The Strength of ‘The Native and the Refugee’

I find that more and more, my own philosophy of learning and exploration has to do with place. Humans are temporal beings, but we are also spatial. In my indigenous archaeologies class, we spent a week discussing Indigenous versus Western epistemologies. With the caveat that there is not necessarily a dichotomy between the two, we talked about how Western epistemology is tied up in time and chronology, whereas Native thought is tied to space (This is one of the reasons why repatriation of ancestral bones is confusing to Western archaeologists).

This perceived dichotomy between two different types of thought made me wonder what indigenous groups think about the refugee crisis. If Western governments are so tied to their idea of borders and ‘owned’ space, but Native groups are even more invested in spatial thought, then surely indigenous groups would be more wary of refugees entering their space? The issue here I think is the perception that indigenous people think they own places, which is incorrect. From what I understand (as a Western, non-Native scholar), there is a link to place, but not ownership over it, not even necessarily stewardship of it, as some Western belief systems hold. 

An interesting thought that was brought up in one of the articles was that ownership over land and resources inspires Western thought; capitalism and communism are both sides of one coin. Very simply, capitalism calls for individual ownership of resources, while communism calls for collective ownership. However, these both still presume that humans have ownership over resources, instead of being part of the resource pool. Native epistemology is this final choice; humans as both predator and prey, intimately tied to the landscape and place not as distinct entities, but as part of the environment.

How does this work into Native groups and their own land rights as well as refugee rights? We do have a historical narrative that states that Native groups in the United States were willing to welcome settlers, until the newcomers started violently murdering them and taking land. While their initial response to refugees or asylees may have been welcoming, Native groups have now been forced into giving up access to land and ‘claiming ownership’ over pieces of land in order to simply have continued access to them. They have been forced to define cultural objects and give over sacred knowledge in order to claim repatriation through NAGPRA. In a way, they have acceded to the Western mode of thought in order to gain the protections under it. But this does not mean that they are tied into the larger government’s way of thinking when it comes to land. In fact, there is a claim that Native peoples may have greater connections to other displaced or marginalized groups than they do to their ‘host’ governments.


I cannot presume to speak for how Native groups view the refugee crisis. As with any group, there are multiple viewpoints being expressed and different traditions that call for varied responses. I do, however, believe that there is a connection between Native groups in the United States and refugees. This connection is expressed in the documentary The Native and the Refugee, by Malek Rasamny and Matt Peterson. The main thrust of the film is that Native American reservations and Palestinian refugee camps have a link, as they are both places of invisibility, where outsiders rarely visit. They are also places that in most cases have been defined by outsider ‘authority’.

Although there are many Native American reservations that are on the tribe’s respective land holdings, there are also tribes that have to share reservations, and ones that don’t have land at all. Those that are on Native land are not even whole testaments to the tribe’s long-standing presence there. For instance; Woody Aguilar, a Native archaeologist from San Ildefonso, has spoken of the feeling he had as a child of looking over the fence into Los Alamos laboratory, where a Native ritual site was blocked off from use by his Pueblo. The places ‘returned’ to Native groups can be symbolic of some sovereignty of the Native groups, but also symbolic of their displacement, as borders cut through ancestral lands.

In Lebanon, the largest Palestinian refugee camp is Ain el-Helweh. Only Palestinian refugees or Lebanese citizens can enter it (apart from those brought in with the film by special permission). In the West Bank, the difference between the Aida refugee camp and the Har Gilo settlement is drastic, and is split by a giant wall. Enforced borders where there used to be free movement and use of resources is something that both Palestinians and Native Americans have in common.

Something that these filmmakers also pointed out was that the appearance of these places also represent their history. As with many refugee camps, those in Lebanon were not meant to be permanent. Now that they have been there for years, they have become overcrowded with people, while not expanding space. On reservations, a lot of the land is inherently not good for agriculture, or it has been overplanted so it’s not longer good. These forced conditions in both the camps and on the reservations show a lack of recognition and willful ignorance by external authority figures. But these groups are not silent and are not passive. Protests emerge from both, two different groups finding ways to create a new and thriving narrative.

This discussion opened up to the two communities studied the idea of the comparison; the similarities and connections between the two groups. The sharing of this information and the sharing of the experiences allowed the filmmakers to come in with something to give, instead of constantly taking as other groups have done to these communities in the past. Palestinians at least have received some hope from viewing the stories of their counterparts halfway around the globe. A slogan in the Palestinian movement states “existence is resistance”, and that seems to be the way Native groups view themselves as well. The myth of the ‘disappearing Indian’ has been dispelled time and time again, but many people still have that mindset, that Native Americans are far away and not relevant to contemporary dialogue, and perhaps have the same mindset about the Palestinians. The continued resilience of existing and making oneself heard is a powerful commonality between both groups and something that breaks down the barriers of invisibility.


Check out these clips from the full documentary:

And for further reading, look at this interview with the filmmakers:


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