For American Indians, Thanksgiving is a once-a-year-shot at recognition by a nation that often relegates them to ethnic invisibility.
An occasion to reflect on historical roots, the holiday is, perhaps, the only time their fellow countrymen give any thought to the legacy of these once-great Indian cultures.
For Jews, the approach of Thanksgiving heralds an opportunity not only for introspection – “Jew” derives from “Judah,” which means “to give thanks” – but, for a people in the forefront of social consciousness, it represents a chance to explore commonalities beyond our mutual feelings of exclusion that binds Jews and American Indians.
Cultural survival, discrimination and ties to sacred lands are themes that define the American experience of both groups. Jews know all about the slings of second-class citizenry in countries that, at times, have played the reluctant host.
Yet, despite a hypersensitivity borne of differential treatment, most Jews remain blind to the plight of American Indians, only aware of their existence on some peripheral plane.
As it happens, American Indians greatly admire Jews’ sense of continuity and feel that they share with us a rootedness in traditions that other Americans may lack. They are impressed that Jews have managed to maintain their culture and heritage through a 2,000-year Diaspora – a kind of tenacity that American Indians can relate to.
Like Jews, American Indians have suffered religious discrimination. For example, the Sun Dance and Pot Latch – specific observances in American Indian religious – were illegal until 1993.
The Payote religion, now legally observed, was suppressed by American law until well into the 20th century. In 1928, the U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs told Pueblo Indian leader in New Mexico that their religion was animalistic.
We Jews have our Yankel Rosenbaum – stabbed to death in the 1993 Crown Heights pogrom; Indians have their Raymond Yellow Thunder, beaten to death in 1969 in a bar in Gordon, Neb., because of his ethnicity.
And today, nationwide, many of the court cases tied to religious freedom issues concern themselves with American Indian claims to sacred lands. Perhaps in this arena – the preservation of consecrated ground – more than any other, Jews can find common bond with American Indians.
Do we not hold the Land of Israel sacrosanct? Do we not invoke religious imperative in the fight to leave burial sites undisturbed?
And have we not both been victims of vicious stereotyping? The drunken Indian, the money-loving Jew. We all know what “pushy New Yorkers” and “New York lawyers” really mean. In the same way, American Indians know that talk in certain circles about “equal rights and responsibility” is a code attack on tribal sovereignty.
Missionaries, too, have had their toll on both American Indians and Jews. Have we not both fallen prey to those who have no tolerance for our belief systems?
Although we cannot assume that all conversions were coerced or insincere, we can mourn the loss each individual represents to our respective cultures and to the future of our peoples.
And even though most Jews remain unaware or unconcerned about the demise of the American Indian nations, in the last 10 or so years there has been some movement toward bridging the ravine that separates our two communities.
The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, in cooperation with the Association on American Indian Affairs, hosted a gathering of Jewish and American Indians leaders to explore commonalities.
The dialogue focused on the common struggle to preserve and protect sacred sites of both Jewish and American Indian communities: * A Jewish day school in Los Angeles inaugurated an exchange program between its students and those in an elementary school on the Navajo reservation. * A synagogue in New York sent its confirmation class to visit Pine Ridge, S.D. * The University of Illinois Hillel instituted an alternate spring break program that brought students to a Wisconsin reservation. * The Tuscon, Ariz., Jewish community began a Jewish- American Indian dialogue, sponsored by the local Jewish federation, that has remained ongoing.
These efforts are encouraging, but they are not enough. We need to create a framework of commonalities that will provide the context for dialogue.
For it is through examining the experience of others that we can put our own experiences into perspective. That, in turn, will foster sensitivity through understanding – something to be truly thankful for on Thanksgiving.