By: Gail Tremblay
When I designed my leaf for the Olympia-Rafah Solidarity Mural, I wanted people who looked at it to reflect on the negative effects on culture when people move onto and annex land where other people have lived for generations. As a person descended from people who are indigenous to the Americas, I am aware of the terrible effects that the loss of lands has on people who are driven from the villages where they maintained the crops and orchards that feed and support their lives. Peoples’ land bases also supply the materials people use to build the housing they live in and the objects they create that define their cultures.
I decided to dramatize the amount of land loss that can result from conquest and colonization by using maps of territory before and after the annexation of land in the United States and in Palestine. While the history of changes of people’s connection to land and place may be very different in different cultures, the loss of those connections to land and place are usually painful and difficult.
In the Americas, the history of colonization is recent and for both my Kanien’kehá:ka and Ononta’kehá:ka ancestors in the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and my Mi’kmaq ancestors in the Wabanaki Confederacy started in the 1600s, and is tied to a history of attempts at physical and cultural genocide that are only four centuries old.
My Haudenosaunee ancestors inhabited a sizable land base in what is now New York and areas in other nearby states and across what is now the Canadian border for several thousand years. Before the founding of the Confederacy by Deganawidah the five nations that made up the Confederacy fought with one another and caused much grief throughout the region. After the foundation of the Haudenosaunee government, the people’s culture was shaped by respect for circle of things that support life on Mother Earth, and humans were grateful for the relationships between themselves and everything in the natural world where they lived. Their wealth came from their ability to care for and live in harmony with everything in that circle that makes life possible on this planet.
After my ancestors were informed by the laws and teachings they learned from the Peacemaker, for generations the nations of the Haudenosaunee lived in harmony with one another and took care of the lands that supported their lives, growing corn, squash and beans, orchards of fruit and nut trees and nurturing their hunting, fishing , and gathering grounds that provided foods and medicines, and materials to build their longhouses. Before meetings, the people recited O:hen:ten Karihwatehhkwen (the Words that Come Before All Else) that allowed them to give greetings and thanks to things in the natural world.
In the 1600s they met the first Europeans who were attempting to colonize and exploit land in the Americas and during that period they made treaties with the English, Dutch, and French to protect their land base and culture. Many greedy settlers who wanted the wealth of the land broke the treaties when they attempted to move onto Haudenosaunee land. The Haudenosaunee defended their territory, and worked hard to negotiate with the governments in Europe to keep people out of their territories. During this period Europeans paid for Indian scalps and spread smallpox and other European diseases that Indians had little or no immunity to because they had never been exposed to them. These practices became a crude kind of biological warfare used to kill off large populations in Indigenous villages.
The European settlers were unhappy with the way British taxation affected them and were angry about treaties with Indigenous people that closed Native Nations territories and prohibited outsiders to settle in those territories. As the colonists grew unhappy with King George III’s policies they decided to riot. On December 16, 1773. a group of colonists angry about taxation threw tea on a British vessel into Boston Harbor. By July 4, 1776, settlers’ representatives in the Continental Congress were angry enough to sign a Declaration of Independence. In that document, Thomas Jefferson called Native people who defended their land and resources from settlers trying to steal their land base, “merciless Indian Savages.” After that Settlers and troops sent by the British King began to fight a war over British controlled territory in land that became the United State. Both the British crown and the settlers fighting for Independence tried to recruit Indigenous allies to fight with them. Although some people fought on one side or the other, the leaders in the Haudenosaunee Confederacy voted to remain neutral during the Revolutionary War.
In 1779-80, General George Washington earned the Haudenosaunee name “Town Destroyer” by sending Generals Sullivan and Clinton into Haudenosaunee territory to destroy villages, orchards, and grain stores in order to starve as many people as possible. Washington wanted to open the land for settlement to people of European ancestry. The amount of hundred weights of dried corn, squash and beans, the size of orchards burned and the size of villages destroyed is a measure of our wealth before we were driven off our land. Looking at the two maps of the United States on the leaf, it is hard to make out how our land holdings were drastically reduced during this period, but it is clear studying the maps of our territory in 1776 and in 2006 that we lost most of our land base. We lost much our land in the early 19th Century, and some of our people were removed to Wisconsin and to Oklahoma, and the size of most of our reservations in what is now New York are small. After our villages and food stores were burned, many people moved to land in Canada to keep from starving.
Dates of wars to dispossess Indigenous people are different in different regions in the United States, the earliest settlers established Spanish colonies in the Southwest and those lands became states in Northern Mexico after Mexico became independent from Spain, and remained so until they were conquered and annexed by the U.S. in the 1846-48 Mexican-American War. Nearly all the Pacific Northwest was taken in treaties forced on Native nations in 1854-55. The latest wars and policies to separate Indigenous people from their land were in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Under the Allotment Act, many reservations were checkerboarded when valuable property was opened up to non-Native settlers. Native people were deliberately robbed of their land, resources and wealth. We continue to be killed, our Indigenous women have been murdered and sterilized, and both men and women have been denied adequate health care.
The pair of maps of the United States show Indigenous lands before and after these large-scale annexations. Indigenous land on the two U.S. maps are represented in red and the land taken shown in white. Like most maps they do not show the land loss in great detail. I compared those maps marking European and Euro-American settler state theft of land with maps of land and villages controlled by Palestinians before the foundation of Israel in 1948, and the effects of annexation of Palestinian lands and creation of Israeli settlements until 2005. I worked with Zoltán Grossman, a geographer at The Evergreen State College, who helped me choose the maps. These four maps allow people to reflect on the way annexation of land and resources create conflicts and problems between peoples.
The Europeans who emigrated to the U.S. and Euro-American settlers who continued to settle until they reached the Pacific Ocean, invaded a part of the North American continent where before 1600 at least 18 to 20 million Indigenous people from more than 500 nations lived. By 1888, when the U.S. Census counted reservation populations, they had reduced that population to 200, 000 tribal members. In the 2010 census, 5.2 million people identified themselves as American Indian or Alaska Native either alone or in combination with another race. This number is expected to increase in the 2020 census, but neither number gives us the population of enrolled tribal members in the United States. We do know because of the 1950s urban relocation program and the lack of land on many small reservations, that 78% of Native people live outside of reservations and must travel to visit there relatives on reservations. Many reservations do not have adequate housing or employment for tribal members, nor a resource base to support a traditional lifestyle for their people.
When one thinks about the history of Israeli and Palestinian people in the Middle East and about the way the Jewish Diaspora was created during and after the Roman Empire drove out many Jewish people to inhabit other parts of the world, one can’t help noticing the way in which people who spread across the globe can feel emotional ties to the place where they have not lived for generations. There is a long history of discrimination against Jewish people, and that attraction for the roots of their religion and culture has supported Zionist beliefs that after the torment of the Holocaust led to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.
While there has always been a sizable population of Jewish people in the area that is Palestine and Israel during long generations since the Jewish diaspora, the majority of the population of the area that became Israel were Arab Palestinians, both Muslims and Christians. Indeed Christians, Jews and Muslims all trace the foundation of their religious traditions to the area that is both Palestine and Israel, and have long fought over control of the area in various periods of history, Only after the Nakba (Catastrophe) when 700,000 Palestinians were driven out of the region after Israel’s independence and Jewish settlers took over the territory did the population numbers begin to change dramatically.
Clearly, the huge numbers of Indigenous Americans who were killed and relocated is much larger than the number of Palestinians, but it is hard for an Indigenous person to not sympathize with the way Palestinians are murdered and dispossessed of their land and resources. It is very painful to watch the ways in which Palestinians are being dehumanized so people in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) feel justified to shoot them. It is also painful to watch the way Israelis dehumanize themselves by murdering people they wish to rob of their land and resources. When people do such violence to others and the land (which in the Middle East is fragile and endangered and needs great care), it is hard to think how people are going to learn to fit into the circle of things that support life on this planet. One must nurture the olive groves, tend the land carefully, use the materials sparingly, in order to care for all the people who have a history and connection to that space. One can’t build settlements and walls on others’ land and not cause chaos and make enemies. It is so hard to trust when people do not care for one another and respect other peoples’ differences and right to live. It is terrible to think you have a right to harm others just because you have also been harmed. A humane person needs to think about how they can work with others, and care for them, and make peace.
Without that how will we learn to live in harmony together and support life on this Earth we ride in a wild spiral across the universe, each of us trying to take care of a fragile ecosystem that we barely understand. Human beings are not the most important beings on this planet, and they need to work hard to not destroy the things that can teach them to support life. Think on the plants and how much they give. They take the carbon dioxide all the animals and human exhale, the light of the sun and some water, and make the air we breathe in, foods we and the animals eat, and give us medicines and materials to build things. We need to learn from the plants, and we need to share and use things sparingly giving back to earth as well as taking. It is necessary to learn lessons about how to love in the circle of things that support life in order to make life good for all the people and creatures on this planet.
To do this we must learn to move carefully, to live lightly on the planet and to share so everything stays in balance. Looking at the maps, think about O:hen:ten Karihwatehhkwen (the Words that Come Before All Else) and how we all must learn to care for one another and the Earth. Without that, there is too much greed and too much grief. I want history to stop breaking everyone’s heart and caring to become our best way of working. I thank my ancestors for making such thoughts possible.