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Doctor, Lawyers, Indian Chiefs — And The Chief Rabbinate

Doctor, Lawyers, Indian Chiefs — And The Chief Rabbinate

I haven’t forgotten my pledge to respond to Dr. Jack Wertheimer’s op-ed. And, of course, I still remember my earlier promise to post more articles and resources about “December Dilemma” — which from now on I’m thinking of referring to as DD or D&D. Or maybe I could call it the Kislev Konundrum, although all those K’s start sounding a bit Teutonic.

Speaking of Kislev, an interesting thing I learned from my favorite Jon Stewart-Stephen Colbert video is that Chanukah starts on the 25th of the month. (And if you haven’t seen this more recent “Daily Show” clip, you must, even if you just watch the first minute.)

Thanks in part to the fabulous and inexplicably out-of-print children’s book called “In the Month of Kislev,” I had known for a long time that Chanukah is in Kislev (which my daughters like to call “Kiss Love,” just as they like to say “Boreh Pree Hug Often” when we do the Kiddush). But it is a funny coincidence about Chanukah and Christmas both starting on the 25th of a month.

But I digress. The main thing I wanted to write about today is this extremely compelling piece in yesterday’s New York Times about American Indian tribes in California ejecting thousands of their members. While not about Jews, although I suspect some of the lawyers quoted in the article are Jewish, the parallels to the Jewish “tribe” really struck me.

Especially because I read it a few hours after reading this heartbreaking article about Israel’s Chief Rabbinate preventing the Interior Ministry from allowing an Orthodox convert to immigrate to — or even stay in — Israel. (How ironic that Israel is considering deporting a woman who desperately wants to be Jewish and who went through the rigors of an Orthodox conversion, apparently because the Chief Rabbinate doesn’t like the Orthodox rabbi who converted her — even as the government is terrified about the “demographic threat” of Arabs outnumbering Jews and just spent tens of thousands of dollars on an ad campaign designed to lure back secular Jewish Israelis.)

Unlike the American Indians, we Jews aren’t influenced by the lure of casino profits — although, interestingly, one of the Jewish and pro-Israel (and Jewish Republican) world’s most influential philanthropists, Sheldon Adelson, made his fortune operating Las Vegas casinos and hotels.
But we grapple with many of the same issues about boundaries, and who decides who’s in and who’s out — and even what it means to belong.

The Times story focuses on the Chukchansi tribe, and the economic and emotional impact felt by “disenrolled” members:

Beyond benefits, critics of disenrollment say it can be psychologically devastating. “It destroys their connection to their ancestors, their cultural heritage, their tradition,” said Laura Wass, Central California director for the American Indian Movement, an opponent of disenrollment. “You have to go to iron gates and beg for entrance to your own land.”

One family’s experience is particularly troubling:

In the case of Nancy Dondero, the disenrollment of her extended family came down to a single ancestor: a great-grandfather, Jack Roan, who died in 1942 at age 76. The tribe’s enrollment committee, appointed by the seven-member Tribal Council, determined Mr. Roan was not Chukchansi based on a will and personal affidavits in which he declared himself to be a member of another tribe.

At a hearing in September, the Roan descendants were allowed to present their own evidence, which included census and land records listing Mr. Roan as a Chukchansi. But the council rejected their argument, saying their documents included incorrect information submitted by whites. Mr. Roan was removed, and so were his descendants.

Paradoxically, Mr. Roan’s face has become an iconic image of the Chukchansi, thanks to a photograph taken by Edward S. Curtis, the renowned documenter of the American West, who listed him as Chukchansi in a photograph taken in the 1920s.

One of Mr. Roan’s daughters, Ruby Cordero, is also considered a cultural pillar of the tribe because she is expert at basket weaving and among the last native speakers of the Chukchansi language. But at 87, she, too, has been disenrolled.
“She was born and raised on that property,” said Nancy Dondero, Ruby’s great-niece.

As in Israel, where a cottage industry has emerged to help Jews research their bloodlines and gather evidence for the Chief Rabbinate, a similar industry has cropped up to research tribal ancestries in California, according to the Times article.

Somewhat tangentially, the Times article also featured this disturbing quote: “The tribe has historically had the ability to remove people,” said Kevin Bearquiver, the [Bureau of Indian Affairs’] deputy director for the Pacific region. “Tolerance is a European thing brought to the country. We never tolerated things. We turned our back on people.”

Whew. So much for my 1970s’ feel-good (and uber-patronizing) education about American Indians being more noble, environmentally conscious and generally superior to their European colonialist oppressors in every way.

Not sure what my point is, except to say: defining identity is complicated (just ask Newt Gingrich), and there’s lots of interesting brain food out there today.

B’tayavon (Hebrew for Bon Appetit)!

Stay tuned later this week for “Kislev Konundrum” (including reactions to this Kveller piece) and “J.W. vs. J.W. In The J.W.” And never fear, if I can figure out a way to work J.S. (Jon Stewart) in, I’m sure I will!

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