BEIRUT: With their flowing rivers, broad valleys and big skies, Native American reservations in the United States can seem a far cry from the packed, twisting alleyways of Palestinian refugee camps, such as Lebanon’s Burj al-Barajneh, yet filmmakers Matt Peterson and Malek Rasamny disagree. The pair have set out to connect the struggles of the living communities of Native Americans with that of Palestinians. “Politically there is an interesting conceptual thing communicating between them that we wanted to explore,” Peterson told The Daily Star. The Native and The Refugee is a project that combines archival material, short films and interviews that Peterson and Rasamny have been collecting since 2014. Over the last year they have visited a number of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and the West Bank, and numerous Native American reservations in the United States. The pair have been trying to understand the centrality of land for the two communities, both for people and for political organization. Today, the attention given to these places tends to focus on the poverty and the misery, ignoring the fact that they have often been places of activism and continue to be so, said the duo.
The birthplace of Palestine Liberation Organization and the catalyst of the 1987 and 2000 intifadas, Palestinian camps have been key to the Palestinian struggle for statehood and recognition, Rasamny said during a Tuesday presentation of the project at Lebanon’s American University of Beirut.
In a similar way, specific areas of land have been crucial for Native American communities in maintaining a communal and traditional system of life, governance, and connection to land. For this community this is a form of resistance to the pressures of assimilation.
In the short film, “We Love Being Lakota,” a Native American from the Pine Ridge Reservation says he “Personally always believed that the people over there [Palestinians] are called upon to stand up in the same manner, for the same reasons. It goes beyond solidarity in terms of how it’s used in the English language it’s more like a spiritual connection that our peoples have.”
During the introduction to the film, Rasamny and Peterson said that when they first went to Pine Ridge they heard from the people they interviewed that some of them or their relatives had gone to live in Palestinian camps in Lebanon during the civil war as part of the American Indian Movement.
However, analogies between the struggles of the native Americans and the Palestinians also spur lots of controversy. The filmmakers said that a big part of the project had not only been about showing that they were the same but also about understanding the differences.
Rasamny and Peterson have so far screened and presented their project in around 20 locations, many of which are places where the material was shot. Tuesday, Stephen Salaita, Edward W. Said Chair of American Studies at AUB, presented the project with the two filmmakers at the university. The different threads of the project are also being brought together in one feature length film that Rasamny and Peterson are still working on.
“We are artists, but we are politically engaged,” Peterson said. “We always wanted to make a project about Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon,” said Rasamny, who met Peterson a couple years ago in a film collective in New York. “I became interested in exploring the First Nations communities because although I am American I did not know much about it,” Peterson told The Daily Star. The pair then decided to look at the two issues together. “It was an exploration and it still is and exploration,” Peterson said.