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A powwow for Palestine

Nika Bartoo-Smith
Underscore News + ICT

Over the past few weeks, students at university campuses across Turtle Island have set up encampments and staged protests in support of Palestine and calling for divestment from companies with ties to Israel. At the end of April, Portland State University students and community members camped out in the Branford P. Millar library, demanding the university end financial relationships with companies that have ties to Israel, including Boeing and Intel.

Classes at PSU were canceled for nearly a week. On May 2, the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) arrested 30 protesters for trespassing and illegally entering the building, according to a PPB announcement. Students returned to class on May 3, but the library remains closed. It is expected to reopen in the fall, with need for repairs. 

During a protest on the steps of the Branford P. Millar library at PSU, hundreds gathered calling on the university to divest from companies with ties to Israel, such as Boeing and Intel. (Photo by Nika Bartoo-Smith Underscore News/ICT)

Students and community members gathered on campus again for the Powwow for Palestine on May 4. The powwow was organized by Native community members after the PSU chapter of the United Indigenous Students in Higher Education (UISHE) decided to reschedule the 51st annual Naimuma Powwow because the university wanted a police presence to monitor the powwow after the occupation of the Millar library, according to PSU alum and UISHE alumni advisor Tashina “Bear” Cunningham, Hunkpapa Lakota and Siletz.

The group did not feel comfortable having a police presence at the powwow and thus made the decision to reschedule the 51st annual Naimuma Powwow to May 25. UISHE was not officially involved with the organization of the “Powwow for Palestine.”

Protests on PSU campus

Joining student protests across the country, PSU students and members from the broader community came together demanding that the university pull funding from companies with ties to Israel and called to free Palestine. Standing in front of a blocked off library on April 29, with protest signs covering the main steps, speakers talked about the genocide in Gaza and the need for action here in the United States and from universities across the country.

At around 5:30 p.m., a relative hush fell over the crowd as a man with a red keffiyeh covering his face stepped up to the microphone and sang a Islamic call to prayer. Kneeling on a blue tarp covering the muddy grass, Muslim community members took turns praying as a group. Over two dozen members of the crowd linked arms and created a wall of privacy for those praying.

“It felt like I was safe, it felt like my brothers and sisters next to me were safe,” said Colleta Macy, citizen of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, who recently converted to Islam in support of those in Palestine and has been at the front lines of many local and national protests. “Having all the protesters around us linking arms, it felt like it was okay to do this in public. There was no Islamophobia, no racism, and everybody linked arms without even being asked.”

Dozens of signs covered the blocked off Branford P. Millar library at PSU on April 29 while student and community protestors called for a free Palestine and demanded that the university pull all funding with ties to Israel. (Photo by Nika Bartoo-Smith Underscore News/ICT)

For many, like Cunningham, Palestinian solidarity is crucial because of the haunting similarities to the struggles of Indigenous people in this country.

“As resilient and as strong we may be, as rich as our culture is, we know how hard it is to fight that — the continued oppression, the generational trauma,” Cunningham told Underscore News/ICT. “I think because we are living their future right now, is why we are so tied up in this.”

Cunningham also pointed to a statement that she believes “said it best” released by the PSU Native American Student and Community Center.

“As Indigenous peoples of this land, we recognize the deep parallels between our struggles for justice and the plight of Palestinian people,” the statement said. “We know all too well the pain of having our lands stolen, our rights denied and our voices silenced.”

Colleta Macy, citizen of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation, and other members of the “Indigenous Resistance” offered a hand drum song in solidarity with Palestine. (Photo by Nika Bartoo-Smith Underscore News/ICT)

Powwow for Palestine

This feeling of community solidarity and protection could also be felt at the May 4 “Powwow for Palestine.” Despite the rain, nearly 200 community members gathered at the South Park blocks of the PSU campus in downtown Portland for the powwow, the smell of sweetgrass filling the air.

Among the dancers was Macy who drove over 100 miles from Warm Springs to attend the powwow. She danced in a black jingle dress adorned with red jingle cones, a red fist in the air embroidered on the back and a black hijab. In her hands while she danced, Macy held an eagle feather fan and a keffiyeh, which she raised into the air with the downbeats of the drum.

Colleta Macy, citizen of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation, recently converted to Islam in support of those in Palestine. She has been on the frontlines of many protests, both locally and nationally. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News/Report for America)

This powwow landed during the same weekend as Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives day, which started in 2017 to honor missing and murdered Indigenous relatives and raise awareness about the epidemic. According to a 2018 study by the Urban Indian Health Institute, murder is the third leading cause of death for Indigenous women aged 10 to 24.

Community members brought attention to how this epidemic and the events in Palestine are interrelated. Keffiyehs, beaded watermelon earrings, white masks with red handprints and red ribbon skirts were sprinkled throughout the crowd.

One of the dancers, from the Blackfeet Nation, who wishes to remain anonymous, wanted to show up to dance for those who couldn’t while wearing their red cloth dress. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News/Report for America)

“We are still seeing our relatives going missing at disproportionate rates,” Cunningham said. “That goes hand in hand with the violence we’re seeing in Palestine and the fact that they are targeting women and children. That’s still happening here, it’s the exact same thing. It’s just a different point in the process of colonization.”

As the rain poured down from the dreary sky above, community members at the powwow stood for hours underneath four canopies watching dancers and listening to people speak about missing and murdered loved ones and the need for solidarity with Palestine. During group dances, the center of the circle became a blur of red and a sea of keffiyehs.

“I just want people to know that this was such a big group of people that came together for this,” Cunningham said. “We pulled it together and community showed up and showed out.”

Tracy Molina, Nahua, was raised on the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indians Reservation. During the event on May 4 she took to the mic to talk about a Siletz tribal member who has been missing for years. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News/Report for America)

Indigenous solidarity

Standing in the crowd watching dancers during the Powwow for Palestine, Ameyalli Mañon-Ferguson reflected on the connections between the displacement and attempted genocide of Indigenous people across the Americas and the current events in Palestine.

“For a lot of Native people here, the bulk of that violence was experienced by our ancestors,” Mañon-Ferguson, Mazahua, Nahua and Osage, told Underscore News/ICT. “For us, it strikes a chord because it’s something that we already went through, and it’s something they’re currently going through.”

As a cultural ecologist, she also drew the connection between the destruction of first foods, both historic and current. Across Turtle Island, dams went up cutting off access to salmon, bison were slaughtered to near extinction and Native Nations were forced onto reservations away from where they traditionally lived, thus cutting off access to traditional foods that had been harvested since time immemorial.

In Palestine, similar destruction of foods is taking place as olive trees that have been cared for for centuries, orange trees, lemon trees and others are being cut down by Israeli forces across Palestine. Olives are an essential crop for many Palestinian families and are seen by some as a symbol of Palestinians’ long-standing connection to the land. The destruction of olive trees has led to an increase in food insecurity and land degradation because of the loss of the native vegetation. At least 800,000 olive trees have been uprooted since 1967, according to a study by the Palestinian Authority and the Applied Research Institute Jerusalem.

As students across the country call for an end to the genocide in Gaza, many Native students are central to the action.

“We have a generational responsibility to both our ancestors, for those who have survived the genocides that have occurred and continue to occur here, but we also have a responsibility to our younger generations, and our future generations,” Polimana Joshevama, Hopi, research and evaluation lead for the Future Generations Collaborative told Underscore News/ICT.

Joshevama came to support PSU students during the Powwow for Palestine. She wore a white mask with a red handprint.

Polimana Joshevana, Hopi, research and evaluation lead for the Future Generations Collaborative, attended the Powwow for Palestine on May 4, showing her support for students while wearing beaded red dress earrings and a white mask with a red handprint. The red dress signifies the thousands of people impacted by violence and the red handprint symbolizes the silenced voices of missing and murdered Indigenous relatives. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News/Report for America)

“We know that students have always been on the right side of history, and civil rights movements,” she said. “That’s nothing new.”

Being there reminded her of her time serving as a medic for three months in the winter during the Standing Rock protests calling for an end to the Dakota Access Pipeline. She says that a lot of the tactics used on protesters there are similar to what she is seeing being used on the ground today at university protests across the country.

“I think the struggle in Palestine is the same struggle that we have here,” Joshevama said. “When it’s the same oppressor, the same colonizer, what else are we supposed to do but band together and push back against it as much as we can.”

This story is co-published by and ICT, a news partnership that covers Indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest. Funding is provided in part by Meyer Memorial Trust.

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