By Nick Estes
While the Nakba was taking place in Palestine, Native peoples in the United States faced what is known as “the era of termination.” Termination was the attempt by the federal government (House Concurrent Resolution 108 and Public Law 280) starting in the 1940s to completely liquidate all tribal assets and landholdings and to privatize all of the remaining land bases and make “full citizens” of Native people. Some termination laws remained on the books until 1980.
In the U.S., termination was meant to forcibly assimilate Native peoples into white culture while in Palestine, Zionism emphasized segregating Jews and Arabs instead. But in both places, dispossession and expulsion were the order of the day.
For my family and my tribe specifically, the 1940s ushered in what was called the Pick-Sloan plan, which was a series of hydro-electric dams on our river. The Missouri River at the time was one of the largest dam systems in the world. As a result, two-thirds of our population was removed from our homelands, and we were forced into surrounding white border towns, or surrounding white settlements, where we faced severe discrimination. So around the time of the Nakba in Palestine, the U.S. was forcibly relocating Natives, either through federal policy or by literally flooding those lands with dams, pushing them into cities where they were actively discriminated against by police.
Also in the mid-1940s, Native people were returning home from fighting in World War II, only to have their land base liquidated through termination. Their experiences in the war exposed them to colonial situations at home and abroad, the latter including African-Americans, Chicanos, and other people of color. In the moment of decolonization inaugurated after World War II, and the emancipation of former colonies, Native peoples could have gone home and connected at an international level. Instead we were domesticated within the realm of federal Indian law and fighting these terminationist policies, which really stunted our growth on the international scene.
Nevertheless, it was out of this mass relocation of Native people off of tribal lands, and the education of people through their service in the war, that you eventually get the formation of anti-colonial movements such as AIM (The American Indian Movement), the National Indian Youth Council, a militant wing of the National Congress of American Indians – they all turned international. The zenith of the international movement was in the 1970s, in our shared histories with the colonial world, especially with Palestinian people. It was through the anti-apartheid movement specifically that indigenous folks gained recognition as well as the Palestine Liberation Organization at the time. And that’s where we all met.
Israel’s so-called “Nakba Law” is about attempts to rewrite national history. It is a way to absorb Palestinian history as a branch of Israeli history, and make Palestinian history beholden to the larger national narrative. Similarly, in the U.S., American Indian history is considered a subcategory of U.S. history. And so we always ask the questions in our research and in our writing from the context of the U.S. national narrative rather than from the international narrative, despite the fact that American Indian history is an international narrative. Treaties, after all, are not made with domestic groups.
One part of history suppressed is how Native people went to the League of Nations. Deskaheh, who was an Iroquois chief in Canada went there to gain recognition for the Iroquois confederacy and was basically laughed out the door. Many colonized peoples, represented by people like Ho Chi Minh, showed up at the League of Nations also wanting self-determination. There were people from the Arab countries as well.
There is a tendency to play down or erase these internationalist impulses that indigenous peoples have, and all colonized peoples have. Palestinians have it – they’re one of the most successful colonized populations within the international solidarity movement. The institutions are already intersectional, they’re already making connections between the management of colonial populations (like the League of Nations Mandate system) and the management of Native folks. The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs was reading British colonial pamphlets on “indirect colonialism” – how do you carve up and manage colonized populations, like in the Middle East. If systems of colonial administration are going to be intersectional, then we must be intersectional too.