‘Palestine must be free’: Mahtowin Munro on settler colonialism

Mahtowin Munro speaks at the 2023 National Day of Mourning. Photo: Rachel Jones

Talk by Mahtowin Munro, co-leader of United American Indians of New England (UAINE), at the National Day of Mourning in Plymouth, Massachusetts, on Nov. 21.

In addition to warm greetings to our Indigenous relatives from North and South America, we welcome Black and Palestinian people to the National Day of Mourning, as well as members of the 2SLGBTQ community. We welcome all people here from the Four Directions who want to be in solidarity with Indigenous struggles. 

As an organization long dedicated to opposing colonialism, we at UAINE understand fully that our liberation is intertwined with that of other colonized and oppressed peoples. We want to express our solidarity with refugees and migrants, many of them Indigenous, who continue to be forced out of their home countries due to U.S. policies, and we continue to insist that the deadly U.S.-Mexican border, with its walls and concertina wire, is not our border.

Looking out over Plymouth Harbor, it is so beautiful. It’s hard though not to think about the environmental destruction the Pilgrims and subsequent waves of settlers brought with them. 

For example, just down the road from here, there is a now-decommissioned nuclear power plant called Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station. 

Holtec — the company that owns the power plant — has been planning for a long time to dump more than a million gallons of radioactive wastewater into Cape Cod Bay, and there has been widespread opposition to that. Meanwhile, Holtec has been releasing some of that radioactive water into the air in the form of gas and they clearly plan to release more in that manner. Yet they are not stopped. 

Down the road a little further you’ll find the Massachusetts Coastal Pine Barrens — one of only three Pine Barrens left in the world. This incredibly rare and important ecosystem — which formed over thousands of years and which houses hundreds of species of animals and birds — is under threat from sand and gravel mining. Water is life, and we humans are part of that web of life, but settlers have largely forgotten this.

Climate justice?

We say today that the way to address climate change is to center Indigenous knowledge of our own territories, not the “green new deal” or the fake carbon proposals made by nations at places like the big climate conferences. 

“Sustainable” energy sources are rarely sustainable, as Indigenous people — who protect 80% of the world’s biodiversity — often bear the consequences. Throughout Indigenous territories, land and water are constantly being exploited without the consent of the traditional owners. My mind is drawn to the wind turbines off Martha’s Vineyard that were installed without the consent of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe.

The slogan landback is on everyone’s lips now, but that feeling has been there for centuries, hasn’t it? It’s time to dismantle the colonial structures that have stolen our lands and keep us in poverty. Tribes in Massachusetts — the Mashpee and Aquinnah Wampanoag, Nipmuc and other tribes — need landback to be able to bring their people back to their homelands.

There is no climate justice on stolen land! 

For instance, in Nevada, there is a sacred area called Thacker Pass, where a settler massacre of dozens of Paiute people took place in 1865. The pass is also the site of the largest known lithium deposit in the U.S. and one of the largest in the world. A massive mining project on the site by Lithium Americas was approved by both the Trump and Biden administrations and started construction earlier this year. 

For its proponents, the mine is an essential component for a U.S. shift to a greener future. But they ignore that the mine threatens irrevocable environmental and historical destruction to the area. 

We think today also of Kanaka Maoli people in Hawai’i, who continue to suffer from the hazards of colonialism. Often displaced on their own islands, the land is heavily militarized in many areas, the water in the Pearl Harbor area is polluted by the U.S. Navy, and the impacts of colonization led to the horrible fire on Maui a few months ago.

In so-called Canada, from coast to coast to coast, First Nations, Metis and Inuit communities are fighting against the effects of colonization — Mi’kmaq people are fighting for their fishing rights once again. Everywhere, First Nations are trying to stop destructive development. Drug deaths are hitting hard in all of our Indigenous communities.

In Guatemala, Peru, Mexico, Chile and elsewhere, Indigenous people are in resistance.

Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) continues to be a crisis throughout Indian Country. I think especially today of the situation in Winnipeg where a serial killer was known to have dumped bodies of murdered Indigenous women in a landfill, and people continue to demand that the landfill be searched for their bodies. The government has refused to do this. So we join them in calling for the landfill to be searched and say that Indigenous women are not trash!

Here in the so-called U.S., Native nations achieved a major victory when the Indian Child Welfare Act was upheld earlier this year. But ICWA needs to be strengthened! Our children are still being snatched and put into foster care, separating thousands of our youth from their land and culture. 

The theft of children has often been a core tenet of settler colonialism. I even see settlers online now talking about wanting to adopt Palestinian orphans. They should instead be demanding that the children of Palestine can grow up with their own families, free in their own homelands.

Supporters of Palestinian resistance

I want to turn to speaking about Palestine for a bit. Our organization has supported Palestinian resistance for decades and we pledge to never let our relatives down.

When you see a genocide happening — whether in Congo or Sudan or Armenia or Palestine — you need to try to do something about it. If you are silent, that is in effect supporting the genocide as well. That is a basic principle that many of us have taught to our children, yet too many people are still standing, afraid to speak up because of the repression right now.

We are honored to have a Palestinian speaker on our program today and I will explain why. From our perspective, Palestinian people are Indigenous. What has been happening to Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank since October is an increase in what has been an ongoing genocide directed against them by the settler colonial state of Israel. But the violence against Palestinians has never stopped in more than 75 years. 

For instance, 60% of the children of Gaza were malnourished before October because of the conditions of the occupation, and Israel controls not only Gaza’s water but also 80% of the water in the West Bank. What we are witnessing is a resurgence of the ongoing barbaric violence of settler colonialism there. 

Palestinians have been subject to being killed, imprisoned, assaulted and tortured, starved and denied access to water for years. Right now, a second Nakba or Catastrophe has been happening.

If you believe that landback is necessary here, then you need to understand that landback is also necessary for other colonized people of the land.

As Indigenous people, we understand firsthand that to be a colonized person is to exist under constant violence — physical, cultural and psychological. We call what is happening in Palestine genocide because that is what it is. You can’t take a pause in genocide, nor is this a war, nor are there two armies. 

We see the same features of manifest destiny and white supremacy that we have experienced weaponized against Palestinians. We speak plainly and say that this is also apartheid. Our organization opposed apartheid in South Africa decades ago and we oppose it in Palestine now.

Puritans and Zionists

The Pilgrims in Plymouth and the Puritans in Boston were obsessed with the idea that they were in a wilderness provided for them by their god, as though the land was empty and waiting for them. This idea is so embedded that even today, I hear from school children and adults alike that the Europeans brought civilization here, that Indigenous peoples were not actually doing anything with the land. The invaders rename the streets and villages and rivers. They actively erase the existence of people who live here and continue to live here.

This certainly sounds familiar to Palestinians. Zionists still speak about Palestine as a land without people for a people without a land — and even if the land was not empty, it was supposedly full of people who had no real connection to the place, didn’t know how to develop and exploit the land the way Europeans did, didn’t know how to make the desert bloom, and so they lack legitimacy. The propaganda insists that Indigenous people lose legitimacy because they are somehow not sufficiently there, or they are somehow insufficiently civilized.

When I look at Gaza, I see reflections of all of the Indigenous people killed in the waves of massacres here in North America, in Guatemala, in Congo, Haiti, Australia and Ireland, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Algeria — people around the world whose only crime has been to exist and resist settler colonialism.

And of course the United States, the unapologetic killer of millions of Indigenous, Black and other oppressed peoples, supports this.

If we the colonized suffer in silence, we are sometimes considered to be suitable objects of settler pity and charity. But we don’t want pity. We want freedom and the restoration of our homelands. We fight back because we must. We fight back by living, having children, loving each other, remembering our true history of who we were and still are. 

We fight back for our land because that is part of our bodies too. We fight back in any way we can because the alternative is to become extinct on our own homelands, which is the ultimate goal of settler colonialism. We know what it’s like to be considered animals and savages and to endure generations of ongoing genocide.

They try to dehumanize us, but we never lose our humanity. I think of the settlers who have often had no trouble killing even our children because they don’t see any of us as fully human, and they continue to tear our families apart so that our children will be separated from the land and the culture. 

Colonel Chivington from Colorado, who led the Sand Creek Massacre, said to “Kill em all, women and children, because nits make lice.” That is exactly the sentiment that we are hearing now from Netanyahu and many others in Israel as they justify the massacre of thousands of children and their families, as they now openly support the spread of infectious diseases to kill off even more Palestinians.

Resist dehumanization

As Indigenous peoples, we resist the violence and erasure of settler colonialism and the attempts to dehumanize until we can fully become ourselves through liberation. Like Indigenous people here, Palestinians themselves must decide what they want for their future and how they will resist. It is absolutely not for outsiders to decide that for them.

We also know there is greed underlying what is happening. Greed for the land, greed to control the water, greed for gas and oil and other resources.

We call out Genocide Joe Biden and nearly all politicians in the U.S., in Canada, in Britain and elsewhere who have been supporting genocide and providing billions of dollars in funding and weapons, filling their own pockets and the pockets of the manufacturers. We cannot appeal to the morality of our colonial oppressor. They have none.

But we are in relationship with each other and we are in relationship with the land. As Indigenous people, the land is part of our bodies, our stories, everything we are. The land, the rivers and seas and lakes of Palestine await the return of the Palestinian people.  

So today on U.S. Thanksgiving day, we say that we will not be thankful for these crimes against humanity laid bare for the whole world to see. We will not be thankful for the billions of dollars stolen from us, money that could be going to housing and education and food on tables that instead is flowing out in aid to the war criminal state of Israel. We will not be thankful for the ongoing destruction of our beautiful planet.

We feel the struggle of Palestinian people and of all Indigenous peoples in struggle in our hearts and bones.

Today, we are asking you to mourn and to listen. Tomorrow, we ask you to use your heartbreak and rage to fuel your action to make this end. 

A ceasefire is not enough. A ceasefire is the bare minimum. The Palestinian people need reparations to rebuild. Occupation and settlements must end. US aid to Israel must end. Palestine must be free!

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