By Jan Rabinowicz
“The place where the pipeline will cross on the Cannonball is the place where the Mandan came into the world after the great flood…” —Sacredstonecamp.org
Imagine, for a moment, that you belong to a congregation whose centuries-old synagogue and graveyard lie in the path of a proposed oil pipeline that threatens the entire region with toxic disaster. Imagine that when the state signed off on the project, thousands of Jews of all denominations and backgrounds came from across the continent in a historic show of unity, creating a growing spiritual encampment in the path of the pipeline. Imagine that the construction company’s security contractors then used pepper spray and attack dogs on crowds of unarmed Jews attempting to protect with their own bodies sacred sites – which were then bulldozed – and that while solidarity rallies sprang up from coast to coast, the government deployed the National Guard – to protect the construction company, of course.
Now imagine that instead of whatever sort of Jewish community you’re connected to, whichever of the Twelve Tribes you may be descended from, you belong to the Standing Rock band of the Lakota. This isn’t some dystopian fantasy out of the third Trump administration; it’s what has been happening the latter part of this summer on a remote riverbank in North Dakota.
Just about halfway between Wounded Knee and the geographic center of North America, an unprecedented gathering of indigenous people from across the continent – recently reported at around 8,000 from 260 nations and growing – is taking place in ‘prayer camps’ in the planned path of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) by the Cannonball River, at Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Around the country, a virtual media blackout on this extraordinary convergence has gone hand-in-hand with the increasingly violent and punitive harassment of the campers by state and corporate security forces. In response, thousands of people have taken to the streets across the US and around the world, chanting “Mni Wiconi — water is life” and calling on major stakeholders like Bank of America to divest from DAPL. It’s all too tempting to speak of an ‘Indian Summer’ or an American Idle No More.
Dismayingly, many Jewish ‘progressives’ and ‘environmentalists’ are colluding in the deadly silence Natives and their supporters are struggling to interrupt. A contributor to a well-known left-leaning Jewish periodical recently wrote an editorial deriding the protectors as “silly” – with the full condescension of colonialist paternalism – and comparing them to the Bundy group of heavily-armed white separatists who seized Paiute territory when they occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in early 2016. This is so wrong on so many levels it deserves a thorough unpacking, as do the roots of any Jewish stance towards DAPL (specifically, and Native America generally). The ‘anti-colonialism’ professed by a pernicious anti-Zionism shouldn’t confuse us: rather, it illuminates the need for specifically Jewish anti-colonialism.
To me, this can’t fail to start from our own roots. When Jewish voices speak colonialist apologetics, it’s not a matter of simply failing to understand them, the Natives, but even more a profound ignorance of ourselves as Jews no less than as Americans, as inhabitants of a colonized continent who are ourselves, by descent, a colonized and displaced tribal people. There are not just substantial parallels among traditional intrinsic patterns of Jewish and Native American cultures, but direct continuity between our treatment as such, at the hands of the Christian West and the intertwined colonialist-capitalist global power structure that has grown out of it, that seems surprisingly easy to forget.
To begin from the present, we might note first that Jews, like American Indians, are heavily-diasporized survivors of attempted genocide – insofar as American Jews are colonists in a colonial society, as with most others it’s ultimately as descendants of displaced, subjugated people. The situation differs for Natives in that they live in a country still ruled by the heirs of those attempts, who still benefit from them – attempts for which redress cannot be made within the framework of anything like ‘America’ in that they are so foundational that they in fact never stopped. Instead of smallpox blankets, we have institutionalized public health crises in Indian Country, and a marked preference for subjecting Native communities to toxic projects.
The government that legitimates itself as ‘of, for and by the people’ must silence the voices of, for and by the people who actually were here before it – since a lot of troubling questions about its legitimacy could appear at this point – people the colonial state placed into reservations (not unlike ghettos or lagers) as its racially-defined enemies. The Declaration of Independence calls them “the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages” – even though many Native people obviously still lived in the Thirteen Colonies – needing to specify, in the founding moment of the American state, that the indigenous were defined as those who are always outside of it.
Consequently, the mistreatment of American Natives is not simply ‘another’ form of racism, and not just because of its severity – as testified to by the persistence of place-names, monuments and holidays (e.g. the recently-protested Entrada in Santa Fe) commending genocide, at best considered ‘controversial’, no less than by the very obscurity of New Mexico as the state with the third highest proportional Native population as well as one of the most quantifiably immiserated – but because, like Jews within classical Western Christendom as a whole, the Native is the colonial society’s original Other, its scapegoat and pariah, exploited in practice and painted with projections of all the worst of humanity. (Note that even Western enslavement of Africans occurred in a specifically colonial context, and that non-carceral enslavement of Natives in the territories now ruled by the US both preceded and outlasted that of any other group.) Colonial power structures have inevitably held indigenous peoples in a dark paradox paralleling the classic situation of Jews in the West, as reviled throwbacks whose continued existence as such contradicts foundational claims of power.
Of course, many of the early colonizers of Turtle Island believed that the inhabitants literally were Jews, that is, ‘Lost Tribes of Israel’, allowing for all of Christendom’s anti-Semitism to be transferred directly onto Natives. The Decalogue Stone at Los Lunas, thought to have been inscribed by soldiers of the Mormon Battalion, seems to be one of a number of such hoaxes intended to capitalize on such assumptions in an era when linguists attempted to show that Native languages all evolved from Hebrew. Later, German fascism would cite the near-extermination of aboriginal peoples in North America as inspiration that genocide was in fact possible, and undertook to organize and industrialize the process.
The Jews were the West’s prototypical tribal people; our ancestors’ tradition consists of a tribal lifeway directed at this world, an ethics of sustaining communal life. In a comparison that has been well-made within the Jewish Renewal tradition, but seems surprisingly little-known outside of it, the transcendent, ontologically primordial unity of YHVH is reflected in concepts like the Lakota Wakan Tanka and many other Native terms usually translated Great Spirit or Great Mystery; the Navajo term nilch’i shares the same overlapping meanings as Hebrew ruach – spirit, wind, breath – a parallel David Abrams memorably develops in The Spell of the Sensuous. Like most tribal peoples, we have a narrative in which our Creator told us to live justly in a certain part of creation; we mark with gratitude the turning of seasons and spheres. It is this relation with the land that they carried down with them into exile, in a Book written on the skin of a deer.
For all these reasons, it’s not enough to say that Jews should be standing with Standing Rock because justice is our religion, or even because the structural logic of colonial injustice has brought us all to the brink of social and ecological catastrophe; it’s because in a very real sense they are us and we are them. At least, we shouldn’t see each other as more different than tribal people from the Great Plains, Alaska or Mexico, traditional enemies or historically unconnected, who at Standing Rock recognize in each other a common struggle. Insofar as categories like native or indigenous are only thinkable by contrast with the totalizing force of colonialism, they offer a point of departure for thinking other forms that human life could take, sacred traditions beyond the empire of history – as well as tracing the structure of that empire in the violent injustices still smoldering traumatically in our bodies and landscapes. It is this possibility of coming together to find a way beyond these disastrous times that we should learn from the Pan-Indianism of #NoDAPL.