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On November 24, people from across the United States will gather with family and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving. They will travel (on the busiest travel day of the year), they will eat turkey and pumpkin pie, and they will shop at the orgiastic sales that are a fixture of what is perhaps the most widely celebrated holiday in the USA. Like all ideologically inflected nationalist myths, holidays such as Thanksgiving or Columbus Day both commemorate and mask the histories of violence that build and sustain nations. Such masking enables us to know that people lived on and were removed from the land but also allows us to disregard the fact that the descendants of those people still live in the reservations their ancestors were forced onto through acts of genocide. On November 24, people from across the United States will be, unwittingly or not, celebrating the ongoing success of settler colonialism.
The history of settler colonialism in the United States is as unavoidable as the millions of Native Americans that have been killed, raped, and ethnically cleansed since Columbus landed in North America in 1492. The success of settler colonialism is much more discreet. It is whispered in the names of cities such as Manhattan and states like South and North Dakota (words that are Native American and thus index the presence of a lost life world), it is bought in expensive well designed packages of Wild Rice, and it is stamped on the American flag, whose stars multiplied as more and more native lands were conquered and its people enslaved, killed and dispossessed. In fact settler colonialism has been so successful that even when it is recognized it is often seen as a “necessary evil” that enabled the formation and evolution of the United States of America. In this narrative, the colonization of North America was a civilizing mission that brought into the world the most liberal and democratic nation it had ever seen. But still, no matter how much settler colonialism has been normalized, the history of the Native American genocide cannot be erased because it is the history of the United States. It is an open wound that will never close. Even if it is not seen on the flesh, it eats away at the body and soul of a sutured together nation- and it leaves a mark that grows darker with scrutiny. This twinned history of Native American genocide and US state formation is quietly stubborn. Its traces can be found in the both the inherited memories and the inherited silences that are passed on from generation to generation.
My great grandmother was a Native American, a member of the Chippewa nation. My grandfather, who recently passed away, was, as he put it, a half-Indian. He had a bible written in Chippewa that he took out of a special case and showed me on several occasions. My mother is now also a member of the Chippewa nation, as I will be if I choose to apply to our tribe and to the United States government for “recognition”. Every summer my family drives to their farm in Wisconsin, where they spend the Fourth of July weekend. My grandfather’s family is from that part of the country, and some of his siblings and their families still live there. His land is lush and beautiful. It is on a Native American reservation, although growing up I never heard it referred to as such. As I grew older and after I had visited the reservation I began to wonder why we called it “the farm” and what this politics of naming entailed. What histories of discrimination, disassociation, and assimilation are both contained and articulated through the naming of a parcel of land on a Native American reservation “the farm”? What happens when land that by definition requires its “owners” to be members of the Bad River Tribe of the Chippewa nation becomes a space for families to gather, barbecue and shoot fireworks on the Fourth of July? What does it mean to be a white Native American, as my grandfather was? He once told me that as a child his classmates called him racist names but that as an adult he was rarely recognized as anything other than white, particularly after he joined the US army. As he aged he grew more attached to his genealogy and his family’s history, in part motivated by the very real need to have his children “recognized” so that they could inherit the land on the reservation that he loved so much. I remember him unrolling paper that contained an imprint of his family tree, and how he pointed my mother’s name out on it for me, tapping his finger at the space below it to indicate my place. He would spread his papers on the dining room table, the same one that hosts the family’s annual traditional thanksgiving feast.
Growing up in Beirut, my mother made sure that we also celebrated Thanksgiving. My parents and siblings would convene for love and food, a tradition that constantly reminded me that my mother was an American in Lebanon, and that I was connected to a family and to a history in the United States. Growing up, thanksgiving in Beirut was a novelty. I would always have to explain why I was celebrating that day, and every year my mother would try, most times in vein, to find a Turkey. Nowadays, you can see Thanksgiving decorations in the supermarket, and it is not unheard of for families and friends to gather on the third Thursday in November for food and good company. This is partly because there are now more Americans or Lebanese who have lived in the United States living in Lebanon than ever before. It is also because as American pop culture becomes ever more hegemonic, that country’s holidays also begin to take on a new, decontextualized appeal. For me personally, Thanksgiving in Beirut has a different, almost subversive meaning. That is because about 100 kilometers to the south of my parent’s house where we convene, there is a more recent ongoing history and practice of settler colonialism; that of historic Palestine.
There are many similarities and many differences between the experiences of the indigenous peoples of Palestine and the Americas. Both peoples struggled, fought, and were branded terrorists, and, in the case of Native Americans, “savages” who were less human than their Euro-American counterparts. Both people’s lands were signed away by imperial decrees and later by newly minted state law. Both peoples’ lands were occupied by well-armed civilian settlements whose population slowly ate away at the landscape until they found themselves surrounded. Both peoples are proud and steadfast. But there are differences. 1492 or 1621 or 1890or 1831-1838 are not 1917, 1948, 1967, 1973 or 2010. Palestinians are not in the same situation as Native Americans are today. To compare the two uncritically does a disservice to both peoples. What they have in common is a technology of rule that they have been and continue to be subjected to. They have both struggled against this mode of power and they both continue to struggle. But settler colonialism has not (perhaps yet) succeeded in Palestine, despite years of encroachment, dispossession, and the adoption of apartheid-like policies by Israel. Palestinians are not faced with the silent decline of demographic death, their languages are not forgotten and their culture has not been reduced and commodified into Halloween costumes, major sports mascots, or cartoons produced by Walt Disney. In Palestine, the present is still contested, and the history of Israel-Palestine is an intellectual and political battlefield. In the United States, the present is not controversial at all. In fact it is “controversial” to demand attention and a modicum of justice for Native American lives and histories.
Because settler colonialism is a project that has been so terrifyingly successful in the United States and Australia, the experiences of indigenous peoples should mobilize us to struggle against that mode of power and the racist weighting of human life that it licenses. The fact that most people celebrate holidays such as thanksgiving without reflection or that most kids who grew up playing cowboys and Indians think that the cowboys are the good guys should give us pause. It should scare us. It should also strengthen our resolve to remain steadfast against apartheid like technologies of rule that are born of the same logic; that to make space for some people to grow and prosper, others need to be removed, discriminated against, displaced, and regrouped to reservations, townships, Bantustans, or refugee camps.
This year, when I raise my glass with my family I will be thinking of many things. I will think of my grandfather and his finger tapping at his and my family tree, splayed out across the dinner table. I will think of both the impossibility and the intransigence of justice. This year, we should be thankful that a project similar to the colonization of the Americas has failed in South Africa, failed in Rhodesia and it has not yet been successful in Palestine (or at least not in all of historic Palestine). Personally, I am thankful for those who continue to struggle for those who fight against the normalization of settler colonialism. I am thankful that we refuse to render the historical archive of Israel and Palestine into a narrative that washes away ongoing histories of violence. I am thankful for those who live and die in what is left of historic Palestine. On Thanksgiving, I will give thanks to those who live and die in refugee camps outside of historic Palestine, and their stubborn refusal to be anything else other than Palestinian.
 The practice of land ownership and inheritance on Native American reservations is a legal relationship to the earth that indexes the near annihilation of native philosophies and life worlds.
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