Skip to main content

Decolonizing Native America and Palestine: New Book by Steven Salaita

Steven Salaita explores the ways that Palestinians and Zionists both claim to be "like the American Indians."

Steven Salaita's new book, Inter/Nationalism: Decolonizing Native America and Palestine, explores possibilities for shared academic research about Indigenous Peoples against a background of activism in global decolonization efforts. He writes in an academic tone, but repeatedly focuses on intersections between academics and actions.

Steven Salaita engages multiple layers of history, theory, and politics. The very title of the book raises complex challenges: He posits "inter/nationalism" as a mode of thinking about relations among self-determining peoples, differentiating it from "internationalism" as the name for a unified global order arranged by the dominant (and dominating) states.

The Standing Rock water protectors provide a good example of Salaita's concept of "inter/nationalism": "action and dialogue across borders, both natural and geopolitical…[among] heterogeneous communities…attached to particular land bases." Standing Rock did not stand alone, but was joined across natural and geopolitical borders "in…contestation to the Western state." To the extent the "Western state" represents the global "international order," Standing Rock represents Indigenous Peoples worldwide.

Salaita's subtitle links Palestine and Native America, implying not only that Israeli Zionism constitutes colonialism, but tying Zionism to American colonialism and positioning Palestinians and Native Americans as subjected to a single (though complex) colonial phenomenon.


Steven Salaita's book may be characterized as a "radical" approach to contemporary world politics; but we must be clear what we mean by the word. Some people use "radical" as an epithet, meaning "extremist"; but the word actually means "going to the root" or "foundation." Salaita's book goes to the historical and political roots of international colonialism and explores the foundations of inter/national decolonization.

The quickest way to see the roots of international colonialism—including Native American and Palestinian—starts with understanding the slogan, "A land without a people for a people without a land." This slogan, used in the 19th – 20th century Zionist movement to establish the state of Israel, means the same thing as the doctrine of Christian Discovery—terra nullius—"no one's land"—originating in 15th century papal bulls authorizing Christian colonization and domination of "heathens and pagans" in the "New World."

Thus, Johnson v. McIntosh (1823)—repeated in Tee-Hit-Ton v. U.S. (1954) and cited hundreds of times—declared the American federal government to be the owner of all the lands of Indigenous Peoples across the continent—on the quasi-legal religious basis that they were non-Christians.

The Israeli state shares the messianic, Biblical origin story from which the papal bulls were issued: a "chosen people" destined to carry out a "divine mandate" to occupy lands where others were already living. Those "others" do not count; they have not been "chosen" by God. In fact, as the Bible stories show, the "others" are targeted for "removal" and domination.

If I may take a detour here, we will see how the fundamental ("root") Bible story sets up the foundation for ongoing wars of domination among the three branches of the Family of Abraham—Christians, Muslims, and Jews—as each of them tries to claim God's "covenant" to "inherit the Earth" (a colonial project).

Scroll to Continue

Read More

God's covenant with Abraham offers an explicitly colonial mandate and promise: "The Lord had said to Abram, 'Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. … At that time the Canaanites were in the land. The Lord appeared to Abram and said, 'To your offspring I will give this land" [Genesis 12, 15 (NIV)].

The covenant "to give the land" informs a multi-pronged history of mission, crusade, settlement, colony, and jihad, as Abraham's "offspring" fight each other to claim the fruits of the covenant. Belief in a divine mandate to "inherit the earth" remains today a major obstacle to peace in the world.

Salaita explores the ways that Palestinians and Zionists both claim to be "like the American Indians." Steven Salaita, while disputing the Zionist claim, points out that each party thus acknowledges the "moral authority" of American Indians through their dispossession and domination by America.

Steven Salaita takes pains to insist that American domination of Indigenous Peoples constitutes an ongoing, present process, similar to the present conflicts in Palestine. The two colonialisms are both "past" and present. This view echoes a line in William Faulkner's 1951 novel, Requiem for a Nun: "The past is never dead. It’s not even past."

Through a kind of mirroring process, Biblical dispossession of the Canaanites provides the paradigm for American dispossession of Indigenous Peoples, and that dispossession in turn provides the paradigm for understanding Israel in Palestine today.

The "past" of American colonialism exists in present-day doctrines of federal Indian law, enforced by courts, carried out by agencies, and sometimes—oddly enough, when you think about it—endorsed by Indians.

The U.S. doctrines of "trust" and "plenary power" are rooted in Christian domination, yet they are applied as if they were somehow part of a "government-to-government" relationship. The Israeli state's "occupation" of Palestinian lands and overall militarization of the region dispenses with any notion of "trust," but relies heavily on an application of "plenary power."

Salaita's book weaves stories of on-the-ground activism, but primarily explores ways in which Palestine becomes an academic subject for Native American Studies and Native American Studies becomes important for the study of Palestine. He demonstrates the extent to which academic departments and disciplines carry "political agendas," not necessarily as overt programs, but—more insidiously—as paradigms for the management of research and writing.

As Salaita recounts, the operation of academic institutions and professional associations reveals underlying—and sometimes overt—perspectives that try to bind "rationality" and "objective research" to "neoliberal" views that devalue and demean Indigenous Peoples, in favor of global capital and a nation-state world order.

Ultimately, Steven Salaita positions "Inter/Nationalism" as a challenge to the narrowness of academic boundaries, specifically with regard to the boundaries that try to keep the study of Palestine separate from the study of Native Americans. He cites for this project not only the work of academics, but also the writings of poets—an unusual partnership that allows Salaita to say that the decolonizing project becomes "most profound at a level of discourse and ideology"—how people think, talk, and imagine.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was Staff attorney in Dinébe’iiná Náhiiłna be Agha’diit’ahii Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on Indigenous issues.