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.
“Schwartzes!” hollers “Chief” Brooks. “They darker than us!”
For many, it’s the only reference to Jews and Indians they are ever likely to see.
Pity – because 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, merchants, mayors of small towns and at least one gunfighter; and they traded, fought with and yes, even married their Native neighbors.
Czechoslovakian émigré Sigmund Schlesinger was one such pioneer. After losing his job in Philadelphia to a returning Civil War soldier, Schlesinger went to eastern Kansas where he found employment on the railroad, only to be laid off again. 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 – a true Maccabee – of the Battle of Breecher’s Island, Colorado, said by some historians to be the most ferocious in the history of the Indian Wars. Years later, 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.
Witness Julius Meyer, born in Bromberg, Prussia in 1851. Meyer came to the United States in 1866 at age 13 and joined his three older brothers in Omaha where they had a prospering cigar and jewelry business. On his own, Julius began trading with Indian tribes like the Ponca, Omaha, Pawnee and Sioux. So well known did he become for his honesty that they dubbed him “Box-Ka-Re-Sha-Hash-Ta-Ka: “the curly-headed chief who speaks with one tongue.” Julius was fascinated by Native culture and lived with various tribes for long periods. He eventually learned the language of his new friends and may have spoken as many as seven different Indian dialects. Eventually, Julius became the interpreter for such famous chiefs as Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, Spotted Tail and Swift Bear and Standing Bear. According to an article in the America Hebrew dated September 10, 1926, Lena Rehfeld, Julius’ niece, was present when her uncle had some Indian dignitaries to dinner. “We children gazed upon their fierce-looking visages in awe and trembling,” Miss Rehfeld recalled. “They sat far away from table and were innocent of the use of forks and knives.”
But if Julius Meyer was an honorary Indian, Solomon Bibo became the real thing.
Bibo was born in Westphalia in 1853. He immigrated in to the U.S. in 1869 and like Meyer, joined his brothers in business. Bibo and his brothers became speakers of several Indian languages 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 a former Acoma chief. Later that year, the Acomas elected Bibo their new “governor,” the equivalent of tribal chief – a position he held four times.
Juana converted to Judaism and the couple had six children. 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 in a Jewish Cemetery in Colma, California.
By: Gerald Kolpan
Gerald Kolpan lives in Philadelphia. He has been an illustrator, graphic designer and rock musician, as well as a print and broadcast journalist. In the 1980’s, Gerald was a contributor to NPR’s All Things Considered and for over twenty years, he was the Emmy award – winning features reporter for Philly’s WXTF –TV. Ballantine Books published his first novel, Etta, in 2009. His short story, “The Ratcatcher” will appear in the anthology Philadelphia Noir to be published in November. Visit him at www.ettathenovel.com.