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Am I Indigenous?

Leonardo DiCaprio's Golden Globe shout-out to native peoples implied support for the Palestinian narrative

My heart sank a little this morning when I heard Leonardo DiCaprio dedicate his Golden Globe award to Indigenous people. “I want to share this award with all the First Nations people represented in this film [“The Revenant”] and all the Indigenous communities around the world,” DiCaprio said. “To the Indigenous peoples of the world: it is time we recognize your history and we protect your Indigenous lands from corporate interests and people who are out there to exploit them.”

DiCaprio has had intimate knowledge of Israelis (see Bar Refaeli); and he name-checked “The Revenant’s” Israeli backer, billionaire Arnon Milchan, in his acceptance speech. But his use of the red-flag term “Indigenous” will be heard by many as support of the Palestinian cause and negation of the rights of Jews to live and thrive in Israel. He had me wondering whether he or anyone at the awards ceremony could possibly believe that I am Indigenous.

You see, the Indigenous appellation has become central to the Palestinian narrative and the equation of Palestinian rights with Native American rights has become so ubiquitous that Palestinians in an anti-Israeli protest in Nablus actually dressed as Native Americans.

A letter signed by the Students for Justice in Palestine, called upon University of Maryland President Dr. Wallace Loh to support the academic boycott against Israel. The letter cited the university’s Native American and Indigenous Studies Associations’ alleged declaration of support for the Palestinian call for the boycott. It read, “In the words of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association: ’We strongly protest the illegal occupation of Palestinian lands and the legal structures of the Israeli state that systematically discriminate against Palestinians and other Indigenous peoples’.”

Some Native Americans have taken exception to this comparison of their struggle with that of the Palestinians. Ryan Bellerose, a self-proclaimed Zionist and member of the Métis nation in Canada, wrote in the Metropolitain, “The Palestinians are not like us. Their fight is not our fight. We natives believe in bringing about change peacefully and we refuse to be affiliated with anyone who engages in violence targeting civilians. I cannot remain silent and allow the Palestinians to gain credibility at our expense by claiming commonality with us. I cannot stand by while they trivialize our plight by tying it to theirs… Our population of over 65 million was violently reduced to a mere 10 million, a slaughter unprecedented in human history. To compare that in whatever way to the Palestinians’ story is deeply offensive to me.”

But let’s face it: “indigenous” has become so cool, that it took me this many paragraphs to drop its PC upper-case “I.” Palestinian has also become cool. And Israeli has become uncool. Now the uber-cool Leonardo DiCaprio may have wittingly or unwittingly lent his good seal of awesome indigenous cool to the Palestinians.

It will come as no surprise to many readers that I vote left, believe in territorial compromise with the Palestinians, and am willing to entertain any path to a just and lasting peace agreement.

But it may come as a shock that I too consider myself “indigenous.” If, as Merriam-Webster defines it, indigenous means “produced, growing, living, or occurring naturally in a particular region or environment” — there is no question that I was produced here, grew here, and live here. My existence in my beloved country feels as natural to me as the beating of my own heart, my children’s, and (Bi’ezrat Hashem) my future grandchildren’s.

Prevailing academic wisdom based on abundant archaeological evidence maintains that the Israelites, who eventually evolved into modern Jews and Samaritans, were an outgrowth of the indigenous Canaanites who had resided in this area since the 8th millennium BCE. Seems to me we’ve been here long enough to call ourselves “indigenous.”

Palestinians also claim to be descended from the aforementioned Canaanites. They may be right and genetic indicators, like Factor XI deficiency (which I have), suggest that many of them are indeed related to us and that we all hail from the Middle East. If so, we are family and thus have all the more reason to try to get along.

I, for one, can’t wait to get my potluck assignment for the great family reunion picnic of the indigenous peoples of Israel-Palestine. But before you put me down for Pie in the Sky in July, let me ask Mr. DiCaprio a question: At a time when global collaboration, free borders, and welcoming non-indigenous refugees means saving millions of lives and the world — do you really want us to limit our benevolence to those who are indigenous? Do you really want us to waste our time, effort, and resources on identifying who is indigenous and who is not?

In any case, Mr. DiCaprio, I would like to congratulate you on your undoubtedly well-deserved award and thank you for sharing this award with my indigenous community, for recognizing my history and for protecting my indigenous land from corporate interests and people who exploit it. I can’t wait to see “The Revenant.”

About the Author
Varda Spiegel was Nurse-Director of the Bedouin Mobile Unit of the Negev, later serving as Maternal-Child Health Director for the Ministry of Health Jerusalem District. I am the author of Hershele and the Chicken Skates, was the English Web Content Manager for the Israel Museum and have translated from Hebrew to English for Haaretz and the ANU Museum of the Jewish People. I'm a grandmother, mother, and beachbum.