Palestine and the Project of Native Studies

On Friday, November 10th, the recently formed NYU Faculty for Justice in Palestine held a teach-in on campus on the theme of Palestine and the University. I share my remarks from that evening here.

My name is Lou Cornum. I am a professor of Native American and Indigenous Studies and I am a member of the Navajo Nation. It is my mother’s family that is Navajo. I did not grow up on the reservation nor did my mom as she was taken from her family after the death of her mother and adopted to a white family in California, a family interested more in the salvation of lost souls than the care of Native children. My mother did, however, return to her homeland and when I go to visit her now I see the peaks of one of our four sacred mountains. In large part because of this family background, I refer to myself as a diasporic Diné. Diné is the Navajo word for Navajo people–it in fact means “the people” in our language Diné Bizaad. The Spanish and then the United States have tried to erase the language, the memory and claims to land encoded in it. But they never succeeded completely and they never will. Navajo people have survived and for many of us that survival is a promise, a promise of righteous resistance to the domination of the United States and its partners in empire.

I begin this way to give you a sense of where I’m coming from. I speak as a Navajo person who has been systematically distanced from my indigeneity even long before I was born. But nonetheless I speak as a Navajo person. I want to talk with you briefly this evening about what Palestine means to me and to the project of Native Studies, a project that always exceeds the university.

The first time I ever read a Palestinian author, Edward Said, was in a Native Studies course. I was a sophomore in college and so my introduction to Palestinian scholarship was a part of my introduction to the entire field of Native American and Indigenous Studies. I was brought to these connections by a fierce, brilliant Mohawk woman, an Indigenous professor who taught me many things but foremost that Native Studies was formed in the service of struggle for land and for life and to lose sight of these struggles is to abandon what makes our knowledge meaningful.

I have many reasons to stand with Palestine, some are deeply personal but it is also an ethical, political, and intellectual position. I was taught through Native Studies that we cannot separate these commitments so neatly, as our university would like us to do, pushing us to professionalize rather than develop our analyses more fully to understand and intervene in the present we recognize so well from that past.

I am proud to say that The Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, the largest international scholarly organization dedicated to Indigenous Studies, has been an advocate for Palestinian self-determination since its inception. In 2013, NAISA became a public supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. Last year, NAISA reiterated this position in a statement on Palestinian Education Autonomy and Academic Freedom in the wake of a policy granting the Israeli military tremendous oversight over the operating of Palestinian universities.  There are currently multiple statements of solidarity with Palestine demanding a ceasefire and an end to Israeli occupation circulating, with hundreds of signatories from Native American and Indigenous scholars, researchers, writers, and artists.

I mention these things to cite a precedent for public support of Palestine and the BDS movement from those within Native Studies. I want it to be known that we can and we must make our positions public and that we are not alone. These are longstanding political positions formed with serious consideration. I also want to make it known for those who feel compelled to support Native sovereignty here in the United States and North America to see that the people they support in turn support the Palestinian cause against occupation.

Since I was a college student in the 2000s, public and scholarly conversations about Native and Indigenous peoples has shifted and dramatically expanded. I see one objective of my work as a teacher to harness that structure of feeling and the analysis it is built on and direct it toward the present. Like the land acknowledgements they have to be pressured relentlessly to adapt, the university would like to keep this in the abstract. But the pressure Native Studies puts upon institutions of learning and knowledge production is that our work is about the concrete existence of Native peoples, who constitute a material alternative to the sovereignty of the United States, a power that can only sustain itself through earth-shattering acts of violence.

I have indicated it already but it is worth asking directly: What is the basis for our identification with Palestine and Palestinian people despite our many differences?

Here I could speak again from the place of loss. I could speak of the matter of genocide, an unmistakable fact that Native Americans like Palestinians have had to defend our right to invoke. I could make these arguments with numbers, detailing the shared methods not to mention coffers by which war is waged indiscriminately against an entire population labeled as enemy combatants.

I could tell you about the 1862 Sioux Uprising or the bloody battles in 1876-1877 over the still-contested Black Hills. When I hear the name Gaza Strip, I think of the strips of land Native people have been forced onto on this continent and how much we have fought even for those.

Or I could tell you about Canyon de Chelly. When I hear that Gaza is under siege, I think of Canyon de Chelly. In 1864, Kit Carson was dispatched by the military to clear the land of present-day Northern Arizona, to rid it entirely of Navajo presence. Canyon De Chelly, the sacred site of Diné emergence, was our people’s last holdout after bitter drawn out warfare. Carson and his men pursued a scorch earth policy throughout the war. Even after the Navajo had surrendered and left the canyon, two different army captains were sent on missions to destroy the peach tree groves cultivated by the Navajos. What was first a tactic of forced starvation became a mission to destroy all evidence of our relationship to that place.

During this time, thousands of Navajos were marched from their homeland hundreds of miles away to Bosque Redondo near Fort Sumner. It was an internment camp, an experiment in making the first Indian reservation in the Western territories. Let it be known that despite the catastrophe of the Long Walk, as this exile is named, the Navajo did not die out and they did not stay in this camp. We made our way back to Diné Bikeyah, the Diné word for Navajo territory. The Navajo now constitute the largest tribal population in the United States. It is still very much an open question about what we will do with our survival in service of liberation but let this memory of our survival too be a promise, a promise of the right to return.

The Laguna Pueblo author Leslie Marmon Silko says, the Indian Wars never ended in America. I could tell how those wars laid the groundwork for the torture and extrajudicial killing of Arab and Muslim peoples by the United States military during the endless War on Terror. I could tell you about the 2003 “Torture Memos” from the United States Department of Justice that draw in part on the precedent of the permitted killing of Modoc people in California to justify the torture of Afghans. Or how the discourse of terrorism and the ridiculous claims to self-defense by powerful states backed by immense amounts of capital have been wielded in the past to clear the land for settlement.

I can only briefly gesture to these points here and hope you take note of these histories. There are many lessons to learn across the similarities and differences of the Native American and Palestinian causes as they relate to the role the United States plays in the world, including the government’s support of Israel.

In the little time I have left though I want us to turn toward myths in need of destruction. Not just the myth that Natives are a lamentable but necessary sacrifice for the progression of democracy. But the more foundational myth that not much is lost in that. Do not let anyone tell you that Palestine is what the frontier settlers once said of our territory, that it is a land wasted by the population, inhabited but not rightfully owned by the backward and the savage. This is a great and pernicious lie told to prevent people from fighting for Palestinians and to keep us from truly grieving when Palestinian lives are lost, their homelands destroyed. Palestine, like Navajo territory or Diné Bikeyah in our language, is a place of beautiful and varied spiritual, intellectual, and artistic traditions. These traditions are inextricable from a political claim to territory and self-determination.

I begin every session of my Intro to Native Studies course with a song. I do this so that students see the multitudinous forms of Indigenous expression and understand the persistence of Indigenous peoples, and indeed so they can celebrate it.

So too we must celebrate Palestine and the Palestinian people. It is not just because I recognize the brutal fact of genocide, dispossession, and exile that I stand with Palestine, why Native Studies scholars of principle affirm Palestinian freedom. We do so because Palestine is the beating heart of colonized peoples everywhere.

We cannot wait for the day, that may never come, when some governing bodies apologize for the atrocities of erasing entire families and generations from the surface of the earth. We cannot wait for the historical tides to come and condemn Israel for their actions. It is not only by history they will be judged but by the overwhelming consensus of the global majority in support of the Palestinian people, their right to life and, importantly, to land.

Lastly, I want to speak from another position. As a gay dyke who came into my queerness and learned of the tradition of gay liberation in those same years I began my studies in critical Indigenous thought, from that position as well I voice my solidarity with all Palestinian people. And I would like to end not with my words but with an excerpt from a recent call by Queers in Palestine. They write:

We refuse the instrumentalization of our queerness, our bodies, and the violence we face as queer people to demonize and dehumanize our communities, especially in service of imperial and genocidal acts. We refuse that Palestinian sexuality and Palestinian attitudes towards diverse sexualities become parameters for assigning humanity to any colonized society. We deserve life because we are human, with the multitude of our imperfections, and not because of our proximity to colonial modes of liberal humanity. We refuse colonial and imperialist tactics that seek to alienate us from our society and alienate our society from us, on the basis of our queerness. We are fighting interconnected systems of oppression, including patriarchy and capitalism, and our dreams of autonomy, community, and liberation are inherently tied to our desire for self-determination.

It continues a bit further on:

We call on queer and feminist activists and groups around the world to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people in their resistance to displacement, land theft, and ethnic cleansing and their struggle for the liberation of their lands and futures from Zionist settler-colonialism. This call cannot be answered only by sharing statements and signing letters but by an active engagement with decolonial and liberatory struggles in Palestine and around the globe. 

I encourage you all to read the full call and demands at

Lou Cornum

Lou Cornum is an assistant professor of Native American studies in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis at NYU. Their writing on Indigenous art, politics, and critique can be found in Art in America, Frieze, The New Inquiry, Triple Canopy and elsewhere. Recent scholarly publications include "Seizing the Alterity of Futures: Toward a Philosophy of History across Afrofuturism and Indigenous Futurism" in the History of the Present Journal. They are an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation.