Jews and Native Americans: Brothers in the Great Spirit

The nonprofit Indigenous Bridges program is drawing Jews and Native Americans together against the backdrop of coronavirus.

NAVAJO NATION vice president Myron Lizer (third from left), Dine Navajo Nation members and Indigenous Bridges activists including Ateret Violet Shmuel (second from right) hold the Navajo Nation and Israeli flags to demonstrate the desire to collaborate. (photo credit: Courtesy)
NAVAJO NATION vice president Myron Lizer (third from left), Dine Navajo Nation members and Indigenous Bridges activists including Ateret Violet Shmuel (second from right) hold the Navajo Nation and Israeli flags to demonstrate the desire to collaborate.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘Unfortunately, many Jewish communities in the US are surprised to learn that Native American people are still around,” explains co-founder of Indigenous Bridges Ateret Violet Shmuel in an interview with the Magazine from Las Vegas. The feeling is mutual, as among many Native Americans the Jewish nation is seen in deeply religious, often Christian, terms. 
“I recently attended a conference of indigenous leaders and saw a woman with an Israeli flag,” Shmuel recounts. “I was delighted, and told her I am from that country. She couldn’t understand it. In her mind, Israel was an extinct ancient relic that vanished in the time of Jesus. She didn’t realize that Jews still exist.”
“Westernized Jews don’t often think of our people in terms of an indigenous nation,” says Shmuel, “but if we look at the UN’s definition – a nation with an ethno-genesis within a specific land-space; which has a unique culture, language, spiritual framework, dress and set of traditions which predate colonial contact, and which they intend to pass down to future generations – we obviously fit that category.”
She and Indigenous Bridges believe that the fate of indigenous nations is interconnected, and that the way forward is through mutual aid, support and solidarity. 
“Our peoples all face a unique set of challenges, and we are uniquely positioned to help one another,” she says.
On the Indigenous Bridges website, a Hopi expression greets the visitor, “One finger cannot lift a pebble.” This is but one aspect of the deep commitment the organization has to honor Native American wisdom and include First Nations members in its decision-making process and daily operation. Georgia Tribe of Eastern Cherokee Ambassador Laralyn M. RiverWind said that she loved Indigenous Bridges and “what it stands for, bringing together the indigenous people of Israel and the Americas.”
SHMUEL AND an Indigenous Bridges member pose with Pastor Robert Tso of the Navajo nation (center) in front of Shiprock, a site sacred to the Navajo who call it ‘Winged Rock.SHMUEL AND an Indigenous Bridges member pose with Pastor Robert Tso of the Navajo nation (center) in front of Shiprock, a site sacred to the Navajo who call it ‘Winged Rock.
As COVID-19 forces all Americans to confront the biggest public health concern in our times, Shmuel was included in a Zoom discussion with Congresswoman Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) staff members who dealt with how to get personal protective equipment (PPE) delivered to communities in the Southwest US.
MOST MODERN Jewish people do not consider the possibility that their particular tribe is the victim of colonial oppression. Like the slavery of the Hebrew people in Egypt, it seems a very long time has passed since the Babylonian exile and the Roman destruction of the Temple. Yet, if seen via a different set of eyes, one could argue that the Jewish people – a collection of 12 tribes that held one land to be sacred and unlike any other – are the object of massive repeated attempts of assimilation and destruction. Jewish-American writers and moviemakers often depict a successful tribal history of “becoming Americans.” Few writers looked deeply into the cultural losses and trauma folded in this process. 
The histories of the various Indian tribes, nations and cultures from the moment of contact with Europeans are complex and often remain undiscussed. For example, many moviegoers around the world think of the Plains Indians when they imagine a Native American person. Yet two things that made the Plains Indians culture possible, the horse and the rifle, were introduced to the Americas by the Europeans. Not only are not all native cultures like that, the Plains Indians were not like that pre-contact.
The movie version of the Plains Indians is, in reality, a highly dramatic depiction of a people’s reaction to colonialism while creatively using what elements of it they could utilize in one historical moment. Many people are aware of the Hopi or the Cheyenne, yet few are aware of the Coeur d'Alene people or the Heiltsuk (the former resides in what is today Idaho and the latter along the central coast of British Columbia). This would be equal to most non-Jewish people being convinced that all Jews around the world are roughly like the characters of the 1990s sitcom The Nanny.  
SHMUEL MEETS with members of the Navajo Nation and the Cahuilla Nation of California. The endangered Cahuilla language is among the Uto-Aztecan family.SHMUEL MEETS with members of the Navajo Nation and the Cahuilla Nation of California. The endangered Cahuilla language is among the Uto-Aztecan family.
Coming from a strong background in humanitarian work, Shmuel supports not only better relations between Native Americans and Jewish people, but between the indigenous people of all lands, including Australia and the Middle East, with the Jewish nation and the State of Israel. 
“We say it’s important to have inter-tribal solidarity,” she tells the Magazine, “we've all been colonized, oppressed and forced to integrate into an imperialist culture.”  
This flies in the face of many of the common theories supported by radical left-wing thinkers and anti-Israel activists. Among such circles, Native People are often fetishized as authentic and “spiritual” and so to have, for example, a joint protest of First Nations and Palestinian people against the State of Israel carries with it a lot of impact. It presents a false narrative that portrays Arabs as indigenous to the Levant, and Jews as colonists – painting the Palestinian case, which is a very recent one, as part of a totally different process that began with the discovery of the New World.
To put it bluntly, Jewish arrivals to pre-state Israel did not introduce Palestinians to germs they had no immunity to, and they did not come to a new world. From their point of view, they came home after thousands of years in exile.
INDIGENOUS BRIDGES offers a variety of paths toward a better relationship between the Jewish tribe and others. Among them, building classes on Native American history in Jewish schools, economical exchange between Jewish-American communities and First Nations, and mutual appreciation by helping native-people visit Israel and Jewish people visit First Nations Reservations.
For example, Shmuel and another co-director in Israel, Olga Kirschbaum, arrange delegations of Kurds to this country. These visits are expressly suited to fit the needs of each person who is coming in, for example, agriculture is very important to native people as they have a singular relationship to their lands. Israel, which enjoys a fantastic reputation around the world for agriculture innovation, can offer a lot in that field and First Nations can introduce their own concept of how to look after the land to modern scientists.  
Another co-founder of the NGO, Ryan Bellerose (Métis), often gives talks about Indigenous people and history in the Middle East, Jews included, and is working to bring Israeli water technology to First Nations in Canada.  
THE NAVAJO Nation receives the first shipment – arranged by Indigenous Bridges – of heavy-duty reusable face shields.THE NAVAJO Nation receives the first shipment – arranged by Indigenous Bridges – of heavy-duty reusable face shields.
One example of it is introduced in Changing Tides: An Ecologist's Journey to Make Peace with the Anthropocene by Alejandro Frid, who explains that while working with the Central Coast Indigenous Resource Alliance (CCIRA) he learned that, according to their beliefs, they had always been at the coast of British Columbia and this is their “place.” Such a deep connection to a location means that those who live in it create a keen eye to sustainable farming, hunting and fishing – if you can’t leave a place, you can’t run away from the results of your bad actions. 
“Minority groups, Jews and others, tend to close off after major traumas, in order to heal and feel safe,” Shmuel says. “There are now [70 years after the Holocaust] roughly 12 million Jewish people on Earth and about 600 federally recognized and dozens of State recognized and unrecognized First Nations pending recognition [in the US].” While usually these two groups are not in contact, when that is offered “people embrace it.”  The NGO also works witha variety of State recognized tribes and First Nations.
Shmuel holds a special place in her heart for the Navajo Nation for “standing up to hate. Their leadership stood up for Jews repeatedly,” she notes. This is why, as COVID-19 spreads across the US, sowing death among all Americans, it is important to her that members of the Jewish tribe offer help. 
In 2020s America, she says, 35% of the Navajo Nation, which is a group of roughly 180,000 people living on what is the largest Indian reservation in the US, don’t have electricity and 30% don’t have running water. The health instruction to wash one’s hands is nearly impossible to many. 
Due to a culture of close-knit families living together, the elderly community is very vulnerable to the spread of the coronavirus. Seeing as it is usually the elders who have intimate knowledge of tribal stories and rituals, the Navajo are in danger of losing a portion of their own oral Torah, if you will, because of COVID-19. 
On April 27, Indigenous Bridges and Charlestown Face Shield Project were able to donate 1,000 reusable face shields and thousands of surgical masks to Navajo Nation’s medical personnel and emergency responders. This, however, is but a first step. Facemasks and ventilators are needed and any help offered will be much appreciated.
Learn more about Indigenous Bridges here
‘NAVAJO WOMAN and Infant, Canyon de Chelle, Arizona,’ de Chelly National Monument, 1933-1942, by famed photographer Ansel Adams.‘NAVAJO WOMAN and Infant, Canyon de Chelle, Arizona,’ de Chelly National Monument, 1933-1942, by famed photographer Ansel Adams.