Do Unto Others focuses on the Middle East, (nonviolent) social movements, and how I make sense of my place in the world. I'm currently based in Cairo, Egypt doing peacebuilding and community development.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Let Me be a Free Man

Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown, is a book that any person living in the United States should read. Much needs be done to account for the injustices done to the Native Americans, but the first thing that needs to happen is to be aware of the grave injustices committed by whites against the indigenous people in the Americas.

Reading through the accounts of the manner in which various indigenous tribes were treated by the US Government and westward-moving whites is painfully shocking. Native Americans were viewed as less than human. The Indians received sole blame whenever violence broke out, regardless of whether they were provoked or if the their living conditions forced them to respond. The native people of this land were pushed the land to make room for white settlers who believed that it was God's plan and God's will that they have the land. Many promises were made to the American Indians by the US Government. Red Cloud, a chief, summarized that the whites “made many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they took it.”

The story of the American Indians in the American West is a story that stands on it's own. It is worth reading and studying because these stories need to be told. The stories of those who lived on the land before we did should be told - again and again - lest we forget. But also, these stories have something to say to us now, in current political conflicts across our globe. Because frankly, nothing has changed. Powerful governments still label entire people groups as less than human. Land is stolen, promises are broken, people are corralled and massacred.

An Israeli friend of mine saw a copy of Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee in the airport. On a whim he purchased it and read it. He is now translating the book into Hebrew. Why? Because he thinks that it speaks volumes to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The policy of the US Government towards the American Indians in the 19thcentury is the policy of the Israeli Government towards the Palestinians in the 21st century. Re-read the second paragraph of this post, it's spot on.

From here on I will post a smattering of quotes from the book. These sentences and passages struck me as relevant to the injusice which I have seen in Palestine. Commentary is provided in italics where it helps to clarify the connection.

“We are worn-out; we have no more heart; we have no provisions; no means to live; your troops are everywhere; our springs and water holes are either occupied or overlooked by your young men...we have no more heart. Do with us as may seem good to you, but do not forget we are men and braves.”

“Carson ordered complete destruction of Navaho properties within the canyon – including their fine peach orchards, more than five thousand trees.” Fruit and olive trees are routinely destroyed across Palestine.

“When men are hungry they help themselves.” This reminds me of the line by the band Rage Against the Machine, “Hungry people don't stay hungry for long.” (See Hamas' resistance to the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip which continues to force people to go hungry.)

“It was the white man's way to punish all Indians for the crimes of one or a few.” The collective punishment of imprisoning millions of people in Gaza and restricting movement of millions in the West Bank.

“But what do we want to live for? The white man has taken our country, killed all of our game; was not satisfied with that, but killed our wives and children. Now no peace. We want to go and meet our families in the spirit land. We loved the whites until we found out they lied to us, and robbed us of what we had. We have raised battle ax until death.” (See Hamas militants)

“Red Cloud then wanted to know what the treaty would give his people; they had signed treaties before, and it always seemed that Indians gave to the white men. This time the white men must give something to the Indians.” Conceding more and more land to Israel with each agreement has left most Palestinians tired of summits and negotiations.

“The white men were pretending to negotiate for a country while they prepared to take it by conquest.” Settlements in the West Bank continue to expand while Israeli politicians try to make agreements and treaties.

“The Oglala leader would not talk about peace until all soldiers were removed from the Powder River country.” Hamas will not negotiate, human rights are a precondition.

“They did not want war, they said, but would accept it if they could not get an honorable peace.”

“They made the Apaches wear metal tags like dogs, and these tags had numbers on them so that it was impossible for anyone to slip away to the Tonto Basin even for a few days...it was lack of freedom to travel over the country that kept the Tontos miserable.” Palestinians must carry ID (hawiyya) and routinely must provide information regarding place of residence. With this information Israeli soldiers can deny Palestinians access to any area, based on the fact that he/she doesn't live there. Jerusalem is the most extreme example of this 'metal tag' treatment.

“Arrested and confined as a 'military precaution'.”

“For any white man in the Southwest who defended the rights of Apaches, the future was very uncertain.” Similarly, in the United States, criticizing the State of Israel provides an uncertain future especially for politicians and journalists.

“This war did not spring up here in our land; this war was brought upon us by the children of the Great Father (president of the U.S.) who came to take our land from us without price, and who, in our land, do a great many evil things...This war has come from robbery – from the stealing of our land.”

The whites told only one side. Told it to please themselves. Told much that is not true. Only his own best deeds, only the worst deeds of the Indians, has the white man told.”

The earth was created by the assistance of the sun, and it should be left as it was...the country was made without lines of demarcation, and it is no man's business to divide it...I see the whites all over the country gaining wealth, and see their desire to give us lands which are worthless...Perhaps you think the Creator sent you here to dispose of us as you see fit. I never said the land was mine to do with it as I chose. The one who has the right to dispose of it is the one who has created it. I claim a right to live on my land, and accord you the privilege to live on yours.”

It has been our wish to live here in our country peaceably, and do such things as may be for the welfare and good of our people, but the Great Father has filled it with soldiers who think only of our death. Some of our people who have gone from here in order that they may have a change, and others who have gone north to hunt, have been attacked by the soldiers from this direction, and when they have continued north, have been attacked by soldiers from the other side, and now when they are willing to come back the soldiers stand between them, to keep them from coming home. It seems to me there is a better way than this. When people come to trouble, it is better for both parties to come together without arms and talk it over and find some peaceful way to settle it.”

I want no more war. I want to be a man. You deny me the right of a white man. My skin is red; my heart is a white man's heart; but I am a Modoc. I am not afraid to die. I will not fall on the rocks. When I die, my enemies will be under me. Your soldiers began on me when I was asleep on Lost River. They drove us on these rocks, like a wounded deer.

I have always told the white man heretofore to come and settle in my country; that it was his country and my country. That they could come and live there with me and that I was not mad with them. I have never received anything from anybody, only what I bought and paid for myself. I have always lived like a white man, and wanted to live so. I have always tried to live peaceably and never asked any man for anything. I have always lived on what I could kill and shoot with my gun, and catch in my trap.”

I have heard talk and talk but nothing is done. Good words do not last long unless they amount to something...Good words will not get my people a home where they can live in peace and take care of themselves. My heart is sick when I remember all the good words and broken promises...You might as well expect rivers to run backward as that any man who was born a free man should be contented when penned up and denied liberty to go where he pleases. Let me be a free man – free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to think and talk and act for myself – and I will obey every law, or submit to the penalty.”

These words echo beyond their context. These words traverse the rivers and plains of North America and reach across the oceans to rivers, plains, and deserts across the globe. These are words of an oppressed people seeking liberation, or at the very least, seeking a decent self-determined life. These words reverberate in my head as I prepare to return to occupied Palestinian Territories...

You might as well expect rivers to run backward as that any man who was born a free man should be contented when penned up and denied liberty to go where he pleases. Let me be a free man!”