Rarely do Native Americans speak out on the issue of Israel.
That is, except for Santos Hawk’s Blood Suarez, a Native American in New Jersey who calls himself a “one-man crusade” for the Jewish state.
He and a small band of supporters have participated in several pro-Israel marches, like the Youth Walk for Israel held in October in Monmouth County, N.J.
When Native Americans come up in media and political discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, parallels are drawn between Palestinians in the occupied territories and Native Americans in the United States.
But Hawk’s Blood Suarez, a 50-year-old Apache originally from Texas, denies the connection.
“We were highly offended when things came out in the media comparing Native Americans to Palestinians,” he says.
Instead, he sees strong similarities between the Native Americans and Jews: Both people were targeted for extermination and both have lived in exile, he says.
In fact, some say the Native Americans should take heart from the example of the Jews, who showed that it is possible for a people to return to its native land and revive its ancient language after an exile of 2,000 years.
Native Americans, who number approximately 2.5 million in the United States, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, were forced by the U.S. government to live on reservations.
“I admire the people who” take a stand, and “that’s why I admire the people of Israel: They’re people who stand up to defend their homeland,” Hawk’s Blood Suarez says. “We are not with the Palestinian people.”
But many Native Americans find it more difficult to take sides — and some take issue with Suarez’s support of Israel.
William Means, a board member of the International Indian Treaty Council, calls the situation in Israel “the most difficult political issue in our community” today, because Native Americans can identify with both Jews and Palestinians.
Means, whose organization works with the United Nations on human rights for indigenous peoples around the world, says that Native Americans oppose any system of reservation and settlement and can sympathize with the situation of the Palestinians.
But at the same time, Means says, strong relationships have been built “in this country with Jewish people in the struggles for the civil rights” of Native Americans. In 1973, during clashes at Wounded Knee, S.D., more than 500 Native American activists were jailed after clashes with U.S. federal forces.
At that time “upwards of 80 percent of our lawyers were Jewish,” Means says.
Today, he continues, Native Americans can identify with Israel’s efforts to maintain a state with internationally recognized borders, but understand that the Palestinians want to do the same.
Many Native Americans instinctively support the Palestinians and mistrust Israel because of its close relationship with the U.S. government, which “has a very bad track record in dealing with American Indians,” he says, adding, “we believe in peace and dialogue” between nations, and think both states have a right to exist. Echoing that sentiment, Vernon Bellecourt, a spokesman for the American Indian Movement, says his organization wants to “see both sides live side by side in mutual respect and in peace.”
The AIM also supports the creation of a Palestinian homeland.
The maverick Hawk’s Blood Suarez — who directs the New Jersey Chapter of the Confederation of the American Indian Movement, an autonomous offshoot of AIM that was formed in the early 1990s — came to support Israel through a personal experience.
Several years ago, he arrived in New Jersey from Texas to protest the development of baseball fields on the site of an ancient burial ground of the Lenape, the tribe that inhabited New York before the Dutch arrived in the 17th century.
There he became friendly with New York Times photographer Nancy Wegard, who was covering the protest. Her mother is a Holocaust survivor from Lithuania, and her late father was a U.S. Army investigator who uncovered mass graves during his tour in Europe.
The Wegard family introduced Hawk’s Blood Suarez to his first matzah ball soup, and he learned more about Jewish history during his time with them. He later took it upon himself to start demonstrating for Israel.
“We were completely surprised” when he showed up at the Walk for Israel march wearing a Start of David, New Jersey JCC volunteer Jeff Ginsberg says.
“He pointed out parallel after parallel between their tribe and ours,” says Ginsberg, who has become friends with Hawk’s Blood since the march. “The last time that I saw him, he was wearing an IDF T-shirt.”
In addition to the New Jersey event, Hawk’s Blood Suarez and a small group of Native Americans participated in this year’s Israel Independence Day parade in New York. He plans to seek funding so that other Native American protesters can be bussed to upcoming rallies for Israel, and hopes eventually to organize a trip to Israel.
But for most Native Americans, Israel “is not really on the radar,” Bellecourt says.
Hawk’s Blood Suarez admits this is true. When he speaks to Native American groups about supporting the Jewish state, he says, “the response I often get is, ‘We need to take care of our people first.’ “