Gerald Kolpan’s article “Blazing Saddles It Wasn’t” brought forth little known true stories of Jews in the Wild West: those who fought Indians and those who befriended them, and in some cases, joined them.
My personal interest in Native American culture and ceremony was a major inspiration in my setting to work on Jacob’s Return, my debut novel. Jacob Goldman is the protagonist, a secular Jewish man committed to tikkun olam by way of his investigative journalism focused on social and environmental justice. From the outset, Sheila Strongblood, Jacob’s wife, was destined to be a powerful character. She is a full-blooded member of a Native American tribe in California.
When I was eight years old, I wrote my first stories about Native Americans, who lived “back then.” It was a time I yearned for but which I believed was untouchable. I spent much of my youth in the swamp behind our house, imagining I was a scout in uncharted wilderness, discovering turtles and frogs in ponds and holes of mud and water. I sledded and tobogganed each winter down Indian Hill.
In my fifth grade school picture, my skin shines dark from the sun and a thin cord of rawhide circles my neck and hangs just below my collarbones. That precious cord held against my chest two buffalo teeth alternating with colored clay beads. In my high school years, the profile of an Indian warrior adorned my soccer jersey. When I was young, I nurtured a romance with symbols instead of an experience with the actual native people of the area where I grew up.
My interest in Native America continued even when my initial break from Judaism came as an adolescent and my ambivalence toward my heritage grew as I became an adult.
In 1998 I began work on my first novel, Jacob’s Return, at a time in my life when I needed to find out about Jewishness, but not through the Conservative channel in which I grew up. In my bones I was drawn to earth-based, tribal life and ceremony. Once I moved to Oakland, California, and friends of Native American heritage invited me to participate in sweat lodge, I did so as a Jew. I faced boundaries that I hadn’t even known I’d constructed as a way to keep distant from God’s creation: I was scared of being scalded in the lodge, of my muscles hurting from long-sitting on the hard ground, of my weakness in general. I feared that I was an interloper in others’ deeply personal cultural ceremonies.
Over time, I realized that I was among those who were freely sharing their spiritual tools with me so that I might discover my own. I became grateful to be among those who deeply knew powerful earth-based ceremony, and who had beautiful appreciation of plant and animal medicine. These people took on the yoke of being stewards of God’s creation.
During these early years of earth-based practice, I entered the story of Jacob’s Return with the question of how my own ancestors, the Israelites, might have lived on the land. I believed that Sheila Strongblood Goldman’s tribe would help me understand something critical about myself. My searching led me to the San Joaquin Valley in Southern California where I connected with an active tribe, the Tachi Yokuts at the Santa Rosa Rancheria. I contacted Clarence Atwell, then Chief of the tribe. He invited me to meet with him and the tribal historian.
Dressed in ornate plains schmattes (including war bonnet), and astride a paint pony, Brooks and his warriors come upon a prairie schooner carrying an African-American family. “Chief” Brooks looks at the little group as they huddle together in terror, and then turns to his closest companion who is raising his tomahawk to strike:
No, no, zayt nisht meshuge! Loz im geyn! Abi gezint! Take off! Hosti gezen in dayne lebn? (Don’t be crazy! Let him go. As long as you’re healthy! Take off! Have you ever seen such a thing?).
The “chief” lets the family go in peace, quickly stating the reason for his mercy:
“They darker than us!”
It’s either funny or offensive depending upon who’s watching; but for many, it’s the only reference to Jews and Indians they’ve ever seen.
Pity – because there was a bone fide Jewish Indian chief. His is a tale of guts and brains, as are most stories about Jews among the Indians.
Almost from the beginning of Westward expansion, Jews have made a home on the range. They were fur trappers, gold miners, cowboys, peddlers and scouts. There were sheriffs, marshals, mayors of small towns and at least one gunfighter. A shana medele from San Francisco married Wyatt Earp; a storekeeper from Bavaria and a tailor from Latvia invented blue jeans.
Czechoslovakian émigré Sigmund Schlesinger was one such pioneer. After losing his job in Philadelphia, Schlesinger went to eastern Kansas where he found work on the railroad, only to be laid off again when hostile Sioux took charge of the tracks. Needing work, he volunteered to be an Indian Scout for the Army, despite never having ridden a horse or shot a gun. A quick study, he became a hero of the Battle of Breecher’s Island, Colorado, said by some to be the most ferocious in the history of the Indian Wars.
Years after the battle, his commanding officer wrote to Rabbi Henry Cohen of Galveston, Texas:
He had never been in action prior to our fight with the Indians and throughout the whole engagement which was one of the hardest, if not the very hardest, ever fought on the Western plains, he behaved with great courage, cool persistence and a dogged determination that won my unstinted admiration as well as that of his comrades, many of whom had seen service throughout the War of Rebellion on one side or the other.
I can accord him no higher praise than that he was the equal of many in courage, steady and persistent devotion to duty, and unswerving and tenacious pluck of any man in my command.
But not all Jews encountered the Indians in battle. Some were among their closest friends – and became trusted advocates for their rights and freedoms.
Meyer came to the United States in 1866. In Europe, he had been a yeshiver bocher and a talented musician. Shortly after his arrival, he joined his older brothers Max, Adolph and Moritz in Omaha where they had a prospering cigar and jewelry business. Separate from his brothers, Julius began trading with Indian tribes like the Ponca, Omaha, and Sioux. So well known did he become for his honesty that the Indians dubbed him “Box-Ka-Re-Sha-Hash-Ta-Ka: “the curly-headed chief who speaks with one tongue.”
According to Julius, in 1869, a hostile tribe attacked him. They tried to kill him – and it was only the intercession of Standing Bear, chief of the Ponca, that saved his life. Julius became Standing Bear’s interpreter and was soon translating for such famous chiefs as Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, and Swift Bear.
For many years, Meyer served as Omaha’s government Indian agent, often fighting for Native rights. Julius was also known as a man who knew how to make a dollar for his friends (and himself). One such scheme involved taking Standing Bear and a group of the Ponca on a yearlong jaunt to the 1889 Paris Exposition where they caused a sensation.
Julius kept up his association with Standing Bear and the Nebraska tribes until May 10, 1909 – the day he was discovered dead in Omaha’s Hanscom Park. He was clutching a revolver and had two bullet holes in him: one in his temple and another in his chest. He was legally declared a suicide, although to this day, there are people who believe that this great Jewish friend of the Indian was murdered.
Still, if Julius Meyer was an honorary Indian, Solomon Bibo became the real thing: real enough, in fact, to become a chief.
Bibo was born in Westphalia in what is now Germany, in 1853. Like Meyer, he immigrated in 1869 and joined his brothers in business. The Bibos were among Santa Fe, New Mexico’s most successful traders, known for square dealing with their Indian neighbors. Bibo and his brothers became speakers of several Indian dialects and Solomon was often called upon by the Acoma Pueblo to negotiate treaties between their tribe and the U.S. government.
In 1885, Bibo married Juana Valle, the granddaughter of an Acoma chief. Later that year, the Acoma elected Bibo their new “governor,” the equivalent of tribal chief – a position he held four times. He helped create the tribe’s first modern education system, hired its first schoolteacher and supervised the first Acoma school building.
Solomon and Juana were married for nearly fifty years and had six children. Years before, she had converted to Judaism. At 13, their son, Leroy became a traditional Bar Mitzvah but also participated in the Acoma rituals of manhood. The couple was separated only by his death on May 4, 1934; they are buried side-by-side in a Jewish Cemetery in Colma, California.
Gerald Kolpan‘s newest book, Magic Words: The Tale of a Jewish Boy-Interpreter, the World’s Most Estimable Magician, a Murderous Harlot, and America’s Greatest Indian Chief, is now available. He will be blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week.
Sometimes they appear out of nowhere – as in the case of Prophet John McGarrigle, the clairvoyant Indian scout in my new novel, Magic Words. I was writing a passage in which one of my main characters, Julius Meyer, walks into an overheated shack seeking shelter from the cold. Inside that shack was Prophet John.
Sure, Julius was surprised, by not half as surprised as me. I had no idea who John was, what he was doing in that shack or why he was in my book. I had to write him to find out.
The story of Eli Gershonson, a Jewish peddler in the Old West, is just the opposite. He took a long and circuitous route to his supporting role in Magic Words.
Eli started life in my little son’s bedroom. He was part of an imaginary gang of “protectors” I would tell Ned about at bedtime; their job was to fight off his nightmares.
The group included the Bagel Man (the hero of a song I made up), the Guys Up The Street (some tough dudes who hung at 2nd & Kenilworth, our Philadelphia corner), and Eli Gershonson, Esq., a lawyer who would take the bad dreams to court if they dared bother my boy (nothing like a lawsuit to scare off Freddy Krueger).
It may sound a bit elaborate, but most nights, it worked.
Cut to 15 years later.
I was writing my first novel, Etta, and found myself in need of a name for a character – a Jewish peddler of the type who roamed the West by the hundreds at the turn of the century. By this time, my son was 21 and no longer needed a nightside attorney, so I appropriated Mr. Gershonson’s moniker, revoked his law degree and gave him a wagon filled with pots, pans, cloth, needles, pins and other chazerai. In the end, he appeared in less than two pages in the book, but that was all he needed to advance the plot.
I figured that was my farewell to Eli.
Then, in 2009, when I was writing Magic Words, I needed a name and background for another Jewish peddler who would be Julius Meyer’s uncle in the book. He needed to be patient, honest, and kind, but with a quiet authority.
I soon realized that the character I was envisioning had all of the qualities of the character I already had.
So, Eli Gershonson jumped from my first book to my second, pots and pan intact, though shedding some 30 years in the transition. In Magic Words, his part isn’t a page-and-a-half cameo, but a major role woven throughout the narrative. In fact, he’s one of the last characters we see in the book.
I’m thankful to Eli for allowing me to move him from one story to the next. His presence gave my two books a kind of crazy continuity, not to mention that I was afforded the great pleasure of getting to know him better.
Believe me, he’s a mensch.