Oglala Lakota traveler sees ‘deep parallels’ in Palestine
By Gale Courey Toensing
Story Updated: Feb 5, 2010
CAIRO, Egypt – An activist who traveled to Egypt on Christmas Day to participate in the Gaza Freedom March took along a case of Tanka Bars, hoping to distribute them to undernourished children in Gaza living under the Israeli government’s continuing siege.
But another repressive regime – the Egyptian government – blocked Mark Tilsen, a 26-year-old Oglala Lakota-Jewish man from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, and 1,400 other international activists from entering the tiny Palestinian territory on the Mediterranean Sea.
“I still want to go to Palestine. I still want to go to Gaza. I still feel for the people of Palestine and their cause, and I still want to bring Tanka Bars to the hungry kids in Gaza who can use some protein,” Tilsen said from Cairo Jan. 4. He is the assistant director of marketing for Native American Natural Foods, which produces the bars.
Tilsen and the other activists traveled to Egypt from 45 countries over Christmas week to mark the one-year anniversary of the Israeli bombardment and invasion of the Gaza Strip. The Israeli military killed more than 1,400 Palestinians including more than 300 children during the siege, while 13 Israelis were killed, including three soldiers killed by Israeli “friendly fire.”
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The United Nations Human Rights Council appointed Richard Goldstone, former judge of the Constitutional Court of South Africa and former prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, to conduct an investigation of the Israeli offensive.
The Goldstone Report, released last September, found strong evidence of Israeli war crimes and crimes against humanity committed and called for holding Israel accountable before a court of international law. Conditions in Gaza one year after the invasion are still grim.
That report and the media attention it generated moved the terms of international solidarity with Palestine to a new level and gave impetus to solidarity events such as the Gaza Freedom March.
The march was to be Tilsen’s second trip to Palestine in a year. Last summer, he and Jewish family members from his father’s side, travelled to the West Bank with Birthright Unplugged, a nonprofit organization that takes delegations to the occupied West Bank.
“There’s an Israeli group called Birthright that takes Jews from across the world and shows them the most beautiful parts of Israel and what it means to be Jewish, and basically teaches them to fall in love with Israel, and it pays for their trips,” Tilsen said. “They feed you their indoctrination, but what we wanted was the other side – we wanted to see things from the Palestinian perspective.”
Tilsen’s 82-year-old grandfather, two aunts, two uncles and two cousins traveled around the West Bank for three weeks staying with Palestinian families, including a visit to Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem.
The visit was an eye – and heart – opener, Tilsen said.
“I’ve always been very interested in the Palestinian struggle and now I can actually see a lot more of the deep parallels between reservation life and refugee camp life.”
Oddly, at Dheisheh, Tilsen ran into a cousin who was with a delegation of Native youth.
“It was totally surreal. It was, like, we need to have this conversation at Wounded Knee; we didn’t need to travel all the way here.”
During a discussion about Palestine, a Palestinian youth at Dheisheh brought up the subject of colonization.
“I said the Lakota have been in this colonization game for more than 100 years longer than Palestinians, and we talked about the warning signs: Watch out when your leaders become co-opted by people who are your enemies, watch out when your religion becomes outlawed, take notice when your language is disappearing, and when your children are being educated by your enemies and taught to hate themselves – that’s one of the last stages of colonization,” Tilsen said.
He had an intellectual understanding of colonization before traveling to Palestine, “but it wasn’t deep. It was while I was there that I really understood emotionally and in my heart the deep parallels between the American Indian experience of Western expansion and the experience of becoming an alien in your own homeland, which basically has happened to the Palestinians.”
But he unintentionally provoked a controversy among the Native students during the discussion.
“I said to the Palestinian youth, ‘I think Palestinians are better off because your spirit is not conquered.’ That really upset a lot of the Native people. I think Lakota and Natives in general don’t like to admit we lost the wars. We lost militarily. We were defeated, and for many years we were a broken people and now in the past few generations, the strengths and embers that were preserved are starting to come back to life.”
The Palestinians were surprised by his remarks.
“They wanted to know what I meant. I told them about the poverty, the high unemployment, the alcoholism and the incredible number of suicides. Some of our people have given up the fight of what it means to be Lakota, what it means to be free, and I said I don’t see that here in Palestine.”
Tilsen traveled to Egypt last month with his uncle, David Tilsen. They spent almost two weeks there, and while only 80 of the 1,400 Gaza Freedom Marchers were ultimately allowed to enter Gaza after days of demonstrations, protests, and sometimes violent encounters with Egypt’s security forces, the trip was well worthwhile, Tilsen said.
“Oglala means ‘those who scatter their own.’ We send our people all across the world. To the people of Gaza, we say we tried to get to you, we did what we could, but we’re sorry it was not good enough. But this is as much a war of awareness as it is a war, and the more people that are aware of what’s going on in Palestine, the better chance there is to resolve the conflict.”
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