Are the Red Indians Jews? Last week’s article discussed how most people abandoned the popular myth that America’s Indians were the lost Ten Tribes. A more valid Indian/Jewish connection was trade. During the nineteenth century, numerous Jewish newcomers established trading missions where Indians exchanged pelts and foodstuffs in return for Western goods they could not produce themselves.
CITY OF THE SKY
The Bibo brothers of Prussia were an example of this type. In 5606/1866, Nathan and Simon Bibo sailed off to try their luck in America and three years later they were followed by 16-year-old Solomon Bibo. The brothers traded with New Mexican Indians, selling goods to the Indians in exchange for agricultural produce they supplied to local army forts.
Endowed with soft Jewish hearts, the brothers hated the tendency of their fellow westerners to take advantage of Indian naiveté. They interceded in numerous land disputes and tried to prevent whites from buying land at cutthroat prices. This got them a reputation as meddlers and troublemakers.
In 5642/1882, Solomon began trading at the pueblo of the Acoma tribe who lived in the City of the Sky, as it is known, long regarded as one of the most picturesque places in America. Nineteenth century writer Charles F. Lummis enthuses over the place in his book, “Some Strange Places in Our Country:”
“Perched upon the level summit of a great ‘box’ of rock whose perpendicular sides are nearly four hundred feet high, and reached by some of the dizziest paths ever trodden by human feet, the prehistoric town looks far across the wilderness. Its quaint terraced houses of gray adobe… its great reservoir in the solid rock, its superb scenery, its romantic history, and the strange customs of its six hundred people, all are rife with interest to the few Americans who visit the isolated city.”
“Neither history nor tradition tells us when Acoma was founded,” he continues. “The pueblo was once situated on top of the Mesa Encantada (Enchanted Tableland), which rises seven hundred feet in air near the mesa now occupied. Four hundred years ago or so, a frightful storm swept away the enormous leaning rock which served as a ladder, and the patient people who were away at the time had to build a new city.”
People who still want to believe that Red Indians are fellow Jews may find solace in Lummis’s mention of an Acoma custom that is reminiscent to the hakpada of certain Jews: their refusal to allow anyone to take any photographs in their town. Even today, an article about the place mentions that “because no digital cameras are allowed within the Acoma Pueblo, the images presented on this entire page are scanned from our Nikon 35mm-fi lm prints.”
Nothing in this world is perfect. The Acoma’s picturesque lifestyle was marred by an ongoing land dispute with the neighboring Laguna Pueblo tribe. Acoma regarded the 94,000 acres of land granted them by the US government as far less than they deserved, and to make things worse, the two government surveyors, Walter and Robert Marmon, were not exactly unbiased, as they were married into the Laguna tribe. Bibo interceded on behalf of the Acoma a number of times, never making much headway.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Solomon Bibo became involved in one of the strangest land deals in history when the Acoma tribe leased all their holdings to him for thirty years in return for the paltry sum of $12,000 payable over thirty years. The deal included Bibo’s right to mine Acoma coal at the royalty of 10 cents per ton. People began claiming that Bibo’s motives were less than noble, especially since 53 days after signing the lease, Bibo resold it to the Acoma Land and Cattle Company for one dollar, together with land belonging to him and his brother for $17,000.
These strange dealings resulted in a battle between Bibo and Pedro Sanchez, the US Indian agent in Sante Fe. He arranged a meeting where sixty Acoma tribesmen claimed they had never agreed to Bibo’s lease, and their governor, although admitting to the lease, claimed that it included much less land and was for only three years and not thirty.
The Bibo brothers petitioned the Board of Indian Commissioners in Washington, arguing that Solomon Bibo’s “intentions with the Indians are of the best nature and beneficial to them, because the men, women and children love him as they would a father and he is in the same manner attached to them.”
They explained that Bibo made the lease to forestall people who were trying to give even worse terms, taking their land for ten years in return for ten cows, and that Sanchez had cowed the Indians into denying their connivance with Bibo’s lease.
Who was right in the end? Apparently Bibo, since the Indians not only refused to sue him over the episode but also submitted a petition of 100 signatures, including that of their governor, that the lease was valid and Bibo’s trading license should not be revoked.
As a culmination of the story, W.C. Williams, new Indian agent for the whole of New Mexico, penned a letter that was unprecedented in Jewish or Indian history:
“Pueblo Agency, Acoma, October 9, 1888. To the people of the Pueblo of Acoma, having confidence in the ability, integrity and fidelity of Solomon Bibo, and by virtue of the authority vested in me, as Indian Agent, by the United States, I hereby appoint Solomon Bibo, Governor of said Pueblo, to take the place of Napoleon Pancho, the former Governor and I also appoint the said Napoleon, Lieutenant Governor, and Yanie, Assistant Lieutenant Governor, to take the place (of) Manuel Concho, who is dismissed by my order and I also appoint Junice Sanches Kasique, in place of An tonio, dismissed. “(Signed) W. C. Williams, U. S. Indian Agent.”
In effect, this appointed Solomon Bibo as the first and last Indian chief. Among the Pueblo Indians, the title of governor and chief were interchangeable since the sixteenth century when the Spanish leader, Juan de Onate, appointed the Pueblo chiefs as governors.
According to author Charles F. Lummis, this was by no means the first time Bibo served as governor of the Acoma tribe, as he writes in “Three Weeks in Wonderland” of “my friend Salomon Bibo” who “has been six times its governor, speaks the Queres language better than any other white man ever did, and has done more for his pueblo than all the Indian agents in a lump.”
Bibo eventually tired of the Indian life and moved to San Francisco where he became partner in the Bibo, Newman & Eichenberg select grocery store. By the time he passed on in 5694/1934 at the age of 79, all his years of labor in Acoma had gone to ruin; the Great Depression had wiped out his holdings there, and disease had decimated his flocks. Visit Sky City today, and the new generation of Pueblo Indians there will show you Bibo’s old home and the site of his old trading post.
SQUAW BRINGS JEW BACK TO ROOTS
Although deep Jewish/Indian connections may be few and far between, Rav Paysach Krohn records an incidence of an Indian squaw woman who had an inkling of Torah truth. In “Reflections of the Maggid,” he relates how she returned a young Jew to his roots.
During the 60s, Ben Richards, as Rav Krohn labels the young man for the purposes of this tale, yearned to become one with nature. To reach this happy state of existence, he traveled 2,000 miles to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation up by the Canadian border and later moved to another reservation in South Dakota. After absorbing Indian life and lore for a couple of years, Ben traveled for two days over rough countryside to meet Eva Onefeather, an Indian woman famous for her knowledge of the old ways in order to learn more. But to his shock, she refused to tell him a thing.
“You are not one of us,” she admonished him. “You can never be like us, you don’t belong here.”
To his protestations that he had been living among Indians for years, she replied, “If you were Christian, I could understand. But you are a student of, Wah-Kinyan-Sapa, the Holy White Rock Man.” Years later, Ben realized she must have been referring to Moshe Rabeinu who saw a prophetic vision in the cleft of the rock.
Following her advice, Ben traveled to Brooklyn where he sought out Rav Shlomo Freifeld, Rosh Yeshivah of Sh’or Yoshuv in Far Rockaway, and after spending a few years in his yeshivah moved to up-state New York to devote his time to organic farming.
Rav Krohn vouches for the authenticity of this story; he heard it from none other than the son of Rav Freifeld himself, Rav Avraham Mordechai Freifeld. Amazing as this story is, even more amazing is that the exact thing happened on the other side of the globe. Rav Chaim Walder records this in his “People Speak about Themselves” (Feldheim Publishers) and he too insists that it really happened, writing in his introduction, “The stories in these pages are true, written by real people about their lives.” True, he admits that “in some cases I had to change elements in the story in order to protect the writer’s privacy,” but would this necessitate switching the story from America to Asia?
In Walder’s story, an anonymous young man writes how he searched for meaning in life from when he was 16. After his army service, he packed his bags and headed for India where endless searching led him to the Dalai Lama, head of Tibet’s religious system, who had sought refuge in India after the Chinese annexation of Tibet.
When the protagonist of our story told the Dalai Lama that he was willing to accept his religion if the Dalai Lama accepted him, he asked him, “Where are you from?”
“Are you Jewish?”
Hearing that, the priest refused to accept him, explaining that all religions are an imitation of Judaism, and why settle for an imitation when you can have the real thing? The upshot of the story is that our hero ended up marrying a baalas teshuva, Anat, who told him that she had been sent back to Judaism by the Dalai Lama as well.
All this goes to show that truth is often stranger than fiction, yet not strange enough, apparently, to validate the claim that Red Indians once plowed the fields of Eretz Yisroel.