Photo Courtesy of Dr. Robert Warrior

Meet Robert Warrior, a Prominent Native American Scholar & Activist

There is a great deal of recognition in the US right now of the importance of land acknowledgment for the Indigenous people, who are the rightful owners of the territories in North America. Many people are now emphasizing the next step as working for land return, returning more sovereignty to Native Americans

To gain more perspective on this, we reached out to Dr. Robert Warrior, a prominent Native American scholar-activist, to hear his thoughts on what directions people can take.

I was deeply inspired by what he had to say. His work stretches back decades, including a prominent emphasis on solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for justice, including involvement in early boycott efforts, visits to Palestine in the 1980s, and a long history of involvement in pro-Palestinian activism. 

Happily, he agreed to be interviewed and share some of his experience, strength, and hope with the Muslim Girl Army.

Muslim Girl: Thank you so much for agreeing to share your thoughts with us!  It is really an honor to be able to benefit from your experience and insights. Would you share your experience with settler colonialism in Palestine, and some of your history of involvement with the Palestinian struggle, including your visit to Palestine in the 80s?

Dr. Robert Warrior: Thank you for having me. In my early 20s, in 1985 and 1986, I worked as a volunteer archeologist for Israel’s Department of Antiquities and Museums (now the Israel Antiquities Authority).

Before the excavation, I worked on began the second summer, I stayed for a week in Ramla, a city southeast of Tel Aviv. Ramla is majority Jewish but has a significant Palestinian population. I spent most of that week with a group of Palestinian women and men close to my age.

That week was transformational for me, both in terms of personalizing my knowledge of Palestinian issues and my realization of the connections between my experience and history as an Osage and what was happening half a world away.

Muslim Girl: Based on your experiences in Palestine, you engaged in early efforts to boycott Israel and protest the occupation of Palestinian lands. Can you share a bit about what motivated you?

Dr. Robert Warrior: I will call my first boycott a very small and short one. That second year at our excavation on the north shore of Buḥayrat Ṭabarīyā, known also as the Sea of Galilee or Yam Kinneret, the government department running our dig arranged to have a South African film crew spend a day on our site filming us for a documentary they were producing promoting Israel as a tourist destination for South Africans.

One of the other volunteers from the US in our group was involved in anti-apartheid organizing at her university and figured out that we seemed to be expected to play a part in what seemed to be a quid pro quo in which both countries with their ongoing settler regimes would normalize each other. Six or so of us decided we didn’t want to play that role and staged a sickout the day the film crew showed up.

Years later, I realized that our act of refusal and solidarity was my first boycott in solidarity with Palestinians.

Muslim Girl: One of the things you mentioned that I was curious about was that you studied with Edward Said and took classes with him as a graduate student. What kind of things did you learn from him? How did he influence your thinking?

Dr. Robert Warrior: I earned my PhD at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, which is across the street from and affiliated with Columbia, where Edward Said was a professor. I took two classes with him, met with him in his office several times, and stopped to talk to him when I would see him on the streets of the Upper West Side.

He wasn’t on my dissertation committee, but he read it and wrote a letter for me when I was up for my first job. Before I had a class with him and got to know him a little bit, I had read and admired his work.

I learned a lot about Palestine and Arab nationalism in his courses, but what I learned most from his example was that it was possible to be a scholar and to be committed to fighting for justice.

I also came to realize, through his teaching and his work, that I was drawn to him because I was intellectually wired to be a critic — and that his definitions of what criticism and what critics do were the best available guides to get me started in defining my work.

Muslim Girl: Your involvement with the Palestinian struggle for justice has been so long-standing, and your insights on how to stay engaged over the long term with social justice work could really help a lot of our readers. What are some of your thoughts on this? 

Dr. Robert Warrior: I appreciate the question, but have to say that the people who live in the vortex of that struggle every day are the ones whose witness is truly remarkable, and I also hesitate to think of what I have done in connection to Palestine as being equivalent to the work of those at Palestine Legal and other organizations who work on these issues continuously.

I have done my best to stand up for Palestinians and against Israel’s brutal occupation, but have not had to wake up to it every morning in the way some people have.

Having said that, I think I have been fortunate to be part of communities of people who find joy and camaraderie in working for justice and building bridges between communities working on different issues. Knowing that this sort of work will bring you into contact with that sense of connection can be really important.

I also think it’s vital to steer clear of cynicism, which for me means I am looking to find ways to support people who are coming to these issues.

Muslim Girl: One of the major questions that people are asking right now in relationship to Indigenous rights is how we work for the land return. What kinds of actions do you suggest, I know you mentioned the importance of relationships and friendships? I thought it was super relevant given that a lot of Trump’s policies were actually driven by relationships. 

Dr. Robert Warrior: Land return is incredibly important to Indigenous struggles around the globe. At the same time, an inherent to those struggles is the specificity of them in each case. “Land back” has become a powerful response to land acknowledgments.

Those acknowledgments can play an important role in keeping people aware of the Indigenous history and persistence in the places we inhabit. The problem, of course, is that much too often land acknowledgments give people a sense that they have done more than they have.

Getting involved in land return, though, is usually very specific, complex, and often takes generations. I’ve had people tell me they want to work with Indigenous groups to re-establish a land base, but they haven’t talked to anyone yet about what those Indigenous people are working toward regarding their lands.

That’s one reason I stress the idea of relationships. Creating relationships of solidarity with people working for justice in local Indigenous communities can be difficult, but to me is very much worth it.

To me, relationship-building starts small by showing up when an Indigenous issue arises or striking up a conversation when an Indigenous person shows up at an event you are part of.

People in power rely on relationships — I told you previously about how Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner’s family had a long-standing personal relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that was a strong signal as to where Kushner would focus his efforts on Middle East policy.

In that case, as the New York Times reported in 2017, Netanyahu stayed with Kushner’s family when he visited New York and Jared would give up his bedroom to make room for this family friend.

Most of us can’t equal the money, power, or influence that the Trumps or Kushners have, but that doesn’t stop us from having relationships they help us create a powerful network of webs that multiply what we do have.

Muslim Girl:  One of the things that social justice work represents, as you mentioned, is the opportunity to take a moral stand in a world where morality is often lost and forgotten. Can you speak more about this and how being willing to stand up for what is right without standing down can be a motivation in itself regardless of the outcomes?

Dr. Robert Warrior: Outcomes are important, but for me cannot be what motivates me. Justice involves politics, but if being political is all it is, all we are doing is winning and losing.

Obviously, morality can be dangerous — I am thinking of the ways moral certainty has been used to justify positions we are fighting against. At the same time, having a strong sense that doing the right thing is what motivates me is incredibly important, and to me knowing what is right and wrong is about morality.

Muslim Girl: Thanks a lot, we appreciate you, and hope that we all can take your words to heart and work together for justice. May we all work together in solidarity across lines of nation and culture. We have more in common than we have different.

Here is a video Dr. Warrior shared with me as well, it is incredibly inspiring, and shows a beautiful relationship between an indigenous Australian woman and a Muslim woman. I hope you take the time to watch it!

Additionally, a famous article that Dr. Warrior wrote about the struggle of indigenous people in relation to the story of Exodus is called “Canaanites, Cowboys, and Indians: Deliverance, Conquest, and Liberation Theology Today.”

Sarah is a social worker in the San Francisco Bay Area with at-risk and homeless youth. She likes to paint, drum, sing, and spend quality time with her family and God.