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Jews and Native Americans: 7 Fascinating Facts

February 19, 2017 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

Like Julis Meyer, aka Box-Ka-Re-Sha-Hash-Ta-Ka, which means “Curly Haired White Chief Who Speaks with One Tongue.”

Herman Bendell, Superintendent of Indian Affairs

Would a Jewish Superintendent of Indian Affairs try to convert Native Americans to Judaism? Some feared that Dr. Herman Bendell, a New York doctor whom President Ulysses Grant appointed to be the Arizona Territory’s point man on Indian Affairs, would do just that. The newspaper The Boston Pilot fretted that Dr. Bendell would “undo” the work of Christian missionaries and start spreading Judaism among Arizona’s Native Americans.

Young Dr. Herman Bendell during the Civil War

In reality, Dr. Bendell’s Judaism was one of the reasons President Grant appointed him; he wanted to include someone who would not prioritize missionary work.

Dr. Herman Bendell as Indian Commissioner, 1871

Dr. Bendell quickly emerged as a champion of Native rights within the government, writing, “I feel it is a duty I owe to the people of the Country and the Indians under my charge to do something to relieve the pressures that surround them.” But after two years, intense opposition to Dr. Bendell’s religious faith made his job impossible. He resigned, returned to Albany, married his childhood sweetheart Wilhelmine Lewi, and practiced medicine.

When he died in 1932, few people realized that Dr. Bendell, longtime New York state ophthalmologist, had once worked to secure Indian rights in pre-state Arizona.

“Curly-Haired White Chief Who Speaks with One Tongue”

Julius Meyer was born in Prussia and moved to Omaha as a teenager in 1866, the year before Omaha was incorporated as a city and Nebraska was admitted to the Union as a State. He joined his older brothers Max, Moritz and Adolph who had founded a cigar store and a jewelry/music store.

Young Julius carved out his own business niche, trading his cigars and jewelry from his brothers’ stores with Native American tribes. He’d travel on horseback deep into Indian-controlled territory, living for weeks with Native American tribes and traders.

Julius Meyer and Native Americans outside his Indian Wigwam store

Julius mastered several Native American tongues, setting him apart from many European traders. He also treated Native Americans fairly, earning him the sobriquet “Box-Ka-Re-Sha-Hash-Ta-Ka”, meaning “Curly Haired White Chief Who Speaks with One Tongue,” a reference to his curly hair and also his straight, honest way of doing business.

Living with Native Americans for weeks at a time, Julius was also famed for another peculiarity: sticking to Jewish dietary rules. When he was invited to feasts with tribesmen, his hosts knew to serve him hard boiled eggs instead of the non-kosher meat that everyone else enjoyed.

Back in Omaha, Julius set up a popular “Indian Wigwam” store, selling Indian-made items. He died in Omaha’s Hanscom Park in 1909 at the age of 60 in highly mysterious circumstances. Ostensibly a suicide, it was reported at the time that he shot himself first in the temple, then in the chest, with his left hand, although Julius was right-handed. No alternative theory was ever put forward, and he was mourned throughout the American West as a tragic case of suicide.

Jewish Indian Chief

In 1869, Solomon Bibo, a teenager from Prussia, arrived in the tiny New Mexican town of Ceboletta to join two of his older brothers who’d come to the United States some years before. Like most Jews in the American West, the Bibo brothers worked as traders, but they were far from ordinary. Unlike many Europeans at the time, they quickly garnered a reputation for fairness and honesty when dealing with Native Americans.

Solomon Bibo quickly learned Queresan, the language of the local Acoma tribe, and immersed himself in their concerns, championing Acoma rights against Mexican and American ranchers, and against the U.S. Government, which Bibo and the Acoma accused of trying to cheat the Acoma out of their rightfully-owned lands.

This 1885 photo is listed as "Solomon Bibo governor of Acoma & his officers 1885 – 1886". Solomon is marked as #15.

In 1877, the U.S. Government offered the Acoma a treaty guaranteeing the tribe 94,000 acres of land, far less they felt they deserved. Determined to protect their remaining lands, in 1884, the Acoma leased their land to Bibo for 30 years, in exchange for an annual payment of $12,000 and assurances that Bibo would protect the land from squatters, ensure that coal on the tribe’s land was mined, and that the tribe would receive the proceeds.

Learning of the agreement, an Indian agent from Santa Fe, Pedro Sanchez, wrote to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, complaining about Bibo, “the rico Israelito” (rich Jew), and tried to get the lease invalidated on the grounds that the tribe as a whole had not agreed to the arrangement. Bibo found himself facing not only the loss of the Acoma lease, but the loss of his trader’s license as well. The Acoma nation quickly mobilized itself, providing a petition with a hundred signatures to the Bureau of Indian Affairs asserting they had confidence in Bibo.

In 1885, Solomon Bibo married Juana Valle, the granddaughter of Martin Valle, the Acoma Chief. He later became Chief of the nation himself, pushing for educational and infrastructure reforms. Juana began to adopt a Jewish lifestyle.

In 1898, Solomon and Jana moved to San Franciso in order to provide their six children with a Jewish education. Solomon died in 1934 and Juana in 1941. Their children said Kaddish for them in San Franciso.

Wolf Kalisher: Ally of Native Americans

Wolf Kalisher was born in Poland in 1826 and moved to Los Angeles, becoming a United States citizen in 1855. After the Civil War, Kalisher partnered with Henry Wartenberg in a tannery, one of the city’s first factories.

Kalisher quickly became an ally of Native Americans, going out of his way to hire Native American workers and championing Native American rights. He also became a pillar the developing LA Jewish community. He and his wife Louise raised their four children in the city, and helped establish one of the city’s first synagogues.

He became particularly close with Manuel Olegario, a leader of the local Temecula tribe, advising and assisting the Chief as he campaigned to protect his tribe’s land in San Diego County. Kalisher Street in Los Angeles memorializes Wolf Kalisher and his efforts on behalf of Native Americans to this day.

Jewish Genetic Link

Israeli cancer scientists have made an unexpected discovery: a group of Native Americans living the in Mesa Verde area of Colorado seem to have some genetic Jewish roots dating to the Jewish expulsion from Spain in 1492.

Researchers at the Sheba medical center near Tel Aviv studied various populations worldwide to identify carriers of the BRCA1 mutation, a genetic mutation that predisposes carriers to breast and ovarian cancer and is found in disproportionately in Jews of Ashkenazi origin. (Approximately 1.5% of Ashkenazi Jews carry the mutation.)

Noting that a group of Native American Colorado families who were descended from immigrants from Mexico carried the mutation, researchers conducted additional genetic testing, and identified a common ancestor: a Jew who came to South America from Europe about 600 years ago, about the time that Jews were forced out of Spain and Christopher Columbus discovered the New World. The mutation among the Native American population is identical to that found among Ashkenazi Jews, offering solid proof of a long-ago Jewish ancestor who came to present-day Mexico and intermarried with Native American tribes.

Supporting the Jewish State

Santos Hawk’s Blood Suarez, an Apache activist in New Jersey, brings fellow Native Americans to pro-Israel events and insists there are strong parallels between Native Americans and Jews. Both groups have lived in exile; Jews show that it is possible for a native people to return to their native land and revive their ancestral language, even after thousands of years. “I admire the people who” take a stand, Suarez explains: “That’s why I admire the people of Israel: They’re people who stand up to defend their homeland.”

Chief Anne Richardson is the first female Chief of the Rappahannock Tribe in Virginia since 1705. She’s also a strong supporter of the Jewish state. In 2013, she and another female Chief, Kathy Cummings-Dickinson of the Lumbee Tribes in North Carolina, visited Israel. Wearing their ceremonial robes, the Chiefs met with an Israeli Government Minister. “We are here to deliver a message to the residents of Israel,” the chiefs explained. “Stand firm and united against the threats and pressure… We want to encourage Israel not to give in to those who try to pressure them to give up parts of the homeland. Surrender to this pressure is not a recipe for peace, but rather war. We stand beside you.”

Celebrating Israeli Independence Day in Louisiana

Watching coverage of Israel’s 60th Independence Day festivities in May 2008 was a revelation for David Sickey, the Vice-Chairman of the Governing Council of the Sovereign Nation of the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana. After learning more about the Jewish State, he realized there were some incredible parallels between Israel and his own nation.

When Sickey presented his idea of fostering relations between the Coushatta nation and Israel, his co-nationalists were enthusiastic: “They took an interest because the Coushatta value sovereignty and nationhood much like the Jewish people, and autonomy is something to be embraced.”

David Sickey, right, visiting Zion Oil & Gas

The Tribe reached out to then Israeli Consul of Houston, Asher Yarden. Consul Yarden visited the tribe for an official ceremony to establish formal ties. “My visit to the Coushatta for the affirmation event was very emotional, and I would even call it a life-changing experience. It was a highlight, if not the highlight, of my 25-year career with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” he explained.

The Coushatta adopted May 14, Israeli Independence Day, as a holiday called “Stakayoop Yanihta Yisrael”, meaning “The Day to Honor Israel”.

A Coushatta delegation visited Israel in 2009 to foster economic ties. The tribe is currently the American distributor of Aya Natural, an Israeli Druze-owned company that produces olive oil-based cosmetics in the north of Israel. Israeli engineers are also aiding Coushatta fish farmers in importing high-tech Israeli fish-farming technology. Sickey said, “Israel is a very dynamic nation, and it makes sense for the tribe to partner with a very robust nation and the only democracy in the region.”

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