Content warning: genocide, violence, war.
The Water Warrior Society, a group of Indigenous activists, has helped organize over 100 actions since 2016, including attempting to disrupt what they call a genocide happening in Palestine.
In 2016, Coast Salish and Indigenous activists from across Native country came together to fight the Puget Sound Energy liquefied natural gas facility. They believed the facility would endanger Puyallup citizens, their treaty-protected homelands and waters and surrounding communities in what is now known as Tacoma, Washington.
The activists began to gather regularly, sharing meals and discussing ways to push for change. In November, they made national news when they launched a traditional Nisqually canoe into Medicine Creek treaty waters of the Port of Tacoma to block a U.S. military cargo ship, MV Cape Orlando, believed to be loaded with weapons headed for the occupying state of Israel.
A Suquamish relative living in the Bay area, where protesters delayed the MV Cape Orlando for over nine hours, reached out to the Water Warriors when the ship headed north, bound for the Port of Tacoma.
“We got some information from her saying, ‘The ship is coming down your way. Are there any Indigenous people out there that can be supportive? It's coming to your waters,’” said Patricia Gonzalez, Puyallup Tribe citizen and Water Warrior Society council member.
The Water Warriors showed up and helped to delay the military ship until around 4:30 p.m. on Nov. 6. The action speaks to a larger mission: solidarity among Native peoples against settler colonialism.
Water Warrior Society
When the group came together in 2016, they prayed for many things, according to Gonzalez. One was to be able to take the canoes out onto the water and defend their waters in a way that would feed their ancestors with good medicine.
“Creator was just like, ‘Here, this is what you prayed for, and this is where you need to be,’” Gonzalez said. “The only thing that we wanted was to bring something to the movement, and if all we can bring with [us] are our prayers, and our people, and our ways of the water, that's what we were going to do.”
Around 2 p.m. on Nov. 6, Water Warriors set out in a traditional Nisqually canoe named sq́ʷaliʔabš’ or “People of the river and people of the grass.” They rowed to within 300 yards of the MV Cape Orlando military cargo ship in prayer before a U.S. Coast Guard boat with a large assault rifle attached to the bow blocked their way. Coast Guard officials asked the Water Warriors if they had any weapons and said if they continued to canoe, they could be fined $10,000, their canoe could be seized and they could face up to 10 years in prison.
“The only weapons we had on the water were our spirits, our prayers, our songs and our dedication,” said 22-year-old Rosalie Fish, of the Cowlitz, Yakama and Muckleshoot nations.
That's when the skipper, another Water Warrior who asked not to be named for this story, let Coast Guard officials know they were on treaty waters. Gonzalez believes these are important conversations to have on their ancestral waters. Uniformed Coast Guard personnel told the Water Warriors they were only there to enforce boundaries and didn't have any part in arming Israel.
“That's when my spirit kind of pushed me to just open my mouth and tell them, “‘You're enforcing genocide. That's what you're doing here,’” Gonzalez said.
“I did tell him we will be out here and we will be praying for everybody's warrior spirit because I know that your heart and your mind is not clear,” Gonzalez said. “And I pray that your warrior spirit will be fueled and it will help you clear your heart and your mind so that you guys can make the right choices.”
Gonzalez said that to see Coast Guard personnel get emotional after sharing what she did was validation from Creator to keep praying.
As they launched their canoe, port workers were standing on ships waving, and peeking out to get a glimpse. Normal interactions with the port are not always so friendly, according to Gonzalez.
“It could have been a lot more confrontational, but it wasn't,” Gonzalez said. “It was almost as if everybody could feel the presence of our ancestors on the water. We could feel we were not alone out there. We had all of our ancestors that we prayed for. We asked them to show up. We asked them to protect our new allies, the organizers that were on the ground, and the ones that were helping us on land with our water action. I believe they felt that too.”
Fish called on non-Native folks or people specifically in privileged identities to use their platform and stand alongside Indigenous peoples who are calling for a ceasefire. Patricia Allen, or Chookenshaa, which means Glacier Bear Woman in Tlingit, is also a part of the Water Warrior Society. She acknowledged that speaking up might be a little intimidating for both Native and non-Native people if they are not informed, but she believes that this is a beautiful opportunity to start new relationships and build a greater understanding so that people aren’t misled by the narrative that if you believe in a free Palestine, you're antisemitic.
“It's just so important to understand what Zionism means,” Allen said. “You can still be in solidarity with Jewish people and make it a priority to really strive for their healing … while also still being in solidarity with Palestinians.”
Unity for freedom for all
Solidarity with Jewish people and creating unity amongst all oppressed peoples is central to the movement for a free Palestine. This ethos can be seen in the alliances between major organizing groups like the Seattle chapter of Jews for Peace, who describe themselves as “Seattle Jews organizing towards Palestinian liberation and Judaisim beyond Zionism.” It’s also true for the Falastiniyat, a collective of Palestinian feminists in Seattle “organizing at the intersection of gender justice and anti-colonialism.”
“Our Jewish movement for justice in Palestine stands firm as an anti-oppressive movement, which unequivocally includes opposing all acts of antisemitism,” a recent Jews for Peace Seattle Instagram post reads. “We also want to explicitly name that anti-zionism is not antisemitism… Jewish Voice for Peace fights antisemitism within and as part of broader struggles against oppression and for collective liberation. Jews – along with Black people, Indigenous people, immigrants, Muslims, trans and queer people and others – are among the targets of growing far-right violence in the U.S. and around the world. We know that our safety is bound together with the safety of all people, and none of us are free until all of us are free.”
That solidarity was on display last month when the cargo ship MV Cape Orlando was delayed because of collective efforts by the Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC), International League of Peoples Seattle-Tacoma, Samidoun Seattle and the Tacoma chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, organized in solidarity with the Water Warrior Society, along with the many everyday citizens who showed up.
Every week since, these groups have continued to organize together, with protests and other actions calling for a ceasefire, an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestine, land back and the safe return of Palestinians who want to return to their homelands, and terminating U.S. aid to Israel.
The Israeli government and Hamas agreed to a temporary ceasefire that began on Nov. 24. Conditions included an exchange of Palestinian and Israeli hostages. After seven days, the Israeli military claimed Hamas leadership did not uphold the agreement to release all the women requested. Hamas says it repeatedly made offers to release hostages. It claims Israel rejected these offers.
The Israeli military claims it attacks only military targets, but an investigation by Amnesty International found widespread evidence of indiscriminate and relentless bombing of civilian areas — often with no evidence of nearby fighters or other military targets.
Over 1,000 people have been killed since the ceasefire ended. Over 16,000 Palestinian people have been killed in Gaza since Oct. 7. Nearly half of those deaths are children. An estimated 1,200 Israeli people have died since Oct. 7, including military personnel.
The Gaza strip is tiny and densely populated: 2.1 million people in an area roughly the size of the city of Las Vegas. People living there tried to flee the bombing in response to an Oct. 13 command from the Israeli military, telling them to move south for safety. Despite its warning, Israel continues to bomb the south.
In a Nov. 2 interview with Al Jazeera, the former director of the New York office of the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights, Craig Mokhiber, called the Israeli military’s actions “textbook genocide.”
“The intent by Israeli leaders has been so explicitly stated and publicly stated – by the prime minister, by the president, by senior cabinet ministers, by military leaders – that is an easy case to make,” Mokhiber said. “It’s on the public record.”
After more than three decades at the United Nations, Mokhiber resigned on Oct. 28, citing the UN’s failure to stop the genocide in Palestine and naming genocides against the Tutsis, Bosnian Muslims, the Yazidi, and the Rohingya in which the UN failed to prevent mass atrocities.
Gonzalez pointed out that many nations currently dealing with the violence of settler colonialism are also experiencing genocide, such as the colonized Democratic Republic of the Congo. The violent displacement of Native people for land and resources and the genocide of Native peoples when they fight for their land continues to be repeated.
“Who's to say they're not going to come back for us?” she asked.
It’s this understanding of the refusal to truly learn from the violence of the past and the lack of protection and concern for Native peoples that makes global solidarity against genocide and settler colonial violence all the more important, according to Gonzalez.
Solidarity against genocide
Many of those same ancestors Gonzalez believes showed up to protect and support the Water Warriors experienced a genocide in their own time, perpetrated by the U.S government and European settlers.
“Genocide is something that we know closely and we are still affected by every day of our lives,” Gonzalez said. “We watch our family members die, we watch our kids be displaced, we watch nations lose their sense of belonging, and their culture, and their teachings and language. We can relate and our heart goes out to them, our strength, our prayers.”
Gonzalez likened the mass murders of Palestinian children to the mass, largely unmarked graves of the Indigenous children murdered during the boarding school era. She says it brought up a pain that still hasn’t healed generations later. The Water Warriors organized a vigil to honor and draw parallels between the child victims discarded in mass graves across the U.S. and Canada and the children of Gaza on Dec 1.
“It is almost as if we are reliving a trauma,” Gonzalez said. “We have always been told about our history and talk about what happened to our ancestors, but now it’s as if we're watching it televised all over the world.”
Fish echoed Gonzalez’s sentiments about understanding and fighting against genocide. “We are living, breathing survivors [of genocide] as Indigenous people,” Fish said.
According to Fish, the genocide against Indigenous people in what is now the U.S. has never stopped. It continues with the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women, rates of human trafficking among Indigenous girls, with Indigenous boys and men experiencing disproportionate police brutality, and among Indigenous children, who face the same rates of post-traumatic stress disorder as war veterans returning from Afghanistan or Iraq.
“As Indigenous people, as Native American people, we know exactly how it feels to be displaced, to be stripped from our families, even to be called human animals,” Fish said. “Our elders were put into boarding institutions and our students, even now, go to school and we're conditioned to empathize with our oppressor.”
Message to allies and Native governments
Fish believes it’s her duty, and the responsibility of all Native people still impacted by settler colonialism, to make sure the U.S. government doesn’t forget its past transgressions so they aren’t repeated.
“I believe as Indigenous people, it's our responsibility to take action when we see genocide being perpetrated across the country,” Fish said. “I think settler colonialism says a good Indigenous person is a dead one, but to me a good Indigenous person is someone who rises to the call of action whenever and wherever our international relatives need aid.”
On Nov. 4, Water Warriors put out a call to allies and other Native peoples locally to support the action of blocking the boat at the Port of Tacoma. While nearly 1,000 protesters came and went throughout the day, Gonzalez wishes there would have been a larger turnout among folks who claim to be allies to Indigenous people, especially considering the work that area Native nations have put into educating local governments and residents about the history of displacement and genocide in what is now Washington State.
“If you respect and appreciate our Indigenous people for surviving through what we survived through, don't make another nation go through it,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez says she would love to see Native nation governments release resolutions calling for a permanent ceasefire, and condemning the genocide. She believes the many Indigenous ancestors murdered during the settlement of these lands can see what is happening and are expecting their governments to stand up and speak up.
Fish agreed, saying the Indigenous presence at protests for Palestine is a symbol not only of Indigenous solidarity, but of each nation’s sovereign power and grit.
“Even though loss isn't anything new to our communities, as tribal governments, it is our relationship to loss that should make us fight tirelessly to prevent it,” Fish said.
Lead photo: Indigenous Water Warriors in a traditional Nisqually canoe attempting to block cargo ship MV Cape Orlando, believed to be headed for Israel with weapons for the ongoing bombardment of Palestinians in Gaza, from leaving the harbor. (Courtesy of Coast Salish Water Warriors.)