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Indigenous Jews, Indigenous People

inuit village

I’ve spent a lot of time living and working with Indigenous people. I spent a winter in the boreal forest with Indians, five hundred kilometers from the nearest road or telephone. My wife and I spent a winter in an Eskimo village. I’ve eaten raw walrus, raw beluga whale (while it was still alive), beaver, rabbit, caribou, and other stuff you don’t begin to want to know about.

The world recently marked Holocaust Remembrance Day, paying tribute to the six million victims. Well, Prime Minister Trudeau payed tribute to the victims, but refused to identify them as Jews. There have in fact been other holocausts, whether of Jews (think Chmielniki pogroms) or other peoples. Think American Indians.

Rabbi José Faur of Netanya, Israel writes of the Spanish American holocaust:

Not a single soul of the native population of Jamaica, Bermuda, St. Thomas, Puerto Rico, Panama, Cuba, etc., survived. …in the course of only fifty years, the Iberian conquerors managed to reduce the population of native Americans from eighty million to ten million. By the year 1600, the population of Mexico was reduced from twenty five million to one million. This is the greatest genocide in recorded history.

Things weren’t as bad in Canada. In South and Central America the natives were a disposable labor force, enslaved to extract precious metals. Canada existed because of trade with independent natives, who trapped furs and exchanged them for guns and other implements which in turn, made their lives so much better. There were wars on or between native groups, sometimes exploited by colonialists and traders, but the slaughter was limited.

In the United States, the land the Indians lived on was often considered more valuable than the lives of the Indians themselves. Various military forces slaughtered whole communities, from infants to elders. At Wounded Knee the men were separated from the women, then ordered to hand over their guns. First the men were shot, and then the soldiers turned on the rest of the villagers. Such predations were so common that the Sioux population was reduced to dangerously low levels. The Lakota People had lost nearly 80% of their people. To keep their tribes and clans going, they raided settlers traveling cross-country, adopting their children into the tribe.

Jews were sent on death marches during the Nazi Holocaust. The Navajo were sent on the Long March. The Cherokee were exiled on The Trail of Tears.

But it’s not just a history of suffering that Jews as indigenous people share with Indians. In fact, when the first colonialists came to North America, many were convinced that they had found indigenous Jews, the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, because of the many Hebrew-seeming practices. The Navajo and Eskimo for example, are very strict, on the issue of “Tumas Ohel,” contamination of a building by death. If a person dies in a Navajo Hogan or Eskimo igloo, the building is forever abandoned. The Eskimo will cut an opening in the wall of an Igloo to let the dead person’s spirit escape, similar to many Jews opening the window in the room of the dead.

Many Indians have a variation on the laws of “Nidda,” menstrual separation. They don’t send bloodied handkerchiefs to a rabbi for inspection, but have their own stringencies.

The Yucatan Indians practiced circumcision, the Incas had a ceremony that resembled Passover, and others had a form of “Yibbum,” where a widow had to marry her closest male relative. To the fifteenth and sixteenth century European mind considered the savages as indigenous Jews, joined together by practice and belief, if not by blood.

There were differences, though. The Jews clung tenaciously to their religion, whereas many South American natives were willing to accept Church teachings. Christopher Columbus was allegedly instructed:

In order that the Indians should love our religion, they should be treated lovingly, and should be given some merchandise and gifts.

Rabbi Faur continues:

Consider the common practice of snatching children from their mother’s arms and throwing them to be devoured alive by dogs, or smashing them against the rocks and throwing them to die in the mountains. The usual way to kill native leaders was in groups of thirteen, in honor of Jesus and the twelve apostles!

So much for loving treatment. The Spaniards were careful though to make sure that no one with Jewish blood, not even Conversos came to their colonies, lest they hinder the loving conversion of the natives.

Rabbi Faur explains the difference between the Jewish and Christian approach to Indians:

A determining factor in the Jewish attitude towards Native Americans is the Jewish view of the “other.” In Hebrew tradition, the “other” is not a “deformed” being, but only a different expression of the “image of God,” common to the children of Adam, the father of all humanity. The Hebrew term kamokha, “as yourself;” connotes a horizontal perspective. The biblical commandment to “love the other as yourself (kamokha)” excludes a vertical perception of the “other,” with all the monstrous consequences that this commandment had in Christian tradition.

Ultimately, the colonialists concluded that the Indians were not the descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes. They knew that their own religion came out of Judaism. To link the savages to the Jews, was to link the savages to Christianity, was to link the savages to themselves. Indigenous Jews was not a feasible paradigm.

When I was in an Inuit village for a winter, my being Jewish was of little import. One woman remarked that I was lucky, because it meant I would go straight to Heaven when I die. A Pentecostal Eskimo explained his fervent beliefs to me, but never tried to impose them.  A friend of mine who spent a year working in Baffin Island told me he never encountered any antisemitism from the Inuit, only from the white support workers stationed there.

There are actually many Native American indigenous Jews. A friend’s Shawnee Indian name means “Walking Knife.” He made Aliyah, moved to Israel about

15th c. Spanish ketuba

15th c. Spanish ketuba

five years ago. Another friend of mine, a brilliant Lakota Sioux Jewish woman, is a warrior: a Vietnam Veteran, who also served in the first Iraq war. Her mother had moved from the reservation to city on the west coast. She found herself taking an interest in Judaism, eventually deciding to study for an Orthodox conversion. From her studies the mother finally came to understand the old parchment that had belonged to her mother’s mother’s mother. It was a Ketubah, a Jewish marriage contract. The rabbi overseeing her study told her she was a returned person, the taken away who finally comes home. My friend’s mother was drawn to Judaism because she was already Jewish, a descendant of a child taken on an Indian raid; adopted into the Lakota people, but somehow never removed from her birth tribe. And although very different peoples, the indigenous Jews and the indigenous Lakota share a core value: a person is defined by his obligations and relations.

scene from movie Little Big Man

Little Big Man

The kidnapped child, adopted into his captor’s tribe is a common theme in literature. The 1970 film Little Big Man (starring Dustin Hoffman) tells the story of a white child raised by the Cheyenne. The movie title was the name of an actual Oglala Lakota warrior who fought at the battle of Little Big Horn. The recent British television series The Last Kingdom tells the story of an English nobleman captured as a child by the Vikings, and raised as a Dane. In the novel Quantum Cannibals, Osnat is adopted by a cannibal shaman, and learns the ways of her captors.

It’s true that many Native Americans are attracted to popular leftist causes, such as the Palestinians. In some areas, Muslims are marrying into tribes, and trying to gain control Indian reservations. In New Mexico, they are grabbing at the Native Art business.

Some natives are unabashed Zionists. I will close with the words of a non-Jewish Indian friend, a Metis named Ryan Bellerose, one of the strongest voices in contemporary Israel advocacy. He starts from the position that Jews and Indians are both indigenous peoples: the former from Israel, the latter from their lands in the Americas:

Ryan Bellerose

Ryan Bellerose

You want to be Jewish? Learn what that means. It’s not just about wearing a kipah and doing Shabbat once in a while; it’s not saying a few prayers sometimes; it’s a way of being, a totality of belief, action and life. You are not white Europeans, you have to stop thinking like them let alone acting like them. You even have a blueprint for it: it’s called the Torah.

…you just need to start being Jewish. The longer I am in Israel the more I am seeing the effects of resisting assimilation on your people. The more I see how important UNDERSTANDING what being indigenous really is.

I believe that indigenous people need to stand up for each other, that we all have something to learn from each other and that it’s a two way street. I have learned a lot from my Jewish friends and I hope they have learned a few things from me as well. So take it from a Real Indian, the Real Jews are the ones who remember who they are and the ones who have no problem telling you who they are. I believe that indigenous people need to stand up for each other, that we all have something to learn from each other and that it’s a two way street. I have learned a lot from my Jewish friends and I hope they have learned a few things from me as well. So take it from a Real Indian, the Real Jews are the ones who remember who they are and the ones who have no problem telling you who they are.

Indigenous Jews and indigenous Native Americans are related through customs and through the oppression we have endured. We are tied together as indigenous peoples, and as warriors. We can learn from each other.

(This essay was presented as the Sabbath sermon at the author’s synagogue)