Palestinian Trail of Tears: Joy Harjo’s Missed Opportunity for Indigenous Solidarity

Sa’ed Adel Atshan

Ever since my childhood, I have always felt a deep connection with Native Americans. At the Ramallah Friends School, a Quaker institution established in Palestine over a century ago, we learned about our shared history as indigenous peoples who have faced ethnic cleansing by European colonists and the importance of nonviolent resistance for freedom and dignity.

Many Palestinians and those in solidarity with our struggle had hoped that Joy Harjo would be principled in heeding the calls of another subjugated people. We have been profoundly dismayed by her recent decision to accept funding from Tel Aviv University, an Israeli state institution, and to not only perform there on Monday but also to serve  as a Writer-in-Residence. Soon after hearing this disappointing news, Native American peers of Harjo, including Robert Warrior, called on her to boycott the event. The Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) sent an open letter to Harjo imploring her to honor the boycott. A USACBI petition generated over 2,000 signatures within 36 hours. Harjo disregarded these requests and announced that she would proceed with the performance. Her statement expressed sympathy for Palestinian and Jewish suffering without acknowledging that many American settlers—like their Israeli counterparts—had also faced persecution in Europe, and that Jewish and Israeli voices have been invaluable to the BDS movement. Harjo crossed the picket line. She helped provide legitimacy to an institution that sits above the ethnically cleansed Palestinian village of Shaykh Muwannis while supporting the Israeli military occupation which is illegal under international law.

In Israel/Palestine, the displacement of Native Palestinian Christians and Muslims continues in an Israeli campaign to maintain a “Jewish state” privileging one ethno-religious group and institutionalizing segregation and discrimination with impunity. Israel just announced approval for 3,000 new Jewish-only settlement units in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Each day, Israel steals more Palestinian land, bulldozes more homes, uproots more trees, and detains more children. The Palestinian cry for peace and justice continues after over six decades of dispossession. We look to people of conscience around the globe to hear this cry. Considering that Israel is the world’s largest recipient of U.S. aid, American tax dollars prolong the oppression of Palestinians.

Although this Trail of Tears continues, we have the power to stop it. The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) call was issued in 2005 by over 170 Palestinian civil society organizations. This has become a global movement that draws inspiration from the South African struggle. Israel was one of apartheid South Africa’s greatest allies. Israel adopted many of South Africa’s policies which have been fundamental to the apartheid system imposed on indigenous Palestinians. Apartheid came to an end in South Africa as a result of external pressure through a global boycott, and the movement today boycotting Israeli organizations that are complicit in segregation and ethnic cleansing has been growing dramatically. The power of this approach comes from its effectiveness, nonviolent nature, targeting of institutions rather than individuals, and our demands for basic rights and Israeli compliance with international law.

Many activists have devoted countless hours in reaching out to Harjo on her Facebook page. So many of us have written respectfully as fans. I posted a comment explaining that Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip could not attend her performance because of the nature of the Israeli apartheid system, forced removal, and severe limits on mobility, including the right to travel from one Palestinian village to the next. It has been painful to see Harjo respond to various messages except those coming from Palestinian voices. She later posted: “I invite anyone here to sit at my kitchen table to speak with me.” Palestinians replied. I, too, sent a private email in addition to a Facebook message reiterating that we have limited mobility:


I understand what means to be indigenous to a land and to feel the spirit of our ancestors calling on us to return in the face of ethnic cleansing and colonization…My relatives and friends, who are now refugees in the West Bank… would all love to hear you speak, to meet you, to break bread with you on your kitchen table in Tel Aviv. Our village and ancestral lands are actually there beside you in Tel Aviv, yet we are refugees, and Palestinians are denied our right to return to homes and lands. My family and loved ones, who would be eager to accept your invitation cannot even travel freely within our own country, finding ourselves like animals behind cages, within Israeli prison cells, with a Wall three times the height of the Berlin Wall, hundreds of checkpoints between Palestinian towns, and Israeli settlements with Jewish-only roads devastating the earth.

I still have not received a response from Harjo.

We also drew her attention to those who have joined the boycott movement such as Alice Walker, Angela Davis, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Naomi Klein, Judith Butler, Roger Waters, Jewish Voice for Peace, among many others. We shared our recent victory with Stevie Wonder. We posted about our work with Palestinian Queers for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions and an LGBT delegation from the U.S. to Palestine who endorsed BDS. The Indigenous and Women of Color delegation also called for BDS. We cited the Russell Tribunal on Palestine which included Dennis Banks from the American Indian Movement. We also posted that South Africans are helping to lead the global boycott struggle including Mbuyiseni Ndlozi. We shared the African National Congress’ official support for BDS and the statement by Baleka Mbete after her visit to Palestine that the Israeli regime “is far worse than Apartheid South Africa.”

No amount of pleading could move Harjo. She was persistent on accepting funds from—and granting legitimacy to—an institution complicit in Israeli colonization of Palestinian lands. Sarah Schulman, an esteemed writer and activist, who is lesbian, Jewish, and a supporter of the BDS movement also reached out to Harjo in an effort to convince her that the trip could instead engage Israelis and Palestinians in Tel Aviv and in the West Bank at venues that abide by the boycott guidelines. Schulman, too, had previously been invited to speak at Tel Aviv University and declined in order to honor the BDS call and used that as an opportunity for a solidarity visit that she chronicled in her recent book. Harjo refused Schulman’s request.

Academics and artists are not exempt from ethical responsibility. Just like with Sun City in apartheid South Africa, we saw the importance of musicians refusing to perform in solidarity with blacks and whites who expected action, not just words, in support of equal rights. Today, Palestinians and people of conscience around the world, including Israelis who are members of Boycott from Within are leading the struggle against ethnic cleansing and colonization despite the Israeli government’s criminalization of BDS activism. Though I am filled with sadness by Harjo’s actions, I am also filled with gladness that our movement will ultimately prevail because the arc of history bends toward justice. As Kahlil Gibran reminds us, “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”

Sa’ed Atshan is a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology and Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University and is also a Lecturer in Peace and Justice Studies at Tufts University. He is from Palestine where he continues to serve as an activist with alQaws, an organization promoting LGBTQ rights for Palestinians in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.



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Anonymous's picture
As an anthropologist from Morocco, President of Tazzla Institute for Cultural Diversity, and international Human Rights activist for our indigenous Berber movement of North Africa, I would like to indicate that "Palestinians" of today are ethnically Arabs , and as such part of the invading forces which have ruled oppressively over true indigenous peoples such as our people - over 30 million Amazigh people of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, the Sahara Desert, Mali and Niger. We Imazighen ("Free Human Beings") do not consider "Palestinians" as autochtonous populations and as Arabs, they definitely belong to a group of oppressors who have always considered themselves to be white and superior to people of color..
freespeechlover's picture
I would pay no mind to some of the comments here. The first one is correct that "you can see across the border what you believe to be yours." But then the "weighing" of the Palestinian indigenous experience with the account of the Cherokee experience demonstrates a message of "you-cannot-really-speak-about-your-subjugation-because-We-Cherokees-had-it-far-worst. What follows is hostile--"you can't criticize Jo Harjo, because she is one of 'us' and you are not 'us." Then he goes over the top--you, a Palestinian, "continue the Government goal of the past." THAT is a lot of nonsense. The Palestinians were not responsible for what happened to Cherokees or any other Native Americans, and to even insinuate that is racist in its own way.
Anonymous's picture
The way that Joy was ambushed on this is WRONG Hearted. I have lost all respect for your cause and BDS if this is how you operate.
dinagw's picture
A comment was made, "Leave the artist Joy Harjo alone she speaks the truth for all people." This is precisely the problem with Harjo's actions--the perception that she represents "all people," or at least all Native American people. This is the kind of power she has to influence others and why her decision not to respect the BDS movement and stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people is a huge problem for those of us Native people who do. Harjo does not "speak the truth" for me. From my perspective, Israel is a settler apartheid state engaged in ethnic cleansing of lands that belonged to other people before 1948. Regardless of what you think of Palestinians as Arabs or any other kind of people, it doesn't change the facts. In 1948 the world's foremost colonial powers saw fit to ship all it's Jews back to a place they had left long ago, without the consent of the people who would be displaced. No matter how you try to spin the story, this was the net effect. That is the essence of settler colonialism.
Anonymous's picture
Dear Joy, It is with a heavy heart that I write this letter. I am a Palestinian living as a settler on the unceded lands of the Coast Salish peoples. I have only just started on the road of becoming an ally, and confronting my own complicity in settler colonialism, but I am trying to learn about the historical and contemporary struggles of the Indigenous peoples on whose attempted genocide the white settler colonial state of Canada is founded. I learned of your visit on December 10, 2012. It was on that day that a new grassroots movement called Idle No More was inaugurated in Canada, and I heeded their call to solidarity to attend a protest that was happening in Vancouver. I did not question their tactics or asked why they pursued this strategy. As an ally, I took my leadership from the movement of the communities affected, and that is what people are asking you to do with the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanction. Conversations about the implications of a cultural and academic boycott have and are taking place in Palestinian communities, and it is the strategy we have decided to pursue. Being neutral is not an option any longer. I know that being an ally is primarily realized through my actions and it certainly does not start or end with this one protest, which is why I intend on learning more, building relationships, and supporting Indigenous peoples' struggles on Turtle Island as much as I possibly can. As a person who is Indigenous to Palestine, I have personally experienced the devastating effects settler colonialism under Zionism and Israel. Globally, settler colonialisms reinforce each other, borrow ideas from each other legitimize each other. (you might recall Canada and the US's comments in the support of the Israeli bombardment of Gaza a few weeks ago where in just 7 days over 160 Palestinians died and 1000 were injured.Their criticism of Israel could have called in to account Canada and the US’s historical and contemporary colonialisms, and their occupation of Indigenous lands in Turtle Island) The connections between struggles in Turtle Island and Palestine have been made for four decades now. A good article on this topic is by Dana Olwan (Palestinian) and Mike Krebs (Blackfoot) titled "'From Jerusalem to the Grand River, Our Struggles are One': Challenging Canadian and Israeli Settler Colonialism". I understand that even if Palestinians were to become self-determining, it would be a hollow victory if it were not accompanied by the self-determination of all Indigenous nations globally. Our liberation is bound up in the same knot- we can only undo it together. Please heed our call for solidarity and cancel your writer in resident position at Tel Aviv University. Signed, Razan Abu-Remaileh
montanamiddle's picture
Harjo is American and therefor she doesn't speak to demoralize Palestinian's plight, but to defend her own morals and values of speaking from the heart. It doesn't do anyone any good to equate her as anti-Palestinian when she's pro-humanity. That being said, it's exiting to to hear from you on ICTMN, Sa-ed! And I'm glad they let you speak your piece.
Anonymous's picture
Missteps like Harjo's are what is needed to open up people's eyes to what is happening to the Palestinian people. Unfortunately, the amount of hemming and hawing over her feelings rather than what is truly at stake, the actual lives of human beings, is a normal response in progressive circles. If we dare to identify with Palestinians, such as Sa'ed, we are cast aside for causing conflict or divisiveness. And we must not forget the classic name calling of outside agitator. It has always been this way on the brink of social change – so be it. Glad to be in the company of the divisive and on the right side of history.
smartphoenixnavajo's picture
I partly agree with Dinagw. Joy Harjo speaks and writes for Joy Harjo. She does not represent American Indians. Her personally experiences of being an American Indian are just that. If she wishes to be connected to Israel, then that's her personal business. Time and time again, people want one, two, etc., people to represent American Indians and sometimes an American Indian will try to take it upon themselves to "speak" for all of us. This is not so and never will be. I represent myself as a Navajo man and try to conduct myself according to what the Holy People guide me to. I do not represent the Navajo, nor do they represent me. If, a few represent the masses, then "Indians are all drunks". That's what I grew up hearing. That's my point. Thank you.
Anonymous's picture
I commend Joy Harjo. She is not stupid. She knows the difference between when her Creator decrees who the owns a land and who does not. Even as the Creator decreed ownership of THIS LAND to the Indigenous peoples/Native Americans/American Indians/First Nations...so did this same Creator decree to the Jews the ownership of their land to them which is called Israel...not Palestine. Islam does not recognize the right of Jews to live on their land or even for Jews to exist. Atshan's Muslim Brotherhood" have in place L. Frank Baum (Mr. Wizard of Oz) annihilation/extermination "decrees death" to all Jews in Israel and world wide not to mention all "infidels"...hint hint...who do not convert to the teachings of Mohammad. This "Palestinian policy" is documented in the in the Koran and written on the thousands of rockets launched at Israel and is expressed openly in Sharia Law which is no more or less then the the same KKK spirit expressed in the "Manifest Destiny" history of the United States governments "Indian Policies. It should be noted that Islam powered Arabs were in direct alignment with Hitler in his extermination policy of ALL JEWS. "Palestine" is a man made creation under the umbrella of Islam and Zionism. Why ICT would publish such a slandering, half truth filled attack on a true Warrior Woman is beyond me. To allow this is a desecration to all things Native and this issue should be called "Islam Country Today"!
Anonymous's picture
Thank you Jaydokie, I am sick and tired of seeing people coopt the tragedy that befell first nations people in North america to exaggerate their own. I am also sick and tired of seeing people make ridiculous statements. 1- the population of the palestinians has grown from 750 thousand to well over 6 million during the 64 years of "occupation and oppression" that they are so fond of quoting, during the first 65 years of occupation of North america our populations dropped from an estimated 80 million to less than 10. so please tell me how what happened to our peoples was even remotely the same? 2- the Palestinians were offered a far better deal than anything ever offered to our people, go read up on the peel commission and the Balfour decalaration, the people who refused those offers? THE Palestinians leaders! it would be as if we were offered half of the united states and refused. I am not aware of any such offers. 3- We underwent an actual genocide, we still see things today left over from that era of racism in the US army still honouring medal of honour winners for killing women and children during the "indian wars" the palestinians act as though they have similiar experiences but the truth is that less than 50 thousand palestinians have been killed by Israel. Just being an indian doesnt mean we have to support the palestinians, if anything we should feel more sympatico with the jews, while the palestinians sat around for 65 years whining and waiting for someone else to give them something, the jews meanwhile were given what is a tiny sliver of land and somehow managed to build a thriving nation. they are indigenous who were returned to the land after a thousand years. I myself identify far more with people who worked hard and built something.