What it Means to Be an Oglala Sioux Jewish Woman: A Personal Account

Mara Cohen

(excerpted from Zionism:  An Indigenous Struggle:  edited by Nathan Elberg and Machla Abramovitz, NY: RVP Press and Mtl: CIJR, 2020)  The book is available on Amazon.

 

In these days of change, (Aren’t they all . . . and haven’t they always been) I wanted to share some of my own experience of being born in a liminal place and of a liminal status. Always on the cusp of beginnings and endings, of being between Worlds, and Peoples, and what it means to me as a Jewish Woman of the Oyukpehe Tiyospe ”White Horse Creek People,” Hehaka Sapa Tiawe “Black Elk,” from the Oglala “Scatters Their Own” Band of the Titonwan Lakota “Red Earth People.”

In Lakota, the language of my mother’s birth people, “Iyeska,” has taken on a pejorative meaning—literally meaning “Speaks with white mouth.” It was first used to identify the children born of unions between those who came from “over the water” and those who are indigenous to this land. These were the children who could speak both parents’ language and who had exposure to both cultures. The Tiyospaye, the Lakota extended Family structure, was one where people intermarried with other Peoples, their Ceremonies allowed family members to “Hunka” “Makes Relatives” from outside, and to make them ours. As the whole World is perceived Lakota Way, to be a vast interconnected web of Relatives, therefore one must Respect all. Subsequently, Lakota perspectives were never exclusionary, nor did Lakotas feel particularly threatened by other people’s ways. Either the others were tolerated, or they weren’t, as relations with other Tribes and Tribal Histories demonstrated. We had no use for cannibals, human sacrifice or the imbalance created by disrespect. By the Lakota way of timekeeping, we moved from Dog Days, when dogs pulled our Travois, as we followed the herds of buffalo across the Grasslands of the North Plains, to Horse Days, when the Sacred Elk Dog came home. We knew little hunger, and the great blossoming of our Culture happened, and then the heartache of the conquest and the loss of freedom that came with Reservation Days, and the ever-abiding hurt of 1893, and the butchery at Wounded Knee.

This was when the “Iyeska” label had begun to pick up its negative connotations. Often the “Iyeska” used their knowledge of both languages and their relationships with the “other” parent’s people, who were now in control, to their personal advantage. And often they encountered the worst of the European prejudices and racism, which they took on as their own, and with which they identified. This is the very definition of being “colonized.” We see this happening wherever peoples have been subjected to conquest and dispossessed of their heritage and history. These peoples identify with the oppressor, as the kapos did in the European concentration camps for my father’s People. From 1876 until 1978, when the United States allowed the Indian Religious Freedom Act to become law, there were the ongoing depredations of boarding/residential schools where children were taken to assimilate them. The “Kill the NDN; Save the Child” policy of the US government damaged generations that have yet to heal. (NDN is shorthand spelling for Indian.) The forcible removal of Children from their Families, and their Peoples to gut the Cultures and the Identity of these generations, along with the Graveyards filled with Children’s remains are just a few of the hallmarks of genocide. The challenge then was bare survival. Humans tend to become very tactical living for the next meal, surviving the next big storm—when the goal is to survive this season, this year—and you can lose hope when there is just more of the same, no future and the sense of valuing who and what they are has been erased.

But there are those who survive, who take a long view, and find what is right for them, despite all they have been through, personally and generationally. My mother was one such indigenous survivor. She rarely spoke of what she had lived through. In fact, not until the evening before she passed did she tell me the worst of it—the rapes, the medical experimentation, the grinding poverty, but also how she had triumphed, finishing university and learned what she needed to know to survive in the world of a dominant culture and make it her own. But she came from a very spiritually focused family, and people whose own spirituality was prescribed though practiced secretly. And then, post Second World War, she found a spirituality that resonated with her and a people she felt at home with, more than any of the other immigrants who had come to North America. She found Judaism. She told me once, “Since all these Peoples didn’t seem to like Jews, I wanted to find out why? And I found out that it was because they were a Good People, different than any other.”

She spent seven years learning the language, ways of life, traditions, and ceremonies of the Jewish people. And then she understood what an old piece of writing on the thinnest of hide in the old parfleche bag was. A ketubah that was taken in a raid on the Thieve’s Road (Bozeman Trail), during the Red Cloud’s War. It had belonged to her Mother’s, Mother’s, Mother. A captive girl. Her cousin sent it to her, and the Rabbi overseeing her study had pictures made. And told her she was a returned person, like the “Lost birds” the taken away, who finally came home. Mother continued her studies. While she knew Jews were indigenous to the Levant, they were also the only group of immigrants who spoke of leaving North America through their prayers and as an understanding of who they are, she had to learn what had been lost to her. Knowing the Spirituality, the Lifeways of your people makes you know yourself, and your relationships with others. As a group who came from Tribes themselves, Jews understood their place as a Family, a great World Family, connected to their past and their future, and remembering as a matter of everyday living. She resonated with this idea on a deeply spiritual level, as she told me, “One of the best things is that Jews are like Lakota in that they don’t have to have everybody be just like them. They are who they are, and they know it.” She also liked the fact that Jews didn’t do the proselytizing “thing,” given her own experiences with that.

All this being said, and, as with all things, nothing comes from nothing, and we all come from something. I grew up during the US civil rights movement with the hard-headed pragmatism of being Ranching Folks, along with the cultural dichotomy of the annual visits to my father’s family in Seattle. My first perspectives of “white” people were not only of the intolerance of Rapid City, South Dakota for NDN People, and the apartheid prejudices that were faced there but the noisy, verbal, all-encompassing Mizrahi/Sephardi Jewish family I was a part of in Seattle. Always too tall, for that side of my family is short, and their understanding of their piece of the United States versus how we lived in, isolated Reservation Ranch Country. For all the misunderstanding and lack of knowledge about the way of life there (They thought Mom and I lived in a Tipi), they were concerned that the tiny Jewish community in Rapid City couldn’t provide enough; enough contact, enough education, enough sense of what it meant Zionism, An Indigenous Struggle 118 to be Jewish in a largely gentile world, amongst Gentile relatives. My great grandma told me story after story of my Jewish family’s history. She insisted I learn Hebrew, as well as Arabic and Ladino that were spoken in her home. What she and most of my folks there did not realize, is that it was very, very much like my Lakota family home: The multilingual, ancient oral tradition, as well as story after story of our Lakota history with a high value placed on remembering. Given all of this, I came out essentially a tri-cultural human being. This was a generation before most US citizens had an idea about what that might mean: The ability to see reality from many perspectives. Most importantly, with an ease of movement between different cultures, and rarely seeing the world as “One Way Only,” always knowing the exception, and the greatest challenge, being true to all my “selves,” and never disrespecting where I come from, or what I learned there. This might have been more difficult had I been born Navajo, or Zuni, traditionally polytheist, but the Lakota perceptions of the world, are what they are, and in very many ways are very similar to Jewish perceptions. Learning to honor both ways within the constraints of the other was hard. And not always knowing my “place” and growing up without the boundaries most have in knowing who they are.

This led to some difficulties in heart and mind; my Jewish faith upheld me through those times. The relationship with the One, and with my Peoples, this gave me the anchor of my fluid existence as a career military member. The tradition of coming from a Warrior People on one side, and as Healers on the other, I found my niche as Flight Nurse, in an Operational Flying Unit. I found a home-away-from home in any nearby Jewish community wherever I found myself, and in the sketchy, but valuable observances with other Jewish military members in the war zones I worked in. The affinity with other Jewish members of other nation’s Military . . . and of course there is Israel.

As an indigenous person from North America, known as Turtle Island from the traditional Ojibwe reference, I was not prepared for the physical and psychic resonance with the land (Israel) there and had to accept that I was indigenous, though not native there as well. And I know precisely what that means. I uphold those basic obligations in all ways except by making aliyah. And yes, I would give my life for that land and my people there, as I would for this land, and my people here.

Today, the European Left, along with their colleagues in North American academia, and media, the post-liberal, globalist ideology, coupled with the hatred of Jews which is part and parcel of the European cultural matrix, (how could it not be after 1700 years of indoctrination) and which is now in concert with the oil-producing nations and their clients—they are all spilling their cultural and religious agendas and false narratives into the ears of indigenous peoples here. They seek a commonality that is not real. And, to them, ideology is more important than people. As it was with the European communists and the European missionaries, and the European whatever that sought to suborn and homogenize identity, and are as intolerant of others’ beliefs as any Spanish Conquistador ever was. And they have used the North American indigenous experience and claimed it for their own. There is some reason they do this, perhaps to gain credibility for their untruths. But I look at the propaganda pictures, the false allegations, and the knowingly misleading memes that so many accept as “reality” when it has nothing to do with the reality on the ground either in Israel, or Judea/Samaria or Gaza. Someday, I will go to Hebron, and see where my family came from . . . I shall not try to take the house back from the Arab family that lives there now. Nor, as I have never lived there, do I regret not doing so up till now. But my Jewish Great Grandma would have. To claim that Jews are “colonizers and occupiers” when they have merely gone back to the land from which they came makes me angry. Jews always lived there, and now they are living there again, despite massacres and ethnic cleansing.

And I am glad. And I hope and pray that Israelis’ experiences with their Arab neighbors will improve. That they are not what they were for my Mizrahi Family, that they be not “dhimmi” living under those apartheid laws. I pray that someday the Arab peoples will accept Jewish indigenous rights as being a real thing and that not all peoples have to be Muslim, or ruled by Muslims, and certainly not by Arab Muslims. The Amazigh and Kurds are quite competent to govern themselves, and Arab colonialist culture is just that. In the lands they control, there are no safe minorities if even allowed to remain there at all, and no respect for indigenous peoples or their spiritual traditions.

I have shared my “liminal” experience with you. I hope you do not mind. I see coming, the further destruction of more of the different lenses on the reality that humanity encompasses, in favor of a homogeneous wad—and further loss of generationally-acquired wisdom of different peoples. The new “Liberals” who embrace the idea that all cultures are the equals of all other cultures are insane. Different perspectives, competing ideas, and taking pride in whom and what you are, is not a negative thing. I believe it is the push to eradicate all the “differences” between humans that has proven most dangerous to humanity. And if there is any worse form of governance for Humans than theocracy to be found, I am unaware of it. The Militants of a Hamas or ISIL would see my Traditional Relatives butchered as Pagans . . . and the lack of respect for others’ lives and ways of life will cause even more loss of the richness of Humanity with the same methods which were used to wipe out Indigenous Religions and Peoples in the Middle East and the Levant. None of what ISIL and Hamas do are new things . . . just more firepower and better propaganda excusing what they do . . . otherwise, it could still be 637 C.E. with people being buried alive and having their heads hacked off. And they intend to take their show on the road. That is something authentic for all Traditional Indigenous to consider.

(Mara Cohen was born in 1957 in Seattle, Washington. She is of mixed heritage: Middle Eastern Levantine Jewish from the Island of Rhodes and Sioux, specifically from the Oglala Lakota People. Cohen worked as a Medevac flight nurse, and chief of operational training for a Tactical Operational Group for the United States Air Force and as a cultural linguist specialist served on the Minority Veteran’s Advisory Committee for the US Congress and advocates for Indigenous People’s Rights.)