A Settler Reflects on Organizing for Palestine on the Oregon Trail

Chehalis First Nations people of so-called

Chehalis First Nations people of so-called “British Columbia”, 1910 (Source: Wikipedia)

By Sara Swetzoff, Muftah.org

After living in Portland, Oregon, I finally came to understand the meaning of “the Western frontier.” Removed from my East Coast hometown and associated mythologies of belonging, I learned to see myself as a settler for the first time. A white settler heading west, as so many have before me. From metropolis to frontier, like an Israeli moving from Tel Aviv to the West Bank settlements.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, the settler projects called the United States and Canada are especially young. With a low settler population density, Native pride and sovereignty is more visible in this region, especially amongst the First Nations of British Columbia (Canada). In fact, Portland has one of the biggest populations of Native Americans of any American city.

Here, on the frontier, the settler state is stretched thin, and all around me I see its criminal logic with startling clarity.

A new economic era brings new branding: instead of promising parcels of land for orchards and cattle ranches, the frontier now lures predominantly urban pioneers with trendy restaurants and mountain holidays. Buzzwords like “sustainable” and “local” adorn every amenity. This is the neoliberal version of Manifest Destiny, camouflaged with a hip veneer of clean living and conscientious consumerism.

In Portland, this newest wave of settlement is pushing the Native population to the fringes, once again. In recent years, the Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA) relocated from the city’s central Mississippi Avenue district to the industrial outskirts of North Portland; elders remember the area as the Chinook fishing village of Neerchokikoo. Next-door is a giant parking lot of Caterpillar bulldozers – the same ones that knock down Palestinian homes thousands of miles away.

Despite its branding, the underlying logic of the settler project in Portland and beyond is clearly anything but local. It is deeply embedded within the matrix of global capital and extraction economics. Nike, Intel, Microsoft, and a plethora of Internet start-ups intentionally employ the most successful, mostly white newcomers to Portland and Seattle. The rest of the population works in the low-wage service industries that keep the affluent fed and entertained.

To the north of us in British Columbia, this same insatiable pattern of development and growth drives the metal mining that swallows First Nations land and poisons their salmon runs. Midwestern extraction industries plot to lace the Northwest with coal, liquefied natural gas (LNG), and tar sands transport corridors. China has already built the refineries – they need the fuel to make our phones.

As settlers moving west, we are modern-day seekers of the American Promised Land. But there are many more frontiers of colonization across the country, in both urban and rural locations, and not all stakeholders are white. Assimilationist multiculturalism opens up more and more opportunities for people of color to reap the benefits of settlement, even as the state continues to enslave and exploit others from the same communities.

The mechanisms of settler colonialism are complex and insidious: just as the white Ashkenazi elite in Israel pits Mizrahi laborer against African refugee against Palestinian farmer, so does American white supremacy sow divisions amongst its most oppressed in order to prevent them from recognizing they share more with each other and local Indigenous Peoples than with the white settler establishment.

Each of us must examine our complicity together with our community and strategize accordingly. As students, we have to recognize that our universities are by default bound up in the economic dynamics of the colonizer state. We cannot undermine Israel – a client state settler project bankrolled by the United States – without also working for decolonization here in the heart of the empire.

Understanding North American Settler Colonialism

Those who are active in Palestine solidarity are used to calling out the complicity of the Zionist left when it comes to Israeli colonialism. We rail against the “green-washing” of Israel’s forests and nature parks, which have been planted over the ruins of ethnically-cleansed Palestinian villages and that prevent Bedouins from accessing seasonal grazing routes. We criticize and debunk the propagandist rhetoric of Israel’s tech sector, which has evolved from “making the desert bloom” to promoting a promised land of innovation. We highlight the use of archaeology to expand settlements in the West Bank and whitewash the occupation of East Jerusalem. We explain to our peers that it is not just rightwing settlers who are the problem. All of Israel is occupied land, all Israeli citizens are complicit on some level, and all Palestinians deserve reparations and the right to return.

Over the past three years, I have come to see North American settler colonialism through this same lens. As in Israel, the U.S. National Parks system has functioned as a thinly-veiled project to expel indigenous communities. As famous conservationist and Parks founding father John Muir wrote, Yosemite’s Mono Indians “seemed to have no right place in the landscape.” State and national forests, as well as the Bureau of Land Management, are colonial cash cows, selling permits for the industrial mining and logging of stolen land – even when surviving indigenous communities insist the land is sacred.

Like any other industry, the tech sector happily gobbles up the ample space and natural resources available in the settler frontier. Companies based in Portland’s “Silicon Forest” have flocked to the area, in part, because they need large amounts of clean water and cheap energy to produce silicon chips and power data centers.

Archaeology is also a tool of settler colonialism in the Pacific Northwest. For nearly two decades, an ancient corpse, dubbed the “Kennewick man” after the city in which he was discovered in Washington State, has been withheld from local tribes who want to perform a traditional reburial. Insensitive to traditional narratives and delicate local relationships, a group of scientists sued the federal government to secure access to the corpse and won based on the argument that the Kennewick man predated regional Native bloodlines and therefore could not be a tribal ancestor. Although recent DNA testing challenged that conclusion, U.S. courts were all too happy to prematurely endorse “scientific” claims that negated the rights of Indigenous peoples.

British Columbia: North America’s West Bank

North American settler colonialism is so entrenched that many do not realize the United States and Canada continue to engage in fresh land and resource theft as actively as the Israeli state. While there are numerous struggles taking place across the continent, Canadian settler colonialism is especially brazen at this moment.

In my view, British Columbia – the westernmost region of Canada – is particularly evocative of the occupied West Bank. Although Canadian law recognizes many First Nations territories as unceded (i.e. never surrendered through war or treaty), the government continues to opportunistically annex land piece by piece, just as Israel continues to advance its annexation of the occupied West Bank. Canada may not have a Green Line, but the facts on the ground are markedly similar: just as the Israeli state installs factories and toxic dumps on Palestinian land in Area C, which is under exclusive Israeli military control, the First Nations of British Columbia are similarly assailed by the settler government and its land-hungry industries.

For example, the Unist’ot’en clan in British Columbia is currently working around the clock to patrol its territory. The clan, along with many other Native groups that are part of the Wet’suwet’en Nation have unanimously and publicly denounced any oil pipelines on their land, yet almost every day contractors with Canadian permits try to sneak onto Unist’ot’en land without the clan’s permission.

There are also parallel modes of resistance between Palestinians in the West Bank and British Columbia’s First Nations. February 2015 witnessed the death of Abed Qotqot, a Palestinian farmer who was unable to get an Israeli building permit for his Area C land, and responded by living in a cave in order to resist Israeli development. Following multiple police raids and demolitions that destroyed his bathroom and garden, Abed fell ill and passed away of Asphyxia. Similarly, in British Columbia, land defenders from the Secwepemc and Wes’tu’weten Nations have built pit houses and longhouses (traditional community centers) on locations where the Canadian government has illegally granted permits to ski resorts, mining companies, and pipeline contractors to exploit their sovereign land.

Parallel modes of punishment exist as well. In Palestine, home demolitions are a form of collective punishment directed against the families of activists and any other family that lacks the impossible paperwork and fees required by the Israeli Defense Forces in the Occupied Territories. The Israeli Committee Against Housing Demolitions (ICAHD) estimates that the IDF has destroyed over 28,000 Palestinian homes since 1967. Likewise, Kanahus Manuel, a Secwepemc activist who identifies as a woman warrior and traditional birth keeper, has had her home bulldozed by the Canadian government multiple times as punishment for her activism. She and her relatives are regularly arrested and jailed simply for asserting their rights to basic livelihood and sovereignty on their own land. After years of fighting the proposed Sun Peaks ski resort on Secwepemc land, Kanahus more recently founded the Yuct Ne Senxiymetkwe Camp to defend her nation’s salmon spawning grounds from mining company Imperial Metals.

The active colonization of British Columbia’s sovereign First Nations, and their tireless resistance, serves as a reminder that all of North America was wrested by force. While some treaties were signed, in many cases the terms of these agreements have yet to be upheld.

In Oregon, the Takelma, Shasta, Chetco, Shasta Costa, Mikonotunne, Tututni, Galice Creeks and Cow Creek tribes were driven from their villages by gold miners who organized themselves into volunteer armies and later billed the federal government for their services. After hearing about massacres committed by settlers, tribes east of the Willamette Valley (the central valley along which all of Oregon’s major cities fall) accepted a treaty over war. Like elsewhere in the United States, reservations were established and Native peoples made harrowing journeys on foot to locations far from their nations’ territories.

During the boarding school era, which began in 1860 when the Bureau of Indian Affairs established the first boarding school on the Yakima Indian Reservation in Washington and continued in the United States until the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978, indigenous children across the United States and Canada were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in Christian schools. The stated intent was to civilize and assimilate them into White society. Along the same lines, many Native children were adopted by white families. The practice bears a striking resemblance to the clandestine theft of Yemeni Jewish babies in Israel and their adoption by Ashkenazi families in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Portland elders describe how, as children attending boarding schools, they would run away and jump trains to get back to the reservation. They would eat their mothers’ food and speak their language for a few days or weeks before the government would inevitably come looking for them.

During World War II, indigenous languages became valuable wartime code-talk, and Native boys were drafted into the army. Even then, however, the general attitude toward indigenous people did not change. Native students were still beaten for speaking their own language in the classroom and American soldiers called anywhere off-base “Indian country.” To this day, soldiers continue to use this term for operations in hostile territory.

American Imperialism as an Extension of Settler Colonialism

In the U.S. government communiqués and radio conversations that coordinated his 2011 killing, Osama bin Laden was dubbed “Geronimo,” the name of a famous Apache leader and prisoner of war. In choosing such terminology, the United States shamelessly characterized its quest to dominate the Middle East as an extension of the colonial project it started – and continues – within its own borders.

“The coupling of his [Geronimo’s] name with the most vilified enemy of America in this millennium is dangerous ground,” wrote Winona LaDuke in the Indian Country Today News. “The military, it seems, is comfortable with this ground.”

The public is equally comfortable with it. The Native American community’s outrage at Bin Laden’s code name generated more media coverage in Europe than in the United States. In fact, the 2012 release of a popular film called “Code Name: Geronimo – The Hunt for Osama bin Laden” furthered – and profited from – the mainstream association between the War on Terror and the war on Indian country in the United States.

As for me, I did not know Geronimo’s story until Bin Laden’s death prompted me to read about the Native hero. Among urban American youth, it seems utter obliviousness has replaced the overt hostility and racism of older white settler generations.

It is no wonder, then, that as so many in the United States organize against Israeli colonialism in Palestine, we fail to notice and support the ongoing struggles for indigenous rights and sovereignty happening at home. This is particularly problematic for activists with white privilege and/or economic standing in the settler state. As explained by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang in their article “Decolonization is not a metaphor,” we enact a “settler move towards innocence” when we focus on colonialism as something that only happens elsewhere.

While Palestinian organizing, such as the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, frequently references UN resolutions and treaties supporting its work, international law does not recognize the Indigenous Peoples of North America as an “occupied” population. Regardless of its largely symbolic value, Palestine’s recent admission into the UN as a non-member observer state is precisely the type of status the First Nations could never obtain, despite decades of participation in UN working groups. This fact underscores the power of the United States and Canada and the corresponding importance of tackling decolonization outside the institutions they influence.

Decolonizing the Empire from Within

Pro-Palestine student groups at the University of New Mexico and University of Arizona provide a powerful example of what it looks like to truly stand in solidarity with regional indigenous struggles. In the southwestern United States, called Aztlán by Movimiento Estudantil Chican@ de Aztlán (MEChA), which traces its origins to the region’s Indigenous land defense, the Chicano and Native communities are intertwined. Both are indigenous groups affected by border imperialism and the erasing of their place-names and history. Students for Justice in Palestine chapters at New Mexico and Arizona universities have been involved in witnessing and documenting the border, obstructing the buses that transport detainees slated for deportation, and supporting their undocumented peers who fought to pass the Dream Act.

Similarly, as Palestine solidarity grows in the Pacific Northwest, organizers are striving to learn from and support the region’s Native anti-colonial movements. On the occasion of a recent visit by Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti, Portland State University’s Students United for Palestinian Equal Rights (SUPER) organized a panel including Kanahus Manuel (Secwepemc Nation land defender), Dr. Michael Yellow Bird (Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Three Affiliated Tribes – Director of Indigenous Tribal Studies at North Dakota State University), and Cecilie Surasky (Deputy Director of Jewish Voice for Peace). The co-sponsoring student groups included United Indian Students in Higher Education (UISHE), the Environmental Club, and Divest Portland State, a fossil fuels divestment campaign.

The panelists’ presentations considered overlapping issues of international capitalism, extractive energy industries, imperialism and war, and challenged audience members to rise to the demands of a multifaceted solidarity – an essential conversation that must continue. As Harsha Walia, co-founder of the Vancouver/Coastal Salish organization, No One is Illegal, and author of Undoing Border Imperialism, emphasizes, the term solidarity has been worn thin. She advocates for moving “beyond a politics of solidarity toward a practice of decolonization.” One of her most recent articles stresses that a truly green economy will arise from alliances between labor and Indigenous Peoples. “Imagine if every union in Canada…made free, prior and informed consent from Indigenous nations a necessary part of any collective bargaining it undertakes with government and industry,” she writes.

As students with a social conscience, it is critical we take up the call for indigenous rights and sovereignty in North America, just as we advocate for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions in support of the Palestinian cause. As a white American, I have come to see indigenous solidarity both here in so-called North America, where I have settled, and in so-called Israel, the place where my Ukrainian cousins settled, not as a service but rather as an imperative to survival in a world where only justice can bring a sustainable future.

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