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Thanksgiving and Native American Relations

Native American and Jewish Relations 

The legend of the Thanksgiving story is known by every American and is retold from generation to generation. Although the American Indians are a central part of the Thanksgiving lore, our relationship with Native Americans, or First Nations, is minimal. We know the Thanksgiving story, but we know very little about indigenous heritage, culture, or history. Few know of the atrocities inflicted upon native populations that resulting in diminishing their population by 90% -- from a high of about ten million in 1492 to a low of 250,000 at the beginning of the 20th Century (now back up to about four million). Jews and American Indians have much in common, including concerns regarding religious rights, assimilation, and the challenge of maintaining our own national languages and culture while being a part of American society. Thanksgiving can be a time that reminds us of the common challenges that Jews and Native Americans share. It gives us an opportunity to learn about each other today, rather than relying on legends of the past.

Although it might seem that the day of Thanksgiving is the perfect time to create new relationships with Native Americans, we should realize that Thanksgiving is a sensitive time for this community and, rather than a celebration, is for them a reminder of the long history of atrocities, persecutions, and discrimination forced upon their ancestors. Many Native Americans may feel that the rest of American society only wishes to meet with them during the time of Thanksgiving rather than year-round. Let the holiday be a catalyst to start new programs with the First Nations and Native Americans, but not as the only time that we wish to connect with them.

Jewish Texts and Values 

The quotations below attempt to show similar challenges and traditions that Native American Indians and Jews share. The quotation from Leviticus 19:18 specifically speaks about kinsfolk [i.e. Israelite people]. However, it is worthwhile to compare this quotation with the Native American proverb to understand similar traditions that both cultures share.

  • You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kin but incur no guilt on their account. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Eternal. Leviticus 19:18
  • Do not wrong or hate your neighbor for it is not he that you wrong but yourself. Native American Proverb, Pima
  • It's hard being an Indian. You have to live three lives - the traditional one, the survival one, and the modern world that keeps coming at you all the time. Rose Albert, member of the Taos Pueblo, 1986
  • There is no greater sin than to cause one's nation to disappear from the world. Levinsohn, Zerubabel, 1853
  • Be a Jew in your tent, and a man outside. J.L. Gordon, 1863


Programs

  • Thanksgiving Meal Prayers and Readings: During your Thanksgiving meal, offer Thanksgiving prayers or readings, including those that come from indigenous traditions. See samples above.
  • Visit a Native American Museum
  • Dialogue, Discussions, Concerts: The Native American and Jewish communities have much in common. By creating a dialogue series, the two communities could begin speaking about similar issues that affect both groups. Topics might include assimilation, religious rights, Holocaust/genocide, cultural survival or education. By beginning these dialogue sessions, Jews and American Indians can learn and work together to create a vibrant future for each community.
  • Jewish-First Nation Response to Homelessness: Temple Sinai Congregation (Toronto, Ontario) has a partnership with Na Me Res, a First Nations/Native Canadian organization that has reached out to thousands of Toronto's homeless and saved many lives. Through this partnership, the congregation helps staff and support a Street Help Van for one night a week. The program teaches life skills, restores dignity, and offers friendship and caring to those who need it most. Although this is primarily a program about homelessness, this partnership has helped nurture the relationship between the Jewish and First Nations communities.

​Additional Resources

  • National Museum of the American Indian - On the Education tab of this site there is educational material about the Native American communities for both adults and children. Particularly, there is a handout called "The Thanksgiving Study Guide," as well as the history of different Native American tribes.
  • Indigenous Geography - This site of the Smithsonian Institution includes educational resources about the Native American communities of the Western Hemisphere today. It includes lesson plans for 4-8th grade and 9-12th grade, has resources about the indigenous way of life, and includes the contemporary issues that affect the indigenous people today.