Working Towards Indigenous Liberation From Turtle Island to Palestine


In this series of letters, regular contributor and Lakota historian Nick Estes exchanges with PalFest co-organizer Maath Musleh about Indigenous struggles and solidarities between Palestine and Turtle Island, but also with Indigenous nations in Bolivia, Venezuela, and Aotearoa.

Estes & Musleh Funambulist (1)
Palestinian flag in the Standing Rock water protector encampment. / Photo by Nadya Raja Tannous (Palestine Youth Movement, 2016).

September 27, 2019

Dear Maath,

I began this letter in Mni Luzahan (Rapid City), a white-dominated settlement sitting at the base of He Sapa, the Black Hills, our sacred mountains. More than 50 Indigenous nations maintain historical ties to this place, a land stolen from us to mine gold, a metal to us that had no intrinsic value.

This is our al-Quds.

For Lakotas, we call it “the heart of everything that is.” From space, the outline of the mountains looks like a human heart. The stories tell us humanity began here, shaped from the dirt — which is red like our blood.

N. Scott Momaday, a Kiowa author, once wrote that his grandmother’s stories of this landscape “lay like memory in her blood.” Confined to the reservation most of her life, she had never visited He Sapa but recounted her people’s history of this place.

Yesterday, I read an article about the migratory birds that fly into Gaza. The quails enter and leave, if not captured by the hungry, doing what many Gazans can’t: they enter and leave the world’s largest open air prison camp.

The U.N. predicts Gaza will be uninhabitable by next year — 2020. (Was it habitable this year? Last?)

Last week, millions throughout the world went on strike against climate change — in fear of an uninhabitable world. A young, inspiring Norwegian girl is the poster child for the movement. I wonder: What if she were a Palestinian, Syrian, or Guatemalan child? Would there be the same kind of mass support? No one seems to care that a future has already been taken from these children. They make news only when they die: their bodies wash ashore; they die in a prison camp; or they are gunned by Israeli snipers.

A European child crosses an ocean by boat for a righteous cause, embraced by millions. A Syrian child dies making a perilous journey seeking refuge in the very nations that have destroyed hers — and only harsher immigration laws are passed.

A pit sits in my stomach as I remember the beauty of our mountains, where we became human. What’s the point of saving the planet if billions are still hungry, unsafe, and under the constant shadow of war?

I am finishing this letter far from home, in the South, in Tewa lands. But He Sapa, my home, is always close to my heart. I remember the stories.

Stories narrate the human condition. And Marx once said, “Nothing human is alien to me.”


September 29, 2019

Dear Nick,

I am noting the names you mentioned, Mni Luzahan, He Sapa, and Tewa. I often feel ashamed exploring the causes of people in other parts of the world. I am confronted with several narratives, and my humble knowledge cannot help me dive into the right narrative. Of course, there could be several legitimate narratives for the struggling people, but it is always that colonial-complicit narrative that stands out. The production of knowledge is grounded in these mainstream narratives that the narrative of the people’s struggle is buried.

And hence, I try to capture the names and terms used by the Natives as they are my lead in search for the buried knowledge. I serve my students these terms to put them a step forward on the path of knowledge. The knowledge about people’s struggles; the knowledge about people’s histories and hopes for the future. The knowledge about what brings us together as oppressed people. Not only because it is human to empathize with others, but also, it is crucial for our struggle to understand how colonialism today is not a local entity, rather a global network.

It really pushes my button when an academic or a journalist uses “Israel” in a geographic reference to Palestine. Many well-intentioned think that they’re being “politically-correct,” or they are afraid of being ousted completely from the global mainstream network of knowledge. They might believe that it is confusing to people if they start using what they know are the right terms. It is not confusing. Israel is the name of the Zionist entity that colonizes Palestine.

To build a global network of solidarity and struggle, we must build a radical system of knowledge. Our communication should be rooted in the same system. And that’s when our solidarity will be impactful and meaningful. Otherwise, it is not enough that we say, we are in solidarity with the struggle of people here and there. We cannot defeat an enemy that speaks a common language by using their language. Language is powerful enough to dictate the limits of our thoughts and actions.

Greta is a star here in Sweden. Few days ago she met Trudeau, who plans to honor her work for climate by naming a 1,500 km pipeline after her. Speaking of a paradox, and the need to disassociate from the sphere of the colonial oppressor in our common struggle.

I write to you juggling between following up on the story of a Palestinian prisoner and the kidnapping of Alaa in Egypt this morning. Also, catching up on stories from the Palestinian women’s movement Tal3at. And thinking, now it is a good time to start working on my course assignments. And I keep asking myself, how can we balance our lives to truly practice our humanity as part of a global struggle? It feels like we’re cogs in a machine. How can we free ourselves from the machine?

I will get back to following up on the stories, as that is all I can do now, hopefully not for long.


Estes & Musleh Funambulist (2)
Former settler houses on Indigenous land in Hienghene, reclaimed during the 1984-1988 Kanak insurrection on Kanaky’s Great Earth. / Photos by Léopold Lambert (2019).

October 24, 2019

Dear Nick,

I write to you from Beit Safafa. My favorite time of the year here, the olive harvest season. I am already warming up for it. This season is more than just the olives we pick or the gathering. It is a season where we commit to the land, for the collective ownership of the land.

The Zionists has been confiscating lands for decades now, and especially farmers’ lands. Or they would target the people’s connection to the land with economic policies that will force them to change their lifestyles. Even their proxy in parts of Palestine, the PA, has been imposing economic policies that saw the people migrate from their villages to the city. People were pushed out of sectors where they are productive to the services sector that chain them to the authority of the State and the Bank. Their connection to the land was targeted, intentionally or unintentionally.

This has been going on for so long. If anytime is a good time, this could also be the best time to start. We need to start working towards the liberation. As oppressed nations, the colors of our chains are the same. Our shackles have the same ring to the ear as we struggle through this life. And although within that same structure of oppression some of us are more privileged than others, it is the same fight. We either fight it together, or there is no point of the fight. The enemy is more organized than ever.

To emerge victorious from our struggle against the colonial and imperial powers, we need to start working with a purpose and a plan. We need to imagine the life post-colonialism, a real post not a neo. We need to imagine our lives beyond the neoliberalism that is holding us against the wall! We need to imagine. Without imagination we have no revolution. We share enough stories of life pre-colonialism. But a revolution cannot take you backward. It only takes you forward. Forward to a world that we collectively build. It’s a world that we need to imagine! We need to imagine every detail of it, not just a general idea of sociopolitical or socioeconomic principles. Most of the people need to know where they’re heading before they take the step. They need to see it. Imagination is the realistic tool of a revolution. Pragmatism is the sly tool of imperialism. It cannot be a revolution if it accepts the rules of engagement.

But we also cannot commit to a revolution before we adapt our lifestyles. Our lifestyles, generally, needs to be revolutionized. We need to build a system of resilience that will help us stand for long. We cannot be dependent on the system in every aspect of our life and seek to destroy it. That will eventually influence our decision at crucial stages. The people’s resilience is dependent on a parallel system of survival under which we operate. This is not a call to abandon technology although we have to seriously revise how we use the technology. We cannot lead a revolution on Facebook for example. It is a corporation that is not only complicit with the colonial but sees itself as part of it. It is not a matter of problematic policies that could be influenced. They do not hide it; they publicly declare their positions. Not the last of it signing a security agreement with the Zionist regime in 2016. They have put their products in the service of the colonial military regime, not only in Palestine, but also other parts of the world. There are thousands of digital tools that could replace Facebook products. If we cannot make that simple decision of using an alternative digital product, how can we achieve the revolution.

Changing our lifestyle is not a call to make our lives difficult. But we need to make sacrifices and work harder at points. But we need the alternative system of life. We need to think of the social and the economic. We need to think of the education and leisure. We have enough experiences in modern revolutions that could inspire us. It is another reason why I believe in the importance of the experiences of the indigenous struggle in the Americas. You guys never cease to inspire us when it comes to you social collective actions against the Authority. Of course, I understand that you might face many obstacles, but at least there are experiences on your side of the ocean that we could present a rough model that could be built on.

If we can imagine our world post the revolution and can find a parallel system that could provide an umbrella of resilience to the people, we have crossed a long way. But the theory is not enough. We discussed enough theories. And today there is an opportunity to act, before it’s too late. Yes, the righteous always triumphs. I do believe that, BUT only when they fight. A revolution is a practice not a theory.


November 27, 2019

Dear Maath,

I am writing from Albuquerque. I am sorry that I have been unable to write. This time of year is difficult. Is it not the down times that define revolutions and revolutionaries?

Last month my uncle died from a treatable infection after a hip surgery. He was unable to walk but was left without crutches or a wheelchair. I found him in his home days before he had passed. He would have died alone had I not found him.

I had an aunt who once died in the hallway of a hospital. The doctors didn’t believe the pain in her chest was real. She was alone.

The violence feels cold, slow, and isolating. It’s a low point in the movement for us here. The days are getting much shorter.

In the past, we measured our life spans in the winters we had survived. The wind on the plains where I am from pierces your soul — it is so cold. They say, if you make friends with the winter wind and count its breeze as a blessing, it won’t kill you.

We once prayed for strong enemies to harden our resolve and to make ourselves better warriors. But the wind is our friend. And what feels like a gentle breeze may be a prelude to a hurricane. Look at what is happening in Latin America.

I am encouraged by your insistence on building alternative systems in the here and now and not waiting for revolution.

In Caracas, Venezuela, an Afro-descendant leader named Maria told me the first step to liberation: “You have to kill the capitalist in your head.” With other women, she built a housing commune with gardens, a bakery, and clothing factory. They are working toward complete self-sufficiency, alongside thousands of other communes. Two Wayuu children sang us the Venezuelan national anthem in their Indigenous language to welcome us to their homelands. “This is a revolution. We’re not going back,” Jorge tells me. He’s a young Afro-descendant leader in the commune. “We’ll die before we give up our freedom.”

According to a recent report, 40,000 Venezuelans have died because of U.S. sanctions. Food shortages are real. Long lines of cars circle city blocks because there is a shortage of fuel in the country with the largest oil reserves in the world. And people are dying because there is a shortage of medicines. This is the cold violence they feel.

They are humble people who came from nothing. But they possess such immense power. But they had to fight for it, and they are still fighting for it. Perhaps it is these low moments that define revolutions. Make friends with the poverty and suffering without letting it define you; otherwise it will destroy you.

When we were in Palestine, it felt like a big Indian reservation. They told us it was a prison, so we believed them. It’s when we destroyed the reservations in our minds that they began to shoot at us and slander us as “hostiles,” “militants,” and “terrorists.” But these are not prisons or merely “occupied” territory. These are our homelands. We belong here.

Venezuela felt familiar. The Indigenous people we met looked like my aunts, uncles, and cousins. And they possessed the same welcoming warmth, the same crass humor. There were parts of Palestine there, too.

We saw the coup in Bolivia via social media. Wiphalas, Indigenous flags representing the Andean Earth Mother, were burned in the streets. Christian fascists and motorcycle gangs frothed at the mouth as they chased down our brothers and sisters in the streets. They, too, looked like my relatives back home. When we thought all was lost, the Indigenous unions and cocaleros streamed down from the mountain dressed in red ponchos flying Wiphalas. They felt like a natural force. You can’t stop the rain. You can’t stop the wind. You can’t stop power.

They didn’t march. They ran into a hail of bullets and teargas. Many were killed like dogs in the streets. But they haven’t relented. And Chile, Colombia, Haiti, Ecuador, and Palestine haven’t relented.

We’re not going back.

In these moments of terrible danger, the fear of dying alone is palpable. But all around us, we are more than just friends and comrades. We are not alone because we have relatives.

I look forward to meeting you on the land again amongst the olive groves. I described the beauty of Palestine to my aunt. The smell of the sea breeze, the distance to the ocean measured not in miles but in checkpoints. She began to cry at the thought of smelling an ocean but not being able to see it or to feel the sand beneath your toes. At that moment, she understood Palestine.

It may be a light breeze, a slight smell of freedom, for now. But forecasts point to an oncoming storm.


November 27, 2019

Dear Nick,

I am sorry about your loss. You are right! It’s the fear of dying alone, unnoticed, unrecognized; alone as persons and alone as peoples as well. The enemy, and “the neutrals,” does not care if we die; they only care when our death is loud. So we should make it as noisy as we can. And that’s why we need to come together to build our strategy and to echo our lives and deaths in the common struggle.

We follow the events in Latin America closely. Palestinians always felt a connection with the people of the continent. One of the lecture series in the Popular University, a grassroot initiative in Palestine, is on the history and struggles of Latin America. So it is ever present in consciousness.

From how you describe the fight in that part of the world, it seems that we all have a common vision for the tactics and strategies. There isn’t much words one can add. It is time for work. Your forecast is a prophecy, my friend.

May we meet soon in any land of struggle,



December 2,2019

Dear Nick,

The political atmosphere in Palestine, and the Levant region in general is more tense than ever. Everyone is forecasting an eruption of major events soon, and our biggest fear that we are not ready. And although our ultimate goal seems straightforward, in reality, we’re standing on shaky ground. Many find it difficult to imagine concepts like claiming back our land. How does that look like? How will it happen? etc.. Many questions pile up.

A friend told me the other day about his visit to the Kanaky. He spoke of actions the Kanak took to reclaim their lands from the French colonials since the 1980s. And this got me thinking that one of our shortcomings in Palestine is our ignorance about these specific actions by the Indigenous people in lands across the oceans. We, unfortunately, construct narratives about what we think those natives aspire for. Many even think that their struggle to reclaim the land, and often, they are brought up as an example of what we try to avoid. This is unfortunate. We do to the narrative of the others, what exactly is done to ours. It is essential to incorporate the perspective of the Natives of Turtle Island, and generally, in what colonials call “the new world,” to our knowledge about the struggles of the Natives. I’m not less ignorant about this issue. How does your people see the concept of reclaiming the land? I do realize when I use the phrase “your people” I might be unintentionally making a generalization about the Natives in your continent. This is unintended, but I fall short with words.


Estes & Musleh Funambulist (1)
Palestinian flag on the humātao land occupation in Aotearoa. / Photo by Nick Estes (2019).

December 3, 2019

Dear Maath,

The storm is blowing in. Land reclamation is tricky business. After all, it is “illegal” by definition.

I am reminded of how settlers here tell us to “Go back to the reservation!” or to “Go back to where you came from!” When we do go back to where we came from — the land itself — they charge us with trespassing. Some say we should revel in being “outlaws.” But I think of the tens of thousands of migrant children imprisoned in detention centers, or the thousands of migrants and refugees who die during the perilous journeys to safety. There is nothing romantic about illegality.

We are not against the law for the sake of being common “criminals.” Quite the opposite. We are against the current legal order precisely because we are creating a new law — or, more accurately, we are restoring an older legal order, an Indigenous legal order. Settlers destroy to replace. The same goes for the law. They criminalize us, the original people, to hide their own illegality. The destruction of settler colonialism is the proliferation of Indigenous life and governance.

The process of taking land back, therefore, happens to our own customs and our own ways. We can look to the example of Unis’tot’en Camp in unceded Wet’suwet’en Territories. What is currently British Columbia is trying to build an oil pipeline through their territory. The camp exists to restore relations and customary hunting and gathering rights, to protect the forest and rivers. While under constant police surveillance, Unis’tot’en Camp remains free Indigenous territory. My friend Anne brought us the blessing of fresh water from the river. They can still drink water directly from the river — it’s that clean and pure!

We recently visited the Ihumātao land occupation in Aotearoa, the Teo Reo (Māori) word for what settlers call New Zealand. The land defenders are attempting to reclaim Indigenous land from private real estate developers. It’s a radical demand and initiative, since most land restoration projects have only targeted state land. It’s deeply inspiring. And I share this picture of their land occupation, because, like all of us living under the boot of settler colonialism, we know we are not free until Palestine 
is free, from the river to the sea!