From birch bark books to Palestine: what to remember from Louise Erdrich’s sentence


Rasha Ghabayen explains to a group of students the history of Native American literature. (Photo: Yousef Aljamal, Palestine Chronicle)

By Benay Blend

In recent years, several articles and books have focused on the connections between Native American and Palestinian activists / scholars. See, for example, “Internationalism: Decolonizing Native America and Palestine” by Steven Salaita (2016), “Holy Land in Transit: Colonialism and the Quest for Canaan” (2006), and Marion Kawas, “Solidarity Between Palestinians and Indigenous Activists Has Keep Roots ”(2020).

Louise Erdrich does not make these connections in her most recent novel “The Sentence” (2021), but nonetheless recalls several commonalities as well as the differences between the Palestinian solidarity movement and various forms of indigenous activism. Additionally, Erdrich highlights those moments in 2021 that called for alliances between various social justice movements, including climate change and the murder of unarmed black men by local police, especially George Floyd, he therefore makes sense to seek lessons regarding solidarity with Palestine. movement that could be taken from the book.

Erdrich’s novel revolves around a fictional bookstore from his own Birch bark books, located in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Quoting his webpage, Erdrich’s Shop “is operated by a vibrant collection of people who believe in the power of good writing, the beauty of handmade art, the strength of Indigenous culture and the importance of small intimate bookstores “.

Her description gives an overview of the book, focusing as she does on the booksellers that run the store. At the center is Tookie, a Chippewa woman, while incarcerated, who learned the transformative power of written words.

Oral history, too, told by Tookie’s husband, Pollux, in story form, plays just as important a role as the written word in this novel. It concerns in particular the many layers of the local landscape which have been repeatedly colonized by generations of invaders.

For Palestinians, too, literature plays an important role. In “We exist: why the Palestinian voice should take center stage”, journalist / activist Ramzy Baroud Explain why it is important to “recover the narrative” that opposes Israeli propaganda. “Indeed, for Palestine to be free,” he concludes, “for the Palestinian people to fully exercise their rights and for the right of return of Palestinian refugees to be honored, the history of Palestine must be told by the Palestinians themselves.

In “A Map of Absence: An Anthology of Palestine Writing on the Nakba” (2019), Atef Alshaer presents a body of poetry which, by its very presence, challenges Israel’s claim that Palestinians do not exist. In poems such as “Resist My People, Resist Them” by Dareen Tatour (pp. 224-226), there is a clear message that Palestinians will never be wiped from their land.

The booksellers in Erdrich’s fictional store, like his real one, have various reasons for devoting themselves to a profession that pays very little, sometimes requires long hours, but makes up for all this by allowing the staff to surround themselves on a daily basis. of what they like, books that tell their story in different ways. Erdrich is also attentive to the loyal customers who come to buy the books, and their many reasons, most of them well-meaning, for doing so.

All except Flora, who is what Tookie calls a “Budding Indian” (p. 36), to be exact, a person who claims questionable Aboriginal heritage in order to appropriate her customs. Indeed, she is one of Tookie’s “most annoying customers” (p. 32), especially since she passed away on Day of the Dead, 2019, after which she returns to haunt the store. “A stalker of all things Indigenous,” Flora is a person “proud to have identified with an outsider and wants the affirmation of a true Indigenous person” (p. 36) that she deserves the praise she receives. are due.

Palestinians are also subject to cultural appropriation by Israelis who claim parts of their culture as theirs. As Ben White observed, “Israel’s obsession with hummus is more than stealing their food.” Their land, their homes, their cuisine, their process of naming streets, towns and monuments, all of this and more was up for grabs.

“This is the context of the so-called” hummus wars ” Explain White, this is “not about petty claims and counterclaims, but rather a story of colonial and cultural appropriation and resistance to these attempts.” In this way, Israeli ownership of what is rightfully Palestinian cuisine links the former to the landscape while erasing the latter from the scene.

What distinguishes the former from the latter, however, is that, unlike the “Indian aspirants” in the United States, the Israelis have no desire to claim Palestinian heritage. In fact, quite the opposite, they are terrified that the Palestinians will become the majority population, so they have gone to great lengths to erase them by any means possible: ethnic cleansing, revising the historical facts that allow them to pretend that Palestine never existed, and laws that give Palestinians very few rights, if at all.

Nonetheless, what Palestinians and Native Americans have in common are “white saviors”, not so distant from the aspirants, who attempt to dictate the strategies that the exploited groups must employ. As Midwestern librarian, writer and activist Annie Windholz writes, “white savorism” occurs when people from the mainstream try to save other oppressed from their plight, usually without first listening to what they want. have to say. For example, Windholz uses the Dakota Access Pipeline events, in which Indigenous activists spoke for themselves instead of letting other groups speak for them, but these other groups, mostly environmental organizations that don’t have a good history of listening to people of color, are are rushed to claim solidarity in order to obtain credit for themselves.

“We are also seeing this on a larger scale outside of America,” writing Windholz, where those who are helped are rarely consulted about their needs. Indeed, like Ramzy Baroud observed, in “the debate on violence”, the “nonviolence movement”, made up of liberals, progressive and progressive media, some Palestinians for whom the term is useful and others – all speak of their own systems of beliefs and experiences, in the process, they ignore Palestinian voices and overlook the facts that are on the ground.

Like the late black / pan-African activist Kwame Ture / Stokely Carmichael observed: “For non-violence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States does not. This statement also explains the fact that Native Americans, in Tookie’s words, are “the most condemned people currently in prison” (32). Her own sentence amounted to 60 years, lessened thanks to the diligence of her lawyer as well as of her future husband.

It was in prison that Tookie discovered the power of literature, an experience shared with Palestinian prisoners, who are often held without charge for long periods of time. The motive for the excessive imprisonment in both cases is to break the spirit of indigenous and Palestinian resistance, an effort that has always been in vain.

In the preface by Ramzy Baroud These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons (2020), Khalida Jarrar explains that “prison is about comrades, sisters and brothers who, over time, become closer to you than to your own family. It is the common agony, pain, sadness and, despite everything, also sometimes joy ”(p. XVII).

Jarrar understands, like Tookie, the ways in which the prison can serve as an educational base for its inmates who are trapped inside. As Tookie devours the books a former professor sends him to prison, Jarrar writing in a letter smuggled out of prison, to be read at Palestinian writing festival in 2020, that “books are the foundation of life in prison”. The challenge she says, for herself and her fellow inmates, is how to “turn our detention into a state of ‘cultural revolution’ through reading, education and literary discussions. ” She keeps :

“Although we are physically held captive behind fences and bars,” writes Jarrar, our souls remain free and soar into the skies of Palestine and the world. Attesting to the community of imprisoned women which is also linked to the global liberation struggles, she adds that “we work to establish and consolidate human values ​​and we strive for the social and economic liberation which unites the free peoples of the world. . “

The characters in Louise Erdrich’s novel share with Khalida Jarrar not only the recognition of the transformative power of the written word, but also the way literature crosses borders in such a way as to unite people in a common anti-colonial struggle.

– Benay Blend received his PhD in American Studies from the University of New Mexico. His academic works include Douglas Vakoch and Sam Mickey, Eds. (2017), “” Neither homeland nor exile are words “:” Knowledge located “in the works of Palestinian and Native American writers”. She contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle.


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