Parsha Q&A

For the week ending 23 June 2018 / 10 Tammuz 5778

Judaism and Native Americans

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman - www.rabbiullman.com
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From: John Thundercloud

Dear Rabbi,

Might Judaism or Jewish people have special sympathy for the plight of Native Americans insofar as the Indians are also an ancient people which was forcibly exiled from their ancestral land by a mighty European nation intent on eradicating their unique belief system, way of life, culture and language?

Dear John Thundercloud,

I think any sensitive, thinking and feeling person would sympathize with the plight, suffering and historical injustice that was imposed upon the Native American Indians by the European nations during their exploitation and conquest of the Americas.

It also seems to me that a Jewish person who is aware of his roots, the tragedy of the exile from the Land of Israel, and of the historical experience of dispersion and persecution suffered by the Jewish People in nearly every time period and geographical location for most of its thousands-year-old history, would also be particularly sympathetic to the physical and cultural tragedy experienced by the American Indians.

That being said, people tend to idealize that which was and is no more, especially when the loss was a result of persecution, exploitation and conquest. But our sense of empathy for the “victim” against the “aggressor” in this case might prevent us from considering that most of the injustices of the “White” man against the “Red” were perpetrated with at least as much violence and atrocity among the various Indian nations themselves.

I don’t mean by this to justify in any way the ill-treatment of New Americans to Native Americans. But only to point out that Indians suffered greatly at the hand of Indians long before the advent of the Whites, and Native Americans exploited, conquered, murdered, mutilated, enslaved and evicted each other according to each nation’s relative strength and prowess against the other. Arguably, the major difference between the two struggles (Indian vs. Indian; White vs. Indian) was more a matter of vastly superior technology and the spread of deadly disease. But the essential dynamic of one people conquering another people remains very similar.

For example, the feared Iroquois Nation of the Northeast was actually an amalgamation of conquered, subjugated tribes who, after consolidation, went on to conquer, subdue and incorporate into their empire other neighboring Indian nations such as the Mohawks, Huron, Erie and Tuscarora.

Similarly, the proud Navahos of the Southwest actually originated from the Northwest in Canada, invading the cave-dwelling Amasazi, who were forced to flee to Mexico. Even the majestic Lakota of the Great Plains actually migrated from the Northeast, ousting the Cheyenne who had decimated the Kiowa before them.

And the illustrious Shoshonis of the Rocky Mountains, the tribe of Sacajawea, the famous female guide to Lewis and Clark, were reduced to near starvation and retreat into alpine seclusion as a result of the horrific and constant atrocities of the Blackfeet. And speaking of Lewis and Clark, it is nearly certain that Clark sincerely intended to effect genuine and lasting peace among the Indians, not for the purpose of White expansion, but for the benefit of the Indians themselves.

As far as the cultural loss of the Native Americans and the broken, impoverished, heart-rending condition of their remnants today, this is truly something that anybody, especially a Jew who values and practices our ancient ways, culture and language, can and should sympathize with. Still, as above, in all honesty, an important qualification must be made.

Insofar as the belief system of Native Americans was not monotheistic but rather polytheistic, pantheistic and animistic, and often involved self-mutilation and other Jewishly-prohibited practices, Judaism would not consider the loss of these beliefs and practices to be tragic, no matter how inspirational or uplifting one might find them to be. Rather, Judaism would encourage modifying original Native American beliefs to become purely monotheistic.

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