Existing as a Ghost in Empire

Existing as a Ghost in Empire

How Indigenous Peoples, particularly Palestinians, haunt the very entities that render them as ghosts

By Margaret Palaghicon Von Rotz

We have passed the 200 day mark of the current Palestinian genocide. I initially wrote a version of this piece a week into the genocide, back in October. October was spooky season, Filipino American History Month, and Indigenous People’s Month in the Philippines - all of these combined had me thinking about the timeless, iconic line from “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor” about how empire turns Indigenous Peoples into ghosts. In wanting to write about how ghosts are real, I felt it was necessary to write about Indigenous resistance as we witnessed (and continue to witness) it in real time in Palestine. Unfortunately, over 200 days later, it is still more salient than ever to write about the skeletons in the imperial closet.

To clarify, I am not an expert on Palestinian liberation, but as an Indigenous woman from the Philippines, my heart will always be with the Palestinian people. Seeing Zionist propaganda that falsely claims Zionist indigeneity, in the midst of so much indigenous Palestinian suffering, has been frustrating and hearbreaking. At the same time, I also understand that Palestine is not my story to tell (however, I can point you to resources if you want to know more). I can only offer my solidarity and to be unapologetic in doing so. Anything I thus say is purely from my own Indigenous experience, but it is also from someone who empathizes with the trauma, violence, and displacement that Palestinians face in their own Indigenous lands. With that in mind, here we go:

Truthfully, I’m not going to add much beyond what Tuck and Yang say, nor will I do it as eloquently nor creatively as my manong, Professor J.A. Ruanto Ramirez, does whenever he does presentations on all things ghostly and monstruous. I state both here as my inspirations for these thoughts! The idea of turning Indigenous peoples into ghosts, of us being the entities that haunt settlers, fascinates me and has been sitting with me since the start of spooky season back in October (and truthfully, probably before then, given that Tuck and Yang inspired my dissertation last summer). 

Maybe this is more obvious to a reader than I think it is. Maybe it’s a given that Indigenous Peoples are seen as symbols of the past, where colonization is often seen as a Before Times issue, where people think we mistakenly live in a ‘post-colonial’ world, where Indigenous Peoples are thus usually treated as just an idea or a footnote to history. Maybe everyone is aware of how Indigenous Peoples are often forgotten in the present, are only allowed to exist in the past. But is it obvious? Because if it were, I wouldn’t be so damn irritated all the time, would I? So I’m left to wonder: is this how ghosts feel? Like all of our shouting for justice is constantly lost in the ether? Like we are banging on a window, begging to be seen, to be heard? 

In Decolonization is Not a Metaphor, Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang illustrate how settler-colonialism works, that in order for the settlement to become a home, settlers “must destroy and disappear the Indigenous peoples that live there”, and this is in stark contrast with Indigenous cosmologies which tell the stories of creation that brought us to our lands in the first place. Because we are in the way, we must be destroyed, and such destruction takes place through apparatuses like the law (trust me, I could - and did - write a whole dissertation on that). In so doing, land is divorced from its people and its cosmology, “land is recast as property and as a resource”, and to enforce this, “Indigenous peoples must be erased, must be made into ghosts.” (Tuck and Yang, 6). Essentially, through state violence and Western lawyering, colonizers quite effectively took Indigenous lands, removed Indigenous peoples from them, and made them quickly forgotten. This is only amplified further with present-day acts of violence that range from everything to the murdering of environmental defenders to land grabbing to cultural appropriation. Anything that places Indigenous Peoples as a figment of the precolonial past and not of the fight for a decolonial present is fundamentally meant to make us into ghosts.

Tuck and Yang’s piece is bone-chilling to read again, particularly when I think about this in the context of Palestine. We are watching the violence of colonization in real time; we are witnessing the very cycle of life and death that settler-colonialism requires; we are watching the systematic destruction of Palestinian life, of the creation of Palestinian ghosts. And there are people who cannot fathom that decolonization is indeed not a metaphor at all, but instead a volatile process of returning land back to its people, to itself. 

Yet, what the settler-colonial powers that be could never prepare for is that for many Indigenous peoples, we commune with our Dead all of the time. Ghosts, or becoming them, don’t scare us. Ghosts, spirits, ancestors - these entities are as much a part of our community as anyone. In my native Ifugao, those who have left the earthly realm still communicate with us; and before any of you romanticize it, don’t! It’s a blessing, sure, but for my people at least, it is often a painful and usually scary process. Furthermore, we don’t want to hear from our ancestors nor loved ones on the other side. To hear from them means something is wrong, which could be anything from there’s water seeping into their crypt that needs to be cleared, to getting reamed by an elder that the family needs to get its shit together and stop feuding. Even when their visit is out of love, like wanting to be present for a great-grandchild’s birthday, the physical manifestation of their presence takes its toll as a physical, even visceral, sickness for those of us still here. Point being, we Ifugaos are not asking to be visited by our dead. We don’t take well to being haunted.

It is precisely this fact, that our actual dead are capable of doing such haunting, that I both love and wish to emphasize here. Settler-colonialism never expected that by turning us into ghosts, they created the very entities that will haunt them and in turn, end their empires. Indigenous peoples will always resist, always rise, always remain Undead, simply because we must. Protecting our lands, preserving our cultures - we don’t do so out of bravery, or at least, I don’t speak out for bravery’s sake. We are duty-bound to our peoples and lands, no matter the realm our souls exist in. Every time an Indigenous Person pushes back on the theft of their ancestral land or material cultures, they haunt the settler by reminding them of their own complicity in the settler-colonial project. Such reminders, I suspect, are probably not the most welcome to settlers.

Tuck and Yang describe this phenomenon well, so I implore you to read them so you can appropriately judge how I paraphrase the following. They talk about settler moves to innocence, where settlers sufficiently assuage and reassure themselves that colonization, though it was terrible, has ended; therefore, what we are left to do is at worst, live in the status quo, or at best, decolonize schools and methods and thinking as our ways to combat the devastating effects of colonization. Today’s settlers are innocent; they never did the actual colonizing, right? So isn’t it enough to just work with what we got and mitigate the past harm? Tuck and Yang argue no, it is not enough to evade the truth of what colonization is and does. Decolonization is Land Back, and if we can learn anything from what is happening in Palestine, it’s that such a process is not pretty nor easy. 

Indeed, there are consequences to rendering Indigenous Peoples as ghosts. Those ghosts of Colonization Past come back with a vengeance, and rightfully so. Why should anyone be surprised that a wronged ghost would haunt their oppressor? Why shouldn’t a displaced people defend themselves in a long, protracted war over their land? What choices are left in a genocide other than to fight back and do whatever is necessary to survive?

Seeing how colonization and settler-colonialism renders Indigenous peoples into ghosts and leaving us with no choice but to haunt the settler, leaves me with so many questions. What hope is there? What call to action should there be? What can the future look like? Maybe that uncertainty is spooky to me; I am, after all, a Virgo who hates uncertainty. But at the same time, I can’t help but be hopeful. Could empire fall in our lifetimes? Could we construct a world that isn’t full of settler moves to innocence, but instead is fueled by justice? The exciting thing about Indigenous futurism is that the possibilities are endless when you take colonization and its cousins out for good. What a thing, to imagine a world where we (Indigenous Peoples) no longer have to be ghosts, where our spirits can properly rest. I’d love that. And I’m sure our ghosts on the other side would love that too. 

For more on Palestinian liberation, I suggest following these accounts on Instagram: wizard_bisan1, key48return, motaz_azaiza, palestinianyouthmovement, letstalkpalestine (follow their Daily Updates broadcast), and your local SJP or Palestine solidarity chapters. 

I also recommend reading: The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine; Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics; On Palestine; and, if you want fiction, Against the Loveless World. And I really, really do implore everyone to read Tuck and Yang’s Decolonization is Not a Metaphor. I apologize if I have not done their words justice, but I thank them for inspiring me nonetheless.


Margaret Palaghicon Von Rotz is an Ifugao-American and environmental lawyer from Modesto, California, USA and Kiangan, Ifugao, Philippines. She recieved her J.D. from UC Law San Francisco and her LL.M in Environmental Law and Sustainable Development from SOAS University of London. You can find her on Instagram @margahhrett and on Substack @redhorseprincess. 

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