The Native American Question and other False Dilemmas
J. Kēhaulani Kauanui
In the U.S.-based Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) – called for by Palestinian civil society – defenders of Israel often levy charges of hypocrisy citing the fact that the United States was founded on genocide and stolen (or otherwise coercively expropriated) lands of Indigenous peoples.
As a Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) scholar of sovereignty, settler colonialism, and decolonization – as well as an activist affiliated with the Hawaiian nationalist movement who has long engaged in political solidarity work with a range of Indigenous peoples’ struggles, including the BDS movement – I initially took these concerns at face value. I proceeded in good faith assuming they were coming from individuals who championed Native American rights, but I learned all too quickly that, most often, it is cynically evoked as a means of producing a “Gotcha!” moment – one designed to entrap advocates for Palestine in order to discredit the political cause by targeting their character and integrity.
Of course, there is a distinct difference between Indigenous individuals pointedly asking those who support the BDS movement where their support for Native Americans is, and non-Natives who raise the Native American question. In the case of the former, it may be posed as a challenge to step up – whereas in the latter, it is typically an attempt to get people to step down. But beyond those dynamics, when such challenges are formulated as an either / or – or worse, a refusal to answer the Palestinian civil society call for BDS because of an apparent lack of support for Indigenous peoples, it is a false dilemma. Moreover, it does not follow that one should not take an ethical stance on one issue because one has yet to do so on another that also warrants it.
But even while those who raise this issue may be disingenuous when it comes to affirming Indigenous sovereignty and typically have no real interest in challenging U.S. settler colonialism – because their rhetorical aim is to divert attention away from Israel – it does not mean that those in solidarity with Palestine should not be concerned with the status of Native Americans and other Indigenous peoples currently fighting to protect and exercise their sovereignty and self-determination.
Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians is modeled on the U.S. violence against Native Americans, especially with regard to frontier-era wars of aggression, expulsion and forced removal. This was recognizable to the council of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA), which issued a declaration in support for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions in 2014. Notably, there is also a long history of Native American support for the Palestinian cause and vice versa.
Given the role the U.S. government plays in funding the state of Israel, all who claim the United States as home have a duty to intervene. That responsibility is related to, but somewhat distinct from, the onus that is on all people living in the United States who are not themselves Indigenous to the lands they occupy to answer to Indigenous peoples’ assertions of sovereignty. It is also different from holding the federal government that purports to represent all of us accountable to the Indigenous polities that the U.S. has dispossessed by ending their colonial status currently enshrined in federal law, fulfilling treaty obligations, responding with meaningful restitution, and paying reparations to mitigate centuries-long damage.
Anthropologists can and should stand against colonial violence in all of its forms. One way to do that immediately is to support the land back movement sweeping the country, which advocates for returning land to the stewardship of Indigenous peoples. Notably, the movement goes beyond land transfer in an expansive way that addresses many aspects of dispossession: respecting Indigenous rights, preserving languages and traditions, ensuring food sovereignty, housing, and clean air and water.
The BDS movement is anchored in precepts of international law and universal human rights, focusing on the state of Israel’s regimes of occupation and apartheid that are both part of a broader settler colonial project. It stands to reason, then, that those who stand in solidarity with Palestinians are opposed to occupation, apartheid and settler colonization. Therefore, it is fair to insist that BDS supporters take a principled stance and commit to eradicating occupation, apartheid, and settler colonization wherever those systems of oppression endure.
When we take a principled stance against all modes of oppression, we cultivate the ethical consistency that is part of the work of anti-normalization “at home.” At the same time, we can respond to the urgent call from Palestinian civil society to stand in solidarity with those facing immediate genocidal dispossession. Voting for the AAA resolution in support of academic boycott is one small gesture in responding to that call; it is the least we can do.
J. Kēhaulani Kauanui is Professor of American Studies and Anthropology at Wesleyan University.