As part of an ongoing dialogue with the Native rights movement in the United States, Adalah USA Representative Nadia Ben-Youssef recently sat down with Melanie Yazzie and Nick Estes, scholar-activists and founders of Red Nation, a coalition of Native and non-Native activists, educators, students and community organizers advocating Native liberation. They discussed the points of intersection between Palestinian and Native histories and consider ways forward to reclaim memory as a force for collective liberation.
The African-American activist Ruby Sales, a civil rights leader and organizer, discusses “dismemory” as one of several interlocking tools of oppression. In Palestine, a recent and particularly egregious instance of dismemory has been the “Nakba Law,” which penalizes certain forms of Nakba commemoration. What are your initial reflections on the colonial tactic of institutional dismemory?
Melanie Yazzie (MY): Institutional dismemory is about the continual disappearance and disavowal of a prior indigenous existence, particularly in how it upholds settler colonial regimes of social formation, of history, of knowing the world, of governance.
In self-described liberal democracies such as the US and Israel, the law is the most important institution for enacting dismemory. The law is literally the binding contract between citizens and the state; it is “of the land.” The law is constantly working to reinforce what’s happening in the social, cultural, and economic realm in the United States. The law is used very straightforwardly to dispossess Native people of water, land, livelihood, and all the things you need to survive as a people. The social and cultural power of law is constantly used to reinforce this disappearance, this disavowal that’s at the heart of the dismemory of indigenous political claims.
What are some of the distinct ways in which Native people have experienced institutional dismemory?
MY: Through my research I have investigated narratives of New Mexico’s history through public museums. Almost invariably the narrative is one of “tri-cultural harmony”, where Hispanic folks, Native folks and white folks all live together as distinct cultures. This narrative tends to elide the incredible violence that accompanied Spanish imperialism and the arrival of the United States. To take one example, there was the forced march of my own people to Fort Sumner in 1864. Many died along the way, and my people were imprisoned at that particular camp for 4 years while the American army hunted down and killed the rest. But of course, the way that this is commemorated now still advances the notion of tri-cultural harmony. In 2007 there was a space at Fort Sumner that was erected to commemorate this forced march, which we call Hwéeldi or “The Long Walk.” The commemoration completely ignores the fact that genocide is a specific kind of tactic of a larger project of settler colonialism, and that this is an ongoing reality for Native people. It also completely ignores the immense political conflict over Native nations’ political claims to land, to belonging.
When used in contexts like “tri-cultural harmony,” words such as “culture” or “race” completely negate the existence of nation-to-nation political claims, and obfuscate the fact that Native people are citizens of their own nations that have such claims and can engage in these kinds of political struggles. The word “culture” is used to de-politicize what are actually political forms of indigeneity. There are cultural forms of indigeneity – spirituality, dancing, making jewelry – and these are valid and beautiful, and we do have connections with other people through the human force of culture; however, so much of what goes on in this region needs to be understood, historicized, and analyzed as political.
Nick Estes (NE): To take another example, Arizona’s ban on ethnic studies and the reduction of resources provided to these programs is often justified by a “social welfare” narrative: these people don’t deserve education, they need to work for it and adhere to American values and pull themselves up from their bootstraps, and so on. The social welfare narrative has always been the justification for neglect and impoverishment, and a means to erase guarantees for educational that are enshrined in treaties that we signed with the government. If you look at any of the major treaties that were signed in the 1850s, 1860s, or 1870s, they always had clauses guaranteeing the right to education, which were upheld in later legislation. Education was one of our treaty rights, which has been interpreted as free access to education. To obtain those rights we had to give up land and our way of life and now we’re being asked to give those rights up too. Part of this move in Arizona is also a violation of those agreements.
If we’re talking about dismemory, it’s funny to me that people say, “Treaties were meant to be broken, they happened so long ago.” The fact is that we never really consented to the supremacy or the rule of the United States. Treaties are not made with domestic populations, but somehow we came to be treated as a domestic population without many of the attendant benefits.
We need to understand treaties not just as historical documents, but as living documents that were always meant to be future-oriented. We lived up to our obligations, and it’s time for the United States to live up to theirs. If you trace the history of the struggles, whether at the United Nations or at the local level, they really boil down to those original agreements.
What is the value of co-education across struggles, especially in connection with Palestine?
MY: We use terms like co-education, solidarity, direct-action, accountability, allyship – but there are two things that we could consider regarding the value of co-education across struggles.
First, the way that settler colonialism manifests on the ground in Palestine is pretty similar to the way that it manifests in this part of the world. We deal with many of the same corporations, and that being the case, there is already the international connection – because we have a common enemy. And this is something that we talk about with our on-the-ground work at the Red Nation. It is actually very easy to forget to look outward, to lose sight of the struggle that we share across difference, the struggle against colonialism, the struggle against capitalism. We must recognize and establish common terms of struggle. Having scholarly writings, conversations, blogs like this one, where you’re talking about the same terminology — that’s all part of this effort. You’re defining it, you’re refining it, you’re understanding its global nature – it is so important for struggles to come together and have a basis in solidarity that isn’t just out in the world as a statement, but is actionable. Solidarity must involve taking action in a principled way, and allows us to make advances in the actual struggle.
Second, my experience in Palestine radicalized me, meaning it made me a true believer in on-the-ground, direct-action organizing to enact social change for oppressed populations. Palestine made me think very differently about what we were experiencing here, it completely revolutionized my thinking. The value of co-education lies in seeing how other people struggle, which can be all the difference between me understanding academically what settler colonialism is — even though I was living it here — versus truly recognizing the reality. In the West Bank, settler colonialism is so visceral, primarily because of the surveillance structure, it made me really experience what settler colonialism here in the U.S. is like in a more hyper-aware way. The co-education helps you understand your own struggle so much better when you’re thinking comparatively. It clarifies those points of actionable solidarity between struggles that would seem to be very different. Again, I’m not terribly invested in the pie-in-the sky solidarity, when I say I want change, I really mean I want change. I want Palestine to be liberated, I want my own people to be liberated from violence, so what can we actually do to push that forward in a significant way?
What are productive ways, for those people experiencing settler colonialism, to work together towards social transformation?
MY: You figure out the way forward through the doing, and the forging of those relationships. There is a history of Native-Palestinian collaboration, a strong intellectual history and relationship, and actual visiting and direct action. For example, Palestinians provided security during International Indian Treaty Council meetings in South Dakota in the 1970s. There is a history that exists, so some of the groundwork has already been laid by those liberation fighters who came before us.
NE: I didn’t get involved in Native struggles because of victimization or a sense of injury, but because I saw people around me who were very powerful people, who were struggling, and it empowered me. And it’s the same thing with the Palestinian struggle, I didn’t get involved because I felt bad for Palestinians, but because I read about Leila Khaled and Edward Said and I was very moved by what they had done and the struggles of their people. I read the histories and they empowered me. I’m not sure that injury is really an appropriate way to get into politics, or into struggles. I believe in the Palestine struggle, not Palestinian victimhood.
Nick Estes is Kul Wicasa from the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, a co-founder of The Red Nation, and a doctoral candidate in American Studies at the University of New Mexico. He recently co-edited with Melanie K. Yazzie a special 2016 issue of Wicazao Sa Review called “Essentializing Elizabeth Cook-Lynn.” Estes is currently an Andrew W. Mellon Dissertation Fellow. His research and advocacy centers the history and politics of the Oceti Sakowin, American Indian intellectual traditions and history, border town violence, and Indigenous internationalism. His work has appeared in Wicazo Sa Review, Capitalism Nature Socialism, Native News Online, Indian Country Today Media Network, and The Funambulist. In 2015, Estes received a Native American Journalists Association Excellence in Beat Reporting award for his reporting on border town violence for Indian Country Today.
Melanie K. Yazzie is a citizen of the Navajo Nation. She is a PhD candidate in American Studies at the University of New Mexico. Yazzie specializes in Navajo studies, Southwest studies, environmental studies, Native feminist and queer studies, American Indian history, and social and political theory. She is the vice president of Navajo Studies Conference, Inc., a non-profit dedicated to the development of Navajo Studies, and co-founder of The Red Nation, a coalition advocating Native liberation from colonialism and capitalism.