Making the Connection to Palestine
Last Fall, I once again took the boat to Alcatraz Island, a small cold rock of land in the center of San Francisco Bay. Alcatraz is famous for its prison and is now a national park visited by more than one million tourists each year. But as the sun rises on the third Thursday of each November, something different happens on Alcatraz. Thousands of indigenous people and allies gather on the craggy outcropping to commemorate and honor five hundred years of indigenous resistance to colonialism and occupation. Many are carrying flags, including the flag of Palestine.
This place is special and has been for generations. In 1969, fed up with oppression and dispossession, members of the youth-led Alcatraz-Red Power Movement claimed the island as indigenous land. Citing violated treaties from 1868, up to 400 indigenous activists, some with children, held the rocky ground, prison and all for 19 months, refusing to leave. As my boat pulled up to the dock, I could still see the old graffiti painted on the whitewashed walls in ‘69, declaring it “Indian Land.” Eventually, the activists were forcibly removed but their bold action and commitment to truth and justice remains visible to this day.
As I was boarding the boat to Alcatraz before dawn, I recalled my first trip there 20 years ago, as part of a U.S. tour MECA arranged for a youth dance troupe from Dheisheh refugee camp in Palestine. Before I moved to the U. S., I co-founded a cultural center in Dheisheh, where I grew up. Among the things we initiated was a debka (traditional Palestinian dance) troupe for young people that performed all over the world. When we came to the U. S. we made it a priority to express solidarity between Palestinian and Native American struggles.
When we described our tour schedule to the children, we highlighted the significance of participating in the Indigenous Peoples’ Sunrise Ceremony. By then, the children were used to performing on stage. They were used to introducing audiences to the story of Palestinian refugees through folk dance. But this performance would be different. This time, they were going to wake up early in the morning and travel by boat to a tiny island to be part of the Native American ceremony.
The children objected. Why did they have to wake up so early to dance in the cold? We explained that, like Palestinians, Native Americans had their land stolen by Western colonizers. Many Native Americans who survived genocidal attacks ended up living in reservations, just as many Palestinians who survived the Nakba (“catastrophe” or ethnic cleansing of 1948) ended up living in refugee camps. One girl was especially reluctant, not understanding why this performance, on this island, was so important. To explain, I told her that this is how the Native Americans commemorate their Nakba. She immediately understood. “If this is their Nakba,” she said, “then we will add it to our Nakba and we’ll commemorate the two Nakbas.”
It was typical for our dancers to become emotional when performing because they were telling the stories of their families, but that “Unthanksgiving Day” performance was special. Our children were not dancing our story to educate others. They were dancing to connect with Native Americans, who know the feeling of being uprooted, losing your rights, and struggling for generations to reclaim your land and your future.
As one of the children said: “Some Palestinians think we are the only people living under oppression, but we learned that there are many other people who have been oppressed. Some of them win their struggle and free themselves like in Vietnam, Algeria, South Africa, etc. and some like us are still struggling for our freedom.”
This year marked the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Alcatraz protest, and the ceremony was remarkable—generations of people from diverse backgrounds came together to share their stories of resistance, struggle, and hope. Some of the speakers were organizers from 1969. As they told their stories, I could imagine their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren listening. Returning to Alcatraz year after year reminds me of the stories that my mother and others from the Nakba generation shared with us. Native Americans have always longed to return to their homes. Their tenacity and patience inspires Palestinians, in the same way the Palestinian struggle for justice and freedom inspires others.