me away from the seedier parts of town, into the more “touristy” ones. “This is the wrong street for you, go to the next one,” and “this street is not good for you, it is all drugs and alcoholics,” two men warned me, separately, urging me to take my first right out of that shady stretch.  They were genuinely concerned for my safety. Back on the US side of Nogales, I felt that I was in a different world: numerous border patrol cars aggressively cruise the highways, and a full 30 miles north of the border, a checkpoint openly engages in racial profiling: drivers and passengers who appear to be of European descent are waved through, brown people are asked for some form of identification and legal residency.

Just as we see the multiple parallels between Israel and the US, so we must see our indigenous struggles as inextricably linked. As the Palestine Youth Movement wrote:  “As Palestinians in the United States, we are exiled from our homeland while living as settlers upon Turtle Island. It is imperative that we demand recognition of the rights of Native nations and their people while building movements together with one another so that we can strengthen our collective call for justice.” This is something we Palestinian activists, young and old,  must take to our larger community. If we are to say anything without settler entitlement, we must do so from a position of heeding indigenous leadership here, just as we demand that our allies heed Palestinian leadership in the struggle for Palestinian freedom. And we must understand that our own liberation is incomplete, without the liberation of the Indigenous people who view us as their relatives.  Together, we can model and enact accountability, as we redefine indigenous sovereignty and self-determination, against white supremacy and Zionism.

We did not chose it, but this, too, is our struggle. I am eager to be a part of it. On Palestinian Land day, I will recommit to liberating the land, from Turtle Island to Palestine.

Nada Elia

Nada Elia is a Palestinian scholar-activist, writer, and grassroots organizer, currently completing a book on Palestinian Diaspora activism.

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3 Responses

  1. JosephA on April 3, 2018, 12:27 am

    Nada, thank you very much for sharing. I learned much about various Native zamerican tribes from your article. It was also highlighting an interesting and very live linkage between the plight of Indigenous peoples, whether in the modern day United States or in modern day Israel (historic Palestine).

  2. JLewisDickerson on April 3, 2018, 3:12 am

    RE: “We did not chose it, but this, too, is our struggle. I am eager to be a part of it. On Palestinian Land day, I will recommit to liberating the land, from Turtle Island to Palestine.” ~ Nada Elia


  3. Citizen on April 3, 2018, 6:48 pm

    Weren’t the legal principles applied at Nuremberg Trials ex post facto laws?

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