We have been talking about Native American History month and the Jewish concept (make that reality) of Tikkun Adam which is a partnership with God to heal mankind. As a Jewish American with some Native American ancestry, I feel responsible to help improve conditions for Native Americans in this country. The problem is that solutions aren't so simple. So how do we go about repairing the damage that has been done to these people for 500 plus years?
One way to observe Native American history month is to become acquainted with Native Americans as they are in their current existence. Sadly, they aren't living the free on the range, lords of the plains kind of existence most Americans visualize. Life is much more stark and desperate than that.
I wonder how the Jewish people have survived all these centuries. I consider Jewish survival to be a miracle. Maligned, misunderstood, expelled, and any number of difficulties have befallen the Jewish people over 5,000 years of collective experience. Even more amazing to me is how the Jewish people have retained a level of optimism for all they've been through. Not only is there optimism (even though there is always a slight strain of watchfulness and worry involved, there always is, with good reason) but there are countless Jews that excel at their chosen professions, just to name an aspect of life that is relevant to any adult in society. So why do most Jews do well in their professional lives?
Well if you ask me it's because our faith teaches us to do all things in excellence. And as a practical matter, a career has often been a key component to Jewish survival. Yet one thing Jews have always managed to do in any society they have lived in is to integrate certain ideals of the society they reside in, yet remain Jewish.
How does this knowledge benefit Native Americans attempting to throw off 500 years of failed federal government policy? How can the stories of Jewish survival inform a people so seemingly different from them such as Native Americans? If you ask me, there are some key things that are useful for any abused minority to start with to form the basis of healing their people:
1. Reform and retain your identity. Learn the songs, dances, stories and food of the people you come from. Utilize these to restore the emotional and spiritual health of the young people. Tap into the memories of the elderly among you to restore collective memory where it has been breached.
2. Use self determination. Relying on self and by greater extension, your clan or nation is the way to really get things done. After all, you know more what your children need than what others do.
3. Be persistent in your message. Do not allow anyone to derail you from your message. When people are suffering, we are commanded to speak out. A favorite quote of mine comes from Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel... “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
4. Challenge the historical narrative as it's been written by the winners of history. There is a movement afoot by thoughtful Americans of all colors and creeds to address how history has addressed the issue of Europeans inhabiting the Western Hemisphere. And it is true that acknowledging or revisiting the past can be painful, but it's also one of the necessary ways to see how we can improve the future.
And lastly, Americans are a giving people with big hearts. I've seen this demonstrated time and again. Things are changing, slowly but surely, in relations between Native Americans and non-Natives. I pray we can come up with workable solutions that elevate the condition of Native peoples in the years to come.