This is not always the case. In fact, most people will tell you that off the Football field (and the internet) I am a surprisingly congenial sort of fellow with a subtle sense of humor. I volunteer in my community and do charity work. I have worked with, and coached, kids and I get involved in activism of many sorts, especially indigenous rights. I have been told that I can quite quixotic, that I don’t know when to quit and that I am stubborn to a fault. Truth be told, these things have stood me in good stead. Not many Indian kids from the far North can say that they have seen as much of the world as I have. In fact, not many kids from anywhere can say that.
I have become well known in some circles because a couple of years ago, after an argument with a rabid antisemite on a Facebook forum, I wrote an article detailing the commonalities between Jews and Native North Americans. At the time, the popular discourse was that Palestinians were analogous to Natives and the Jews were the “White European settlers” who colonized them. When examined even at a cursory glance, this “narrative” has serious holes. Firstly, the Arabs conquered the Middle East in the 7th century and are indigenous to a very specific region in the Middle East called the Hejaz or the Arabian Peninsula, not the Levant. Palestinians who claim to be Arabs are therefore not indigenous to the region they claim.
This is important because indigenous status grants certain rights that longstanding presence does not, such as the inviolable right to live in peace without being marginalized or oppressed on one’s ancestral land. It also means that access to one’s sacred sites and rights to language and tradition should be respected as culture is central to this argument. Contrary to popular opinion, indigenous rights do not have a statute of limitations, nor can indigenous status be taken away either through displacement or through conquering indigenous people. It can only be given up. As long as one drop of indigenous blood runs in your veins, if you attempt to maintain your culture and traditions and your language, and you maintain your connection to your ancestral lands, then you are an indigenous person. There is even a checklist, written by Martinez Cobo, former rapporteur for indigenous rights for the UN, which details how to confirm a people is indigenous. It’s widely accepted as the most comprehensive test for indigenous status.
This is what I call a unicorn argument. It is simple truth, easily verified through history, archaeology, anthropology and genetics, and its so ridiculously simple that anyone can make it. It’s also morally and ethically correct, so it’s so incredibly rare in argument circles that it’s a unicorn. It’s also so obvious that it shouldn’t even be an argument, One does not need to agree with rain to realize that one’s head is getting soaked.
It may surprise some of you to find out that I am not in fact very well-educated by university standards. I attended the University of Alberta and played football for one year, at which point I went back home to Rez to go work in the oilfield and forestry. The reason I bring that up is because despite my lack of “classroom learning,” I am in fact very well-educated and somewhat intelligent despite my somewhat thuggish appearance. I am often amused when people meet me for the first time, as I am the epitome of the saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”I am almost 6 foot 4, weigh well over 300 pounds (I am not telling you how much over) and usually have a beard. I do not look like someone who can use words like “erudite” or “obfuscation.” I look like a guy who runs heavy machinery or works in the bush with chainsaws, which was something I did for much of my life. The thing about growing up up north and working up north is that you have a lot of time, time that I spent reading voraciously. I can converse fairly intelligently about numerous things, but mostly about the things that interest me, such as history, mythology, theology and conflict in general. Being self educated meant I would read things from several sources as I learned early on that many historians are untrustworthy and color the things they write with their own personal bias. So now you know a little bit about me.
I recently returned to the University of Alberta where I sat and listened to two of the most ridiculous “talks” I have ever had the misfortune to waste my time on. I honestly should have known how bad it would be, but usually I find that liars are subtle and say some truthful things and then slip in a lie here and there. But this guy just let the lies fly furiously and often.
The speaker was Steven Salaita, who was recently dehired from a university that hired him to teach “native american studies,” despite the fact that he has a degree in English and is no more qualified to teach Native American studies than I am (I think I am actually more qualified, and I will detail why later). Salaita was dehired after making some extremely antisemitic tweets. I have read his poorly-researched and even more poorly-written books – the only people who would find them worthwhile are the people looking to confirm their biases. With titles like “ Israel’s Dead Soul,” I am sure you can figure out who his readers are. People like Salaita rely on nobody calling him out. He knows his work will not stand up to any sort of academic scrutiny.
I will start with his first talk about freedom of speech and academics. I noticed several things about his talk, so I will go in order.
First, Salaita was supposed to be teaching “Native American Studies,” but with no degree and little knowledge, I don’t understand how he was supposed to teach it. His very first statement meant to get the Indians onside was thanking us for being on our lands, but he didn’t even do the basic research to find out which tribe’s ancestral lands he was on. He claimed Edmonton was Metis land, and it is not – it is Cree land actually. He claimed he was a displaced Palestinian, but his father is from Jordan and his mothers family is from Beit Jallah, which is in a Palestinian Authority controlled area, so it’s not like he cannot go back and live on his “ancestral lands.” He then went into a diatribe about the decline of universities. He claimed that his hiring was blocked by ‘a handful of donors,” and went on to equate universities with corporations and named Chris Kennedy as the one man who blocked his hiring. He then said that university boards are corporate and unqualified to work in academics, ironic given his own lack of qualifications to teach the history of my people. Salaita then spoke about schools abandoning poor students, complained about contingent faculty, and said this is to prevent free speech and that tenure profs are next. His point wasn’t that faculty members should be allowed to engage in critiques without penalty, at which point he said something I found odd and somewhat verbose: “We are recapitulating standard narratives of power.” This does not even sound like English to me, just words to sound intelligent, or obfuscation through grandiose verbalization. Later, he would talk about how Israelis have a flawed “moral calculus.” I think he meant compass but since he doesn’t have one
Now he brought out the big guns. He claimed that African Americans and Jews were attacked by McCarthyism, and said that his own firing was reminiscent of McCarthyism because modern McCarthyism is anti islamic. This is pure hyperbole; in fact there are many Muslim politicians in both America and Canada. He then went on to compare his situation with Jews in the Ivy League in the 1930’s, when they were held in quotas. It was really remarkable to hear someone who posted such gems as “I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing” and “Zionists transforming ‘anti semitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948” conflating his situation with Jews undergoing actual persecution. To excuse his tweets (which he never actually quoted in his entire talk), he said that Israel conducted an indiscriminate bombing campaign for 51 days and displaced 400 thousand people. All of those claims are ridiculous and in fact easily disproven. For instance if a major military power was to indiscriminately “carpet bomb” a densely populated urban environment for 51 days the casualty count would be far higher than two thousand, and the number of civilian casualties to militants would be approximately 10-1. But we know from the stats that this is not the case, and by looking at other asymmetrical conflicts we can extrapolate casualty numbers from indiscriminate targeting of urban populations.
At his second talk, I sat quietly while he told several lies, one of which was that “I never raises my voice. I have a 2-year old son and sometimes he makes me cry because I can’t yell at him. I’m just not a confrontational person.” He made a confusing statement about pro-Israelis having poor “moral calculus,” after which he claimed that Ben Gurion justified the treatment of American Indians and compared Zionism to manifest destiny, completely ignoring that manifest destiny is based on a religious imperative to conquer “unsettled land”and Zionism is based on an indigenous people’s return to their ancestral land (which is why Israel is not in Uganda). It was when he said that Jews invented terrorism and were the first terrorists that I loudly asked him “What about Hevron in 1929. What happened there? How many Jews were killed?” He glared at me and asked “Are you Ryan Bellerose?” I responded “Yes but you didn’t answer my question,” at which point he raised his voice and said “Ryan Bellerose is a Zionist operative who is paid by StandWithUs to disrupt events.” Now don’t get me wrong, I love StandWithUs, and they are an excellent organisation, but I have never worked for them. They took me on my first trip and I will be forever grateful, and their founder Roz Rothstein is a hero of mine, but I do not work for them, neither as an operative nor as an agent provocateur. I do this on my own.
So I laughed and said “Steven, you perpetuate false narratives, what makes Palestinians an indigenous people? It’s the Jews who are indigenous to the Levant.” That’s when he tried to play to the crowd yelling and isolate me “You see, this is what THEY do, THEY deny me my history and my identity.” I said very loudly “Your history is false and your identity is stolen. You delegitimize indigenous struggles with your claims.” Several people in the crowd then booed me, with one native girl telling me I didn’t know what I was talking about.
The organizer (a professor at the U of A) walked over and asked me to be quiet. I said I would wait for the question period but if Steven continued to lie I would call him out. This mollified her and she walked away, but that’s when Steven started lying again. I could tell because his lips were moving.
He referred again to “indigenous Palestinians” so I again said loudly “What qualifies you to grant indigenous status to Arabs in the Levant when you are colonizers, not indigenous.” He then yelled that I was wrong, so I responded “Anyone can Google ‘Arab conquest in the Seventh Century’.” His response was to yell “This is what they do, they attack us,” as though he was the Indian and I was the colonizer. I simply responded “Steven, I thought you said you never raise your voice?” Some people behind me started laughing. The organiser then asked me to leave, and I replied I was no longer willing to sit through so much BS and packed up my stuff and left. As I was leaving, several people were filming me on their phones so I said “Arab conquest, Seventh Century, Google it for yourselves.”
At this point I left. To be honest, after listening to so much garbage, my bullshit tolerance was way overloaded. This guy is a ridiculous hypocrite who at one point said “I told my friends not to boycott Illinois because BOYCOTTS NEVER SOLVE ANYTHING AND YOU SHOULD NEVER BOYCOTT ACADEMICS.” (just as an FYI, Salaita came to my attention during his support of the NAISA endorsement of BDS).
He writes if you support Israel, you are a terrible person, and then claims he is not antisemitic. I think he is a poor writer, an even worse public speaker who lacks knowledge on the subject he wants to teach, yet somehow has written books (I use the term loosely). He is also being paid to speak about a subject that he lacks basic knowledge in. He was dehired because a university felt he was too ridiculous to have on staff, and in a world where guys like Ward Churchill have teaching jobs, that is saying something.
Ryan-1 Steve -0