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Indigenous People & Our Jewish Values ​​​​​​​

Rabbi Allison Berry

Shabbat Noah, October 8, 2021

 

On the corner of Centre and Cotton streets, - not far from where I live - there's a sign commemorating the original meetinghouse of the first church built in Newton. Established in 1630, Eliot Church’s1 first pastor was a complicated man named John Eliot. 

Among other things, Eliot was the founder of Roxbury Latin School. Eliot immigrated from Britain and from his early years here in Massachusetts came to believe that the Indigenous people who lived here - mostly the Nonantum First People, an offshoot of the Wompanoag people were one of the lost tribes of Israel and their salvation would hasten Christ’s second coming. 

Thus began Eliot’s work as a missionary. In 1646, Eliot converted a Sagamore chief named Waban. He was the first member of an Indigeneous people to convert to Christianity in Massachusetts. 

After his conversion, Waban, and other converts, lived in Nonantum, meaning “Place of Rejoicing.” 

However, this “Place of rejoicing” was not a very joy-filled place. As followers of Eliot, the First Americans were required not only to embrace the Christian religion, but to adopt an English-style of living. They were obliged to give up their hunter-gatherer lifestyles, their clothing, rituals, and almost all other markers of their culture. 

But despite the fact they agreed to live like Englishman, the Nonantum people didn’t remain on their land for very long. In 1657, newly arrived English settlers threatened violence. Eliot, fearing for the lives of what he now called his “Praying Indians,” advocated for the Massachusetts-British government to allocate land for a plantation first in Natick and then also later in Ponkapoag. 

The Nonantum “Praying” Indians, as Eliot called them, found themselves unceremoniously deprived of their land. The government appointed guardians to look out for their interests, and moved all of them to the newly established “Praying Indian” town of Natick. 

Later, in the 1670ties, the Praying Indians were moved en masse to Deer Island where at least half of them died of starvation. A census of the Massachusett Ponkapoag Indians in 1784 lists only 21 males & 32 females. 

As for the First Americans in our area who opted not to “pray”, what happened to them was even worse.

Interestingly there is still a “Praying Indian” presence in Natick. I think it’s important for all of us to google and learn more. 

Over 300 years later, I grew up in Natick and I’m ashamed to say, I never knew about this. Yet, in the 1990ties - the High School football team was named the Red Men- I did know that much.  Ironic and awful based on this sorry history. We were really blind. 

Today in Newton, we live in villages named after Indigenous communities without ever knowing their history. The names of our towns, roads, and schools are reminders that we reside on land that didn’t always belong to us. 

Last year City council voted to change the name of the holiday that falls this weekend to Indigenous People’s Day.3

When the vote was called at City Hall - it was clear the potential shift was scary to some Newton residents. 

Some of challenges discussed in public comments included:

Changing our nomenclature is just too hard. People will be confused. I will be confused. 

Our telling of the history of Columbus and the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria - the way we learned it in school will be expunged. In doing so, you are erasing my personal story and my ancestry from the American narrative (this statement deserves further conversation).

My ancestors didn’t live in America at the time Indigenous people were abused and displaced - so I’m not responsible and shouldn’t be made to feel guilty every time October rolls around. 

Despite these challenges, the vote passed and on Monday we will celebrate Indigenous People’s Day. But, even so, I know our community can do even better. 

As Jews, we know what it means to be persecuted, to live as a minority - herded into shtetls - separated and singled out. “We understand,” as Aurora Mendelssohn writes, “that the wounds of oppression and displacement do not end with the person who suffered the initial trauma. We know the damage of the Holocaust didn’t end with liberation, or with the State of Israel. There are second and third generation reverberations and trauma on individual and collective levels.”4

Yes - they are often tokens and imperfect and the imperative to remember is under threat - but our country has not ignored the terrible events of the Holocaust. There are museums and monuments, International Holocaust Remembrance Day and Yom HaShoah. These civic places and occasions provide an opportunity to remind and to educate. To ensure that those who suffered will not be forgotten. 

And yet, the same courtesies and acknowledgements are rarely extended to the First Americans of this country. 

Our Jewish values demand that we wrestle with these challenges. Alan Morinis writes of a great rabbi: “Hillel says that we need to challenge ourselves to see truth not only through our own eyes but also through the eyes of another person who is tied to the situation.”5

Here in our own community, we are only just beginning to see and understand the depths of trauma and pain inflicted on the First Americans whose land was taken, their homes destroyed and built into what we now hold as our own sacred communities - of schools, libraries, houses and yes, even synagogues.

At Temple Shalom, we think a lot about what it means to welcome and include. And yet, First Americans have never been part of our conversation. In Canada and certain places in the Pacific Northwest - in synagogues too - it is fairly ubiquitous is to acknowledge at important and public moments, that we too are part of a system that has benefitted from the erasure of First Peoples. 

For those who don’t know - the statement used on these public occasions is called a land or territory acknowledgement.6  It’s similar in some ways to the Barechu prayer when we stand and publicly announce that we are here - and we carry with us our ancestors and all the generations yet to be. We are ready to pray. 

Chelsea Vowel explains, “a land acknowledgement can be a transformative act that to some extent undos Indigenous erasure. I believe this is true as long as these acknowledgements discomfit both those speaking and [those] hearing the words.”7

As Vowel intimates, there is debate about this practice. Some argue that the words in these declarations are well-meant but empty. And yes, I agree that can easily be the case.

Yet, I know that those who have made land announcements common practice in their Jewish community - these statements were crafted with great and ongoing intentionality. 

First, synagogue leaders worked with local First People’s, to learn from them, to ask questions, and to build relationships. Only then, in dialogue, did they create declarations that weren’t about guilt or communal and self-flagellation, instead they were framed as an act of tikkun - a statement expressing a desire to work towards a true and earnest healing. 8

And not only that - as Jews who believe in the ultimate value that all of us were created b’tzelem elohim, in God’s image - the Jewish land acknowledgements, I have come across are reminders that it is a Jewish responsibility to dismantle what we were once taught, if that teaching dehumanizes and devalues others. 

A purposeful and meaning-filled land acknowledgement doesn’t need to be about anger or guilt. 

It can be about humility. Love. It should acknowledge and remember. A land announcement can be a prayer. 

Every time we reach the central parts of our liturgy, specifically the Barechu and the Amidah, we recite a kavanah; the Barechu - which I compared earlier to a land acknowledgement - is in and of itself, a kavannah. Our kavanot are declarations of intent that come before a central prayer to help center us and deepen our words. 

We can frame a land announcement as a kavannah - a setting of intentions. A kavvanah that can help us to see that the ancient words we are about to recite not only connect us to our own Jewish ancestors, but remind us to live a values-driven life. These prayers can be a reminder that we are not only supposed to pray here in this space, but as Jews we are called upon to “pray with our feet,” reciting words that lead to a commitment to see, to act, and to engage in a process of restorative justice.

And so, in honor of Newton’s first Indigenous People’s holiday observance, I’ve pulled from a variety of sources9 in an attempt to create my own kavanah - a land acknowledgement framed in Jewish language and values. Very important - this is not an acknowledgement written in relationship with the First Americans who live here - so it is problematic. But I thought it was important to share an example as a way to launch deeper conversation. 

Perhaps the conversation could be about how in consultation with our neighbors - we write a meaningful land acknowledgement and add it to our website? Or a step further - could this type of prayer become part of our regular liturgy? These are only small suggestions, you could call them low hanging fruit - but they could be a beginning. 

Here’s my attempt: 

Baruch Atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, she-asani b'tzelem Elohim. Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who created all of humanity in God’s image.

As Jews, we understand displacement and hate, and yet, sometimes we fail to remember this blessing. We acknowledge that the physical land on which Temple Shalom stands is on the traditional territory of many nations including the Nonantum, Pawtucket and Wampanoag Peoples.10  We recognize that this acknowledgement is only a small part of the real work of cultivating relationships and understanding with the First Peoples. Knowing this, here is what this acknowledgement compels me to do: (pause to add your own thoughts)...

Hineni Muchan/Muchana - I am awake. I am ready. May my prayers lead to action, so together we can build a world of tzedek and ahavat chinam - justice and love. 

_____________________________

 1. All of the history delineated here is pulled from a few sources. All listed here: Eliot Church Historian: https://www.eliotchurch.org/uploads/2/3/5/7/23574592/rmitsein___john_eliotpdf; Newton’s Hidden Indigenous History: https://bclawlibrary.blogspot.com/2020/10/newtons-hidden-indigenous-history.html;

Removal of Neponsitts to Ponkapoag: https://massachusetttribe.org/the-removal-of-the-neponsetts-to-ponkapoag; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Eliot_(missionary): http://natickprayingindians.org/history.html

2.  This is a horrible but part of Natick’s history: http://redmenforever.org/

3.  https://www.bostonglobe.com/2021/07/27/metro/newton-hold-hearing-proposed-indigenous-peoples-day-celebration/ and https://patch.com/massachusetts/newton/newton-votes-change-columbus-day-indigenous-peoples-day

4.  https://canadianjewishrecord.ca/2020/06/04/mendelsohn-indigenous-land-acknowledgments-a-jewish-version/

5.  https://bnai-israel.us/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/What-We-Owe-Indigenous-People.pdf

 6. https://native-land.ca/resources/territory-acknowledgement/; https://nativegov.org/a-guide-to-indigenous-land-acknowledgment/; https://upstanderproject.org/land

7. https://native-land.ca/resources/territory-acknowledgement/

8.  This is a fantastic resource on Judaism and Land Acknowledgments: https://mitsuicollective.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Guide-to-Jewish-Land-Acknowledgement_Mitsui-Collective_May-2020-abbrev-hashem.pdf; And this one is written by a Canadian Rabbi: https://canadianjewishrecord.ca/2020/06/04/mendelsohn-indigenous-land-acknowledgments-a-jewish-version/

9.   Open Siddur project: https://opensiddur.org/prayers/civic-calendar/united-states/thanksgiving-day/indigenous-land-acknowledgement-by-aurora-mendelsohn/; Ritual Well: https://www.ritualwell.org/ritual/indigenous-land-acknowledgment; CCAR Facebook Page example by Rabbi Heather Miller

10.  This map tracks First People’s across the country: https://native-land.ca/

Wed, June 29 2022 30 Sivan 5782