On November 14, an Indigenous Celebration Night was organised at Rogers Place in Edmonton—the capital city of the Canadian province of Alberta. The Bearhead Sisters—a musical trio from Paul First Nation, Alberta—performed at the event wearing shimmering blue dresses and chunky medallions.
As they sang a rendition of the Canadian national anthem, the TV cameras captured the three carrying a black-and-white scarf known as kaffiyeh—a traditional Middle Eastern garment that has evolved to symbolise the Palestinian struggle for justice. After the performance, they wrote on their Facebook page: “We stand with our Indigenous people from all across the world. Tonight we’d like to send our thoughts and prayers to (the) Palestinian Community.”
Images and visuals of debris of schools and hospitals, unidentified dead bodies, piercing sounds of bombs, choking smoke, along with a resilient population fighting without electricity, water facilities, food and medical aid, have been emerging from Gaza for weeks now, prompting solidarities to pour in from across the globe. The images of children playing the ‘martyr game’ where they are seen carrying the bodies of their friends preparing themselves for the final moment of Shahdat brought in millions of indigenous people—who themselves have been witness to such violence for centuries—together in support of the Palestinian cause. Though the fight of Palestinians has been considered a struggle for the rights of indigenous people by a few Palestinian scholars like Jamal Nabulsi, till now, vocal support was absent.
Indigenous People Extending Support
On October 26, the Red Nation, a coalition of indigenous activists dedicated to liberating native people from colonialism and capitalism, extended their support to the Palestinian cause. In no uncertain terms, they called for an immediate ceasefire and noted: “The settler states that dispossess and occupy our lands support Israel in dispossessing and occupying Palestine. We support Palestinian liberation and their right as an oppressed people to resist colonialism and genocide.”
Signed by renowned indigenous activists like Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Nick Estes and Glen Coulthard, among others, the statement said: “We encourage Indigenous peoples worldwide to uplift additional demands from Palestinian organisers to commit to the Palestinian call to Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) Israel and all institutions complicit in Israeli apartheid and settler colonialism.”
Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, an organisation run by urban indigenous women, has also come out in support of the people of Palestine. It noted in a statement on November 14: “We condemn the Israeli siege, we condemn apartheid, we condemn genocide, and we demand an end to US military aid and funding of Israeli violence.”
Their support comes at the cost of even risking funding. “We do so having already received hate messages and threats to withdraw funding. We do not want money that is contingent on accepting genocide silently,” it adds.
Tribal communities of the US have asked the leadership of the Navajo Nation to stand with the people of Palestine. Majerle Lister, a member of the Navajo Nation, said in a social media post: “The Navajo Nation should condemn the occupation of Palestine and call for a cease-fire and advocate for the self-determination of Palestinian people.” Connecting the struggles of indigenous people across the world, they note: “The history of occupation and settler-colonialism ties Diné and Palestinian people together.”
When Land Inheres the Body
As the indigenous communities across the globe are putting their weight behind the Palestinians, the question comes up— can this movement be called an indigenous struggle? Historically, Palestine has had several indigenous tribes, including Jahalin Bedouin, al-Kaabneh, al-Azazmeh, al-Ramadin and al-Rshaida, among others who took refuge in the West Bank after 1948. But over the years, they have lost possession of land.
However, scholars like Nabulsi think such division between indigenous and non-indigenous Palestinians is a Western effort to project disunity. The people of Palestine, as he notes, inhere the land in their bodies and hence, the embodiment itself claims the indigenous status.
This sentiment that connects land to the body can be found across Palestinian literature. One of Palestinian rap artist Muqata’s most popular songs goes: “Uhfur taht al-Aqsa hatlaqina” (dig under al-Aqsa, you’ll find us).
The embodied connection of the Palestinians with their land could be traced to the works of renowned Palestinian poet Mohammad Darwish as well. In the Journal of Ordinary Grief, he writes: “The true homeland is that which cannot be known or proved. Your awareness of the need for proof of the history of a rock and your ability to manufacture proof does not give you the priority of belonging vis-à-vis someone who can tell when the rains will come from the smell of that rock.”
In the words of another Palestinian poet Elias Sanbar, “Palestine is not only a people but also a land. It is the link between these people and their despoiled land. It is the place where an absence and an immense desire to return are enacted”.
These words are testimonies of the desire to retain the land where their ancestors are buried. On March 30, 1976, asserting their rights to land, thousands of Palestinians came out on the streets and organised marches across the cities against the occupier’s plans to take away thousands of acres of land for the ‘purpose of the state’.
However, the protests were brutally muzzled by the Israeli armed forces that killed six unarmed civilians and left hundreds wounded. The day is commemorated as ‘Land Day’ that Ala Alazzeh, a scholar on Palestine, says is “a central event that symbolises the unity of the Palestinian people and the concrete imagined space that they belong to.”
Notably, the Palestinian movement known as Al-Ard that survived between the late 1950s and early 1970s literally meant ‘The land’. Another significant Palestinian feminist movement by a collective called Murabitat al-Haram was also about love for land. Women, children and men used to gather in the Al-Aqsa Mosque campus in the morning and spend the whole day reading and reciting the Quran, besides doing other quotidian things.
Murabata literally means ‘stay’—a practice that stands against the efforts of Israel to eliminate and dispossess them of what is rightfully theirs. In 2015, Israel banned Murabitat al-Haram—even though armed forces with guns slung on their shoulders continued their vigilance around the holy site. This movement also redirects one to think about the indigenous status of all the Palestinian people who are, though in different spatial and temporal contexts, fighting like their native brethren across the globe.
However, some Palestinian leaders denied being clubbed with the indigenous population. Yaseer Arafat, the renowned leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), said during an interview in 1987: “Israel has failed to wipe us out. We are here, in Palestine, facing them. We are not Red Indians.”
Andrea (name changed on request) who runs a Palestinian solidarity network from Jerusalem, points out: “Among Palestinians, you have at least two specific, separate groups. On the one hand are indigenous Bedouin who are Palestinian or sometimes Israeli. In the West Bank, you also have indigenous Bedouin who are not refugees, but whose ancestors have lived on those lands for aeons”
So, how people identify themselves is complex. Palestinians in cities, towns and villages don’t claim specific indigeneity. They do not claim representation at the UN Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues where the Bedouin, Aborigines, the Maori, American-Indians, First Nations and others regularly meet, she adds.
Scholars think that such an understanding somehow misconstrues the indigenous movement as ‘defeated’. As Nabulsi writes: “If we heed the accounts of indigeneity articulated by indigenous peoples themselves, rather than those provided by the settler, then we find in indigeneity not a politics of defeat but one of enduring presence and belonging in the land.”
Ir(rationality) of Dispossession
Interestingly, the initial elimination of the Palestinians from their land following the Balfour Declaration of 1917, a document of British support to the Zionist project, followed two tropes to establish the moral high ground.
The first one was the doctrine of terra nullius, which considers any land as unoccupied space, giving leverage to the settlers. In 1885, most of the African continent was put into this category on the basis that the tribes didn’t have any ‘social or political organisation’. Scholars think that the same ‘rationality’ had been used by Israel to occupy Palestine.
The second doctrine was the civilisational trope. The very belief that erstwhile Palestine happened to be a wasteland led the first Prime Minister of Israel David Ben-Gurion to utter in 1915: “Jewish settlers would turn the wasteland and desolation into a flourishing oasis, as did the English settlers in North America”.
These efforts to mark them uncivilised were coupled with reducing their identities to ‘cultural aspects’ so that their rights over their land could be undermined. Belfour Declaration in its proviso notes, “Nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”, which Nabulsi thinks “both denies Palestinian political rights and the Palestinians’ sovereignty over Palestine.”
While pointing out that any freedom struggle has embedded roots in the assertion of indigenous identity, Palestinian-American journalist Ramzy Baroud says: “Since all national liberation movements were, per definition, the struggle for indigenous people to assert their collective rights for freedom, equality and justice, the Palestinian struggle was positioned as part of this global indigenous movement.”
The collapse of the USSR, followed by the Western powers’ unwavering support to Israel, provoked isolated Palestinian resistance movements and things began to change in recent years. “With the re-rise of indigenous movements around the world, from the Black struggle in the US, to indigenous people resurgence in North and South America, to the ultimate rise of an actual global movement centred around landless societies and indigenous rights—which heavily invested in intersectionality, allowed it to multiply its powers several times over,” adds Baroud, who is also the editor of Palestine Chronicle.
Andrea is of the opinion that though many Palestinians do not claim membership in the indigenous movement, they consider themselves part of the broader movement for decolonisation. “Far-right Israeli policies within the West Bank are increasingly forcibly displacing indigenous Palestinian Bedouin and other Palestinian villagers; this ‘landgrab’ by militarised settlers is extremely disturbing. Not least because those Palestinians under attack often have nowhere else to go; the settlers have a vision of ‘judaising’ the entire land from the river to the sea, even Palestinians in the towns and cities begin to worry about their own guaranteed presence,” she adds.
During the four-day conditional ceasefire, images of mass graves across Gaza are dotting social media feeds reminding one of Muqata’s repetitive evocation—“dig under al-Aqsa, you’ll find us”.
(This appeared in the print as 'Natural Allies')