Blazing Saddles It Wasn’t

When a modern audience thinks of American Indians and American Jews, the image that comes to mind is likely to be that of Mel Brooks as an Indian chief in 
Blazing Saddles

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:

Posted on May 4, 2012

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