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Treaties and Land Claims

Natural allies’: Why some Indigenous advocates, Palestinians feel connected

November 19, 2023
Indigenous participants have joined pro-Palestinian rallies across North America since the Israel-Hamas conflict began.

The Toronto Star: Wearing shimmering blue ribbon dresses and donning brightly coloured medallions, The Bearhead Sisters cut a vivid scene as they made their way onto the ice amid an endless mass of hockey jerseys.

As their voices came together for a resounding rendition of the Canadian national anthem, sung in the Stoney Nakoda language, the TV cameras revealed that the three sisters each carried a black-and-white scarf known as kaffiyeh, a traditional Middle Eastern garment that has evolved to symbolize the Palestinian struggle for justice and freedom.

The performance took place in front of a sold-out crowd at Rogers Place in Edmonton last week, part of the Oilers’ Indigenous Celebration Night. But the presence of the kaffiyehs transformed a celebration into a gesture of solidarity with a people some 10,000 kilometres away.

“This is our first time ever doing the Anthem & to make it more special we got to do it in our Stoney Nakoda Language,” The Bearhead Sisters, a Juno Award-winning group from Paul First Nation near Wabamun, Alta., wrote on Facebook following the game. “We stand with our Indigenous people from all across the world. Tonight we’d like to send our thoughts and prayers to (the) Palestinian Community.”

The gesture was simple, but resonated with many across the country.

“Incredible,” Shireen Ahmed, a sports journalist, wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. “Have never seen this before in Canada.” “I feel immense gratitude,” Shireen Salti, a Palestinian-Canadian human rights advocate based in Windsor, Ont., told the Star. “At a time when my community is drowning in a sea of devastation, The Bearhead Sisters acknowledged our struggle for justice, and made us feel seen and heard.”

The kaffiyehs were given to The Bearhead Sisters as a gift by Issam Saleh, a home builder and member of the Palestinian community in Edmonton. Saleh’s parents were displaced from their homes during the Nakba – a term that means “catastrophe” in Arabic, and that refers to the mass displacement and dispossession of Palestinians that resulted from the Arab-Israeli War and the creation of Israel in 1948 – and fled on foot to neighbouring Lebanon. He moved to Canada in 1990. His parents died in Lebanon, he said, “still longing to return to their homeland.”

Issam Saleh, a member of Edmonton’s Palestinian community, wears a kaffiyeh alongside the Bearhead Sisters , who wore the scarves during their rendition of “O Canada” at an Oiler’s NHL game last week

“I gifted them the kaffiyeh,” he explained. “They promised to take it to their platforms and to show solidarity with Palestinians.”

Seeing the kaffiyeh displayed during the Canadian national anthem Monday “brought tears to my eyes,” Saleh said. “The kaffiyeh is a symbol of resistance, and the struggle to gain our dignity; to gain our basic human rights.”

Saleh met The Bearhead Sisters through mutual friends, and connected over a “shared understanding of the colonization as Indigenous people who are deeply connected to their land. They understood our pain and grief.”

Perspectives on the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis obviously vary widely across the diverse communities and nations of Indigenous peoples in North America. But there are some who see parallels and connections between Indigenous people and Palestinians living under occupation.

Labelling Israel as colonial project is highly controversial, rejected by some historians on the basis that Jews were also indigenous to the region and those who came at the time of Israel’s founding were not expanding empire but, for the most part, were refugees escaping persecution.

However, the Bearhead Sisters are the latest example of Indigenous advocates across North America who feel they share common ground with the Palestinian community.

On Oct. 26, dozens of Indigenous activists, artists and intellectuals signed an open letter of “Indigenous Solidarity with Palestine,” which included a demand for an immediate ceasefire, a restoration of humanitarian aid and an end to foreign military aid to Israel from the United States and Canada. Among the letter’s signatories were renowned Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg writer and musician Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Yellowknives Dene First Nation scholar Glen Coulthard and Anishinaabe academic Eva Jewell.

Indigenous organizers have also been present at the pro-Palestinian rallies that have been taking place in cities across North America since the conflict between Israel and Hamas broke out more than a month ago.

“There are, of course, important distinctions to be made in terms of geography, the histories and the different respective populations involved,” Megan Scribe, an Ininiw from Norway House Cree Nation and an assistant professor of sociology at Toronto Metropolitan University, explained to the Star. “But Indigenous peoples within the Canadian context share in common the experience of being dispossessed of their ancestral territories, they share the experience of being displaced.”

Scribe suggests that Indigenous solidarity with Palestinians stems from the Indigenous experience of settler-colonialism – a form of colonialism that functions through the replacement of indigenous populations by a settler society that, over time, develops a distinctive identity and sovereignty. Canada, along with the U.S. and Australia, are often considered examples of settler-colonial states.

Historians are divided on the question of whether the label applies to Israel.

Some, such as renowned historian Alan Dowty, reject the applicability of the settler-colonial frame to Israel. “There was no métropole, no mother country of which the settlers were an extension,” Dowty writes. “Jews who came to Palestine, first from Russia and later from elsewhere, generally fit the accepted definition of refugees who were escaping persecution.”

Other influential theorists and thinkers, however, from Australian historian Patrick Wolf to Palestinian intellectual Edward Said, have said that Israel does fit this paradigm, citing the country’s ongoing settlement of the occupied Palestinian territories, along with other state policies that displace Palestinians from their ancestral homes. For some activists or intellectuals, these policies contain parallels to those that displaced or dispossessed Indigenous communities in North America.

“The shape of Canada’s settler colonial project is different from the Israeli settler colonial project in certain ways,” Scribe explained. “I think Canada has relied more on legislation, whereas in Israel we see a strong military presence. But Israel has absolutely been in conversation and has looked to Canada to provide guidance on its own. And you see that with certain spatial forms of control, like the apartheid. I think that is absolutely informed by Canada’s reservation system.”

Whether one agrees with this depiction or not, Scribe says it plays an important role in shaping the solidarity between some Indigenous activists and Palestinians. “I think that people are witnessing what’s happening, and they’re feeling this resonance and identifying something that feels familiar, even if the context is different.”

In the wake of the Hamas attack on Oct. 7, in which 1,200 Israeli were killed and 240 more taken hostage, Western leaders were quick to condemn Hamas and affirm Israel’s right to defend itself.

Israel’s subsequent bombardment on Gaza has killed more than 12,000 Palestinians, sparking a humanitarian crisis in the region. In recent weeks, some of those same Western nations, including Canada, have urged Israel to show restraint. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets in cities around North America demanding a ceasefire and calling for an end to what some have called an ongoing genocide.

Kay is a community farmer and jingle dress dancer who recently took part in a pro-Palestine demonstration in Toronto. She asked the Star to only use her first name out of concern for being targeted by online harassment.

As someone with Indigenous and Filipino roots — identities shaped by histories of colonialism — Kay told the Star that it was “impossible to not show up” for Palestinians.

“Witnessing the genocide that is happening in Gaza right now, there’s a feeling of hopelessness,” Kay said. “But being in community in Toronto, having Palestinian kin and friends, and being a farmer who holds space for BIPOC people to be on the land — you build relationships and you understand how our networks of care and our relationships to land are interconnected. Our personal struggle for self-determination over our lands and waters, and the struggle against violent relations to land — which remove Indigenous people from their land — I see that as the same movement for a free Palestine.”

For Palestinian-Canadian filmmaker Rana Nazzal Hamadeh, witnessing moments of Indigenous solidarity with her community’s struggle is “incredibly meaningful.” “Over the past few weeks, Palestinians in Canada have been denied the space to mourn, let alone to assert the basic rights afforded to our communities back home,” Hamadeh told the Star.

Since the war began, some expressions of support for Palestinians have been subject to controversy and accusations that they amount to support for Hamas. “Those who’ve expressed their solidarity with us have been censured and smeared. I think the show of support from The Bearhead Sisters is a brave response to the urgency of this moment, and speaks to the relationship between peoples who have survived and continue to challenge settler-colonialism,” Hamadeh said.

Hamadeh, whose family came to Canada as a result of forced displacement from their home in Palestine, told the Star that she was taught from a young age that Indigenous people were “natural allies — that they could relate to our struggle because they have lived it for hundreds of years.”

‘‘ Over the past few weeks, Palestinians in Canada have been denied the space to mourn, let alone to assert the basic rights afforded to our communities back home.