Editor’s note: Sujata Tibrewala’s painting “Bloody Immigrant” depicts Native American Deb Haaland kneeling over Trump, drawing a parallel to the police killing of George Floyd last summer. Haaland, who was nominated by President Biden to be his interior secretary, will become the first Native American cabinet secretary if confirmed.
Tibrewala, an eco-feminist and artist who has exhibited work at various venues in India and the United States, says the historic nomination of Haaland, a former U.S. Representative from New Mexico, provides us with an opportunity to highlight the systemic racism Native Americans have been facing over the centuries.
In the following piece, Tibrewala, a California resident, explains why she drew the painting.
By Sujata Tibrewala
The position of blacks in America is bad but at least they are in popular consciousness, however the Native Americans and their issues are not even part of the dialogue.
Back in 1637, there was a massacre in which Pilgrims killed Native Americans and stole their land. And so goes the story of Thanksgiving, where the Native Americans taught the Pilgrims how to live in the winter, ploughing the land and growing food, and Pilgrims then thanking their host. A plague perishing all Native Americans is a whitewashed story – a story where they insist that there are no rightful owners of the land that was usurped, so they don’t have to pay back for sins or atone to anyone.
In reality, the Pilgrims stole the Native American land, raped and killed them as a manner of “giving thanks”. This killing symbolically continues today by the mainstream America pretending that they don’t exist. For example, Donald Trump said that Sen. Elizabeth Warren was not Native American since her blood is mixed with white blood. This is an age-old technique colonialism has used to make their victims disappear.
When I think about their story, I really feel pity for them because they don’t get to tell their side of the story and have to continue living with their oppressors. Although in India, British did equally bad, at least they left and then we rewrote our history, teaching children about our freedom fighters and soldiers. Whereas in America, the opposite happened: the Native Americans are portrayed as savages, uncivilized tribes who don’t even exist today.
It must be noted that I am not calling them Indians, because they were never Indians. I am an Indian from South Asia, not a Native American. It is like Columbus came here, discovered Native Americans thinking they were Indians, and instead of correcting their mistake, now insist on continuing to call them Indians hundreds of years later.
These were some of the thoughts that were running in my mind when I painted this work. So, this painting is a tribute to 5 million Native Americans who live in the United States today. A majority of them are living on reservation land as forced by the famous “trail of tears” displacement, perpetrated by state where thousands died in transit or after reaching their destinations due to diseases. This happened between 1830 and 1850, because the US government wanted to acquire the land east of Mississippi. And this continues to this day. Native American land is where most polluting industries are likely to be located and they are in danger of being acquired to lay pipelines for fossil fuel industry or being dug for mining.
There is a savior complex within the white population and yet within their own backyards, the indigenous people are always struggling to keep their land. Deb Halaand, one of the first two Native Americans to enter U.S. Congress and first from New Mexico, has a history of fighting for tribal sovereignty and advocating for natural resources. She was nominated by Joe Biden for interior secretary to serve in the new administration.
Hence it is just fitting that she gets to do the honors in my painting to be squashing out Trump, an immigrant-hating president who has no place in American democracy. The imagery used is based on actual footage of George Floyd’s killing while he was crying for help “I can’t breathe,” which has become an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement. I used this image to comment that though the position of blacks in America is bad, at least they are in popular consciousness, however the Native Americans and their issues are not even part of the dialogue.
(Sujata Tibrewala is an eco feminist, artist and engineer, based in San Jose, California. She has exhibited her works at various prestigious venues in the United States and India. More of her work can be seen on www.Pratibimba.info.)
Read more from Sujata Tibrewala:
How COVID-19 is creating a new world order (March 29, 2020 )
What do I have to do with Black Lives Matter? (June 20, 2020)