By: Zoltán Grossman
I recently saw with alarm and disgust that vandals in downtown Olympia have defaced a work of art by an internationally renowned Indigenous artist and Evergreen State College professor emeritus, Gail Tremblay. The perpetrators were not protesters, but were vandals evidently upset by the message of the artwork that used maps to compare the settler colonization of Native American lands by the United States to the settler colonization of Palestinian lands by Israel. As a professional cartographer who assisted Professor Tremblay on her project, and as a current Evergreen professor of geography and Native studies, I feel that the desecration of the artwork must be answered and corrected.
The Olympia-Rafah Solidarity Mural is a collaboration between the Rachel Corrie Foundation (of which I am a newly elected board member), and the Bay Area artists’ group Art Forces. The Mural was dedicated in 2011 on a large wall at Capitol and State. The project was inspired by the life and message of Rachel Corrie, a former Evergreen student who had eight years prior been crushed to death by an Israeli military bulldozer, as she protected a Palestinian home from demolition in the Gaza city of Rafah. Part of the mural symbolizes an olive tree, with each “leaf” provided by an artist or community organization, from Olympia and around the country and world.
Professor Tremblay conceptualized a series of maps that would compare the diminishment of Native American lands to the diminishment of Palestinian lands, to demonstrate a similar pattern of erasing the nations and cultures who have lived on the land for centuries. The two settler states have tried to displace the peoples and sever their connections to their ancestral territories, to make them refugees in their own homelands or a diaspora. The theft of those lands through direct military conquest, or through threats and pressure to surrender them to foreign settlers, is a one-sided process that has immensely profited the settler states.
Professor Tremblay asked for my assistance in locating source maps, and I proposed four sources that showed Native lands in 1775 (before U.S. independence), Palestinian lands in 1946 (before Israel’s independence), and two maps that showed the Indian reservations and Palestinian-governed lands that remained in 2005. I also made some final edits on the 2005 reservations map to correct the generalized boundaries on the source, because tribal members are very familiar with the exact outlines of their homelands. The maps show how Native and Palestinian lands were reduced from the majority of the territory just before the independence of both the U.S. and Israel, to the tiny reservations or enclaves remaining in the 21st century.
The leaf was placed at the top of the mural wall in 2009, and represented not only a common critique of settler colonialism, but an expression of solidarity between Native peoples here and Palestinians living on disconnected enclaves in the occupied territories. Indigenous and Palestinian cultural groups have performed in front of the mural, to reassert their cultural vitality. If the settler states are cooperating closely with each other, perhaps the peoples of both lands should build bridges instead of walls.
It is no surprise that the map leaf was defaced this spring, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was making his first moves (backed by the Trump Administration), to further diminish Palestinian lands through unilateral annexations. Backers of illegal Israeli settlements have often pointed to the U.S. as a precedent for the seizure and annexation of the lands of people living in occupied territories, in order to normalize driving Palestinians off their ancestral lands. In this “Manifest Destiny” thinking, the Trail of Tears in Native America justifies the 1948 Nakba (Catastrophe) in Palestine, because God is inevitably clearing the way for settlers of a superior religion, and “Might Makes Right.” Making the parallels between the two histories make other boosters of Israeli policy uncomfortable, as they deny the destructive effects of annexation in both parts of the world.
But centuries of Indigenous resistance here show that Native peoples do not so easily disappear through forced removal or assimilation. Rachel Corrie herself learned how the tribal assertion of treaty rights has revitalized Native cultures in Washington, and saved the salmon and old-growth forest from extinction. Since the Mural was dedicated, the Idle No More and Standing Rock movements have vastly increased public awareness of enduring Indigenous nationhood in North America, and the recent upsurge of anti-racist protests against Columbus statues, Mount Rushmore, and sports team mascots have only deepened that awareness.
At the same time, Netanyahu’s aggressive policies have increased the American public’s awareness of how Israel is not seeking a peaceful solution to the Middle East conflict, but is greedily seeking to complete its domination of Palestinian land. Democratic and Republican politicians are starting to distance themselves from possible Israeli annexations. U.S. reporters are beginning to expose Israeli companies providing technology for Trump’s southern border wall, and Washington companies providing surveillance technologies for Israel to track Palestinians.
Many American Jews, such as myself, are rethinking their relationship to the Israeli state, and to a Zionist movement increasingly led by Christian fundamentalists. As the son of a Hungarian survivor of the Holocaust, I stand with both Native Americans and Palestinians, because of our common history of religious discrimination, forced erasure or genocide, and cultural survival against overwhelming odds.
If the vandals who defaced the mural art think they have silenced or censored the free speech of an Indigenous artist and a Jewish geographer, they have only strengthened our voices. Defacing paintings, like burning books, reveals the perpetrators’ disrespect and dehumanization of those with whom they disagree. Just as the Rachel Corrie Foundation intends to repair and restore the leaf, we intend to help renew a public understanding of settler colonial connections between the U.S. and Israel, and build deeper bonds between colonized peoples of the land.