Indigenous Status Matters: Here’s Why

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Zion Gate (circa 1898) The photo was captioned "Jerusalem" with no further detail.
Zion Gate (circa 1898), Jerusalem – From israeldailypicture.com

I have been asked several times why indigenous status matters. The question is highly complex but at the same time, it’s really simple. Look at the Middle East and you will see the difference between indigenous people and those descended from colonisers simply by one overlooked, yet obvious distinction. The willingness to openly fight for their ancestral lands against all odds.

Coloniser people follow the cultural imperative to acquire, they do not have strong ties to the land, why would they? They can always take more from someone else.

Indigenous people will fight. Now I know there are all sorts of excuses for why a people will not fight: “they don’t have enough weapons”; “ the other side is too powerful”; “nobody will help”; “ they might get wiped out”. But between you, me and the internet, none of those reasons matter to actual indigenous people. Actual indigenous people understand that without the land, we have nothing and our lives become worthless and meaningless. So we do not simply run away when confronted with someone trying to take our lands, we stand and we fight. Because any other decision would be unthinkable. Even when we lose a battle, we still fight on.

A coloniser feels no such tie, to a coloniser land is simply a possession, to be owned, and if something can be owned, it can be given up. Think about it this way: if you have taken something from someone else its only value is the value you as the taker, ascribe it. That value will never be higher than the value of your life because, after all, you can always get more possessions, you only have one life.

"Jerusalem Ziongate BW 4" by Berthold Werner - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons
“Jerusalem Zion Gate” by Berthold Werner – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

This is why you see certain culture/ethnicities with migration and immigration tendencies. If you have no cultural or spiritual ties to somewhere, then you will just look for a better place to live. The migrants in the Middle East are a case in point. Why would someone from Syria, whose family probably only got there a few generations ago at most, feel any more ties to Damascus than Milwaukee? His sacred sites, as an Arab Muslim, are in what is now Saudi Arabia: his language developed in Saudi Arabia. His family was in Damascus for a few generations, so his ties, other than nationalism, do not run deep. Nationalism is a recent creation, how deep can ties to a country only created as a nation in the middle part of the 20th century actually run?

Arabs moved around a lot after the Muslim conquests of the Levant. People forget that modern nations in the Middle East are a recent creation of European colonialism. The Ottoman empire was a creation of Muslim colonialism and had different borders and limitations. Indigenous nations are ancient. It was no big deal for a Muslim to move from what is now Yemen, to Persia, to the Levant. So ties to the land were superceded by ties to tribe and Islam. Indigenous nations were not that mobile, we stayed in our specific territories even during colonisation.

There are historic examples indigenous nations fighting against coloniser peoples

In Canada, the Metis uprising came after we declared a state of our own on our ancestral lands. The Canadian government then, basically, declared war on us. The Metis literally fought until we ran out of bullets, then we melted down every scrap of metal we had and we fought some more until we literally ran out of gunpowder. My family has a story about melting down family heirloom gold jewelry in order to have something to shoot at the Canadian military. We didn’t make grand pronouncements of resistance while running away or attacking civilians, we manned up and fought for our land against overwhelming odds. We lost, but we have never stopped fighting to regain what is ours, we just changed battlefields. Now we fight in the courts and in politics.

In the United States, the American Indians of many nations fought back. Despite being starved, lacking weapons and slowly being pushed north, they fought against an enemy that seemed limitless. While they have been herded onto reservations, they are still fighting back in the courts to regain at least some of their ancestral lands.

In the Middle Eastern context, the Yezidi and Kurds are fighting tooth and nail against ISIS, refusing to give up and fighting with little or no support. They refuse to concede their ancestral lands and even though they were losing at first, they have made great gains and basically stopped the creeping growth of the Islamic State. This despite countries like Turkey pretty much funding the military of ISIS and giving them weapons and ammunition. There are also indigenous peoples in Muslim countries who are regaining their heritage, retaking their languages, and even in some cases reviving their pre-Islamic religions. Because to be indigenous is to know and understand who you are.

A few years ago there was another group of indigenous people fighting to regain their ancestral lands. They had few weapons, they had no support and they were given no chance to win yet, despite those challenges, challenges that look to a modern observer as insurmountable obstacles, that nation not only defeated the entire Arab World, but did it with alacrity and elan.

They not only managed to win back the majority of their ancestral land, they held it and defended it 2 more times. That people knows what it’s like to be marginalised, oppressed and displaced, those people understand how important their sacred places and their ancestral lands really are. They understood that regaining self determination in their ancestral lands was a prize worth risking everything for and they had waited two thousand years for it. When they got the chance they not only went home, they rebuilt it.

They literally did what seemed impossible: they reclaimed salt marsh into arable land; they made the desert bloom; they replanted forests. They could have more easily forged a nation elsewhere, but they understood that an indigenous people needs to be on its ancestral land, even if they didn’t actually understand the terminology, they felt it. They went home. They could no more give up their ancestral lands than they could give up their lives because without one the other is meaningless. This is the central tenet of Zionism, the return to Zion. Going Home.

So when I, an indigenous Metis, am asked about the importance of indigenous status, it is simple: our ties to our ancestral lands give us the strength to carry on through great hardships, to survive what seems to be unsurvivable. It nourishes us when we are starving. It gives us strength when we are weak to know that we always have our homeland. It really is that simple.

This is why Indigenous people fight when our lands are threatened, because the land doesn’t really belong to us, again, things that belong to us are possessions and we can live without possessions. Indigenous people belong to the land, our ancestors blood fed the land and we are part of the land, without the land we know we are just itinerant travellers with no homes, and home is everything, Home is the reason we exist at all. That is why the fact that we are indigenous is important.

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A member of the indigenous Metis people, Ryan grew up in the far north of Alberta, Canada with no power nor running water. Ryan was unsure if his real name was "Go get water!" or "Go get wood!" In his free time, Ryan plays Canadian Rules Football , reads books, does advocacy work for indigenous people and does not live in an Igloo.

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