Guest contribution by Wafai Dias
When I first visited a Native American reservation in South Dakota with my school, Temple University, the similarities that I observed between Native Americans and Palestinians were so vast that they just kept piling up in my mind as the trip went on.
Both Palestinians and Native Americans are victims of ethnic cleaning, colonization and settler colonialism. The two peoples are far too familiar with war, death, occupation and bogus peace processes and negotiations that have only resulted in the loss of more of their land.
On our trip I learned that the Black Hills are extremely sacred land to Native Americans. Initially respecting this religious significance of the Black Hills, the United States government signed a treaty with the Natives in 1868 that clearly stated to all parties that the Black Hills belonged to the Native Americans.
However, when gold was discovered in the Black Hills the U.S. passed a treaty that in effect stole the Hills, to a point where today the Native Americans barely own 10 percent of their sacred land. In the early 1900s the faces of four Presidents were carved into these Hills — known today as Mount Rushmore — and the rest of the remaining land was turned into state and national parks. Although Natives today are allowed to practice their religious ceremonies in the parks within the Black Hills, they are regularly interrupted by the masses of tourists that flock to visit these landmarks.
As a Palestinian, one of the first places I visited on my trip to Palestine was the Al-Aqsa Masjid and the Dome of the Rock because of the importance of these sites to Islam and to me as a Muslim woman. Formerly this was Palestinian land; Muslims, Christians, Jews and the usual tourists enjoyed access to this area freely. But in 1967, Israel occupied Jerusalem, making visitation to the holy city dependent on which I.D. one holds, although this is illegal according to international law. Under relatively lax conditions, Palestinians holding either Israeli, foreign, or Jerusalem I.D. cards are allowed to visit the Al-Aqsa Masjid and the Dome of the Rock, typically for a very limited amount of time. On the other hand, Palestinians with West Bank I.D. cards are only allowed a visit during Ramadan, and even then there are restrictions on age and gender. Palestinians from the Gaza Strip are not allowed into the West Bank in the first place.
In many ways, Jerusalem is to Palestinians what the Black Hills are to Native Americans. Although some Palestinians are allowed to visit Jerusalem, we too are continually interrupted by sizable groups of tourists who seem unaware of the meaning of this land to us as the indigenous population. Tourists of the Black Hills gaze at the faces of the Presidents and the parks in amazement and admiration, unconcerned with the history of death and theft that led to its formation. Similarly, in Jerusalem, thousands of tourists flock to the area of the Al-Aqsa Masjid, oblivious of the history of Palestinian uprisings that attempted to end the obvious and deplorable occupation of the land
Some tour guides in the Black Hills and Jerusalem are trained to give cursory acknowledgement of the recorded history of Native Americans and Palestinians. However, most of the information provided on the tours is blatantly biased and inaccurate as it masks land theft and violation of the rights of indigenous people by both the United States and Israel, respectively.
Of course not all tourists are ignorant; some will do their own research and will recognize propaganda for what it is. But the vast majority of tourists are more likely to believe and regurgitate the propaganda to their families and communities.
Just as the Israeli soldiers in Jerusalem stare Palestinians down, constantly reminding us that we no longer control Palestine, the faces of the Presidents carved into the Black Hills is a constant reminder to Native Americans that they no longer own their land.
Just as the United States dehumanized Native Americans by calling them “savages,” Israel continues to dehumanize Palestinians by labeling us all as “terrorists.”
Poverty and unemployment are far too rampant amongst Palestinians in Palestine and amongst Native Americans living on reservations.
Despite the systematic oppression that both peoples face I noticed that we also share several cultural similarities.
Native Americans bead beautiful traditional accessories with several colors that signify their heritage. Likewise, Palestinians sew in a traditional stitching pattern known as tatreez with colorful patterns that are specific to our villages and towns.
Both peoples dance traditional folklore dances during weddings, graduation ceremonies, and other important events. At these events Palestinian woman swing their tongues from cheek to cheek to let out a joyous sound known as zaghareet. While I was at a Powwow, a traditional Native American ceremony, I was astonished to find out that Native American women also zaghrit just like us Palestinians!
Both peoples have elders that are always more than willing to share their endless knowledge of their historic and cultural heritage.
Both peoples are still living despite decades of desecration. Both peoples are still surviving, and both peoples are still existing.
This existence is resistance. And this type of resistance stands tall and strong against all of the systematic oppression that we face. We haven’t disappeared, we haven’t forgotten our history, and we refuse to let anyone take away our opportunity to be proud of the positive aspects of our history and culture.
The more that both peoples bead, sew, and dance traditional dances, the more we show the world that we are the sole owners of our history and culture, not the United States or Israel.
Every time we educate another generation about our history and culture, we prove that existence truly is resistance.
Wafai Dias is a recent graduate of Temple University where she majored in journalism. At Temple, Wafai chaired Students for Justice in Palestine and actively coordinated speakers and events throughout Philadelphia with groups working for justice in Palestine.