Ear­li­er this week, Ger­ald Kol­pan shared the sto­ry behind Eli Ger­shon­son, a pho­to gallery of some of the his­tor­i­cal fig­ures in his nov­el, and the sto­ry behind how he came to write Mag­ic Words. He has been blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

When a mod­ern audi­ence thinks of Amer­i­can Indi­ans and Amer­i­can Jews, the image that comes to mind is like­ly to be that of Mel Brooks as an Indi­an chief in Blaz­ing Sad­dles.

Dressed in ornate plains schmattes (includ­ing war bon­net), and astride a paint pony, Brooks and his war­riors come upon a prairie schooner car­ry­ing an African-Amer­i­can fam­i­ly. Chief” Brooks looks at the lit­tle group as they hud­dle togeth­er in ter­ror, and then turns to his clos­est com­pan­ion who is rais­ing his tom­a­hawk to strike:

No, no, zayt nisht meshuge! Loz im geyn! Abi gezint! Take off! Hosti gezen in dayne lebn? (Don’t be crazy! Let him go. As long as you’re healthy! Take off! Have you ever seen such a thing?).

The chief” lets the fam­i­ly go in peace, quick­ly stat­ing the rea­son for his mercy:

They dark­er than us!”

It’s either fun­ny or offen­sive depend­ing upon who’s watch­ing; but for many, it’s the only ref­er­ence to Jews and Indi­ans they’ve ever seen.

Pity — because there was a bone fide Jew­ish Indi­an chief. His is a tale of guts and brains, as are most sto­ries about Jews among the Indians.

Almost from the begin­ning of West­ward expan­sion, Jews have made a home on the range. They were fur trap­pers, gold min­ers, cow­boys, ped­dlers and scouts. There were sher­iffs, mar­shals, may­ors of small towns and at least one gun­fight­er. A shana medele from San Fran­cis­co mar­ried Wyatt Earp; a store­keep­er from Bavaria and a tai­lor from Latvia invent­ed blue jeans. 

Czecho­slo­va­kian émi­gré Sig­mund Schlesinger was one such pio­neer. After los­ing his job in Philadel­phia, Schlesinger went to east­ern Kansas where he found work on the rail­road, only to be laid off again when hos­tile Sioux took charge of the tracks. Need­ing work, he vol­un­teered to be an Indi­an Scout for the Army, despite nev­er hav­ing rid­den a horse or shot a gun. A quick study, he became a hero of the Bat­tle of Breecher’s Island, Col­orado, said by some to be the most fero­cious in the his­to­ry of the Indi­an Wars. 

Years after the bat­tle, his com­mand­ing offi­cer wrote to Rab­bi Hen­ry Cohen of Galve­ston, Texas:

He had nev­er been in action pri­or to our fight with the Indi­ans and through­out the whole engage­ment which was one of the hard­est, if not the very hard­est, ever fought on the West­ern plains, he behaved with great courage, cool per­sis­tence and a dogged deter­mi­na­tion that won my unstint­ed admi­ra­tion as well as that of his com­rades, many of whom had seen ser­vice through­out the War of Rebel­lion on one side or the other.

I can accord him no high­er praise than that he was the equal of many in courage, steady and per­sis­tent devo­tion to duty, and unswerv­ing and tena­cious pluck of any man in my command.

But not all Jews encoun­tered the Indi­ans in bat­tle. Some were among their clos­est friends – and became trust­ed advo­cates for their rights and freedoms.

Such a man was Julius Mey­er, the hero of my nov­el Mag­ic Words, born in Bromberg, Prus­sia in 1851

Julius Mey­er

Mey­er came to the Unit­ed States in 1866. In Europe, he had been a yeshiv­er bocher and a tal­ent­ed musi­cian. Short­ly after his arrival, he joined his old­er broth­ers Max, Adolph and Moritz in Oma­ha where they had a pros­per­ing cig­ar and jew­el­ry busi­ness. Sep­a­rate from his broth­ers, Julius began trad­ing with Indi­an tribes like the Pon­ca, Oma­ha, and Sioux. So well known did he become for his hon­esty that the Indi­ans dubbed him Box-Ka-Re-Sha-Hash-Ta-Ka: the curly-head­ed chief who speaks with one tongue.” 

Accord­ing to Julius, in 1869, a hos­tile tribe attacked him. They tried to kill him – and it was only the inter­ces­sion of Stand­ing Bear, chief of the Pon­ca, that saved his life. Julius became Stand­ing Bear’s inter­preter and was soon trans­lat­ing for such famous chiefs as Sit­ting Bull, Red Cloud, and Swift Bear. 

For many years, Mey­er served as Omaha’s gov­ern­ment Indi­an agent, often fight­ing for Native rights. Julius was also known as a man who knew how to make a dol­lar for his friends (and him­self). One such scheme involved tak­ing Stand­ing Bear and a group of the Pon­ca on a year­long jaunt to the 1889 Paris Expo­si­tion where they caused a sensation.

Julius kept up his asso­ci­a­tion with Stand­ing Bear and the Nebras­ka tribes until May 10, 1909 – the day he was dis­cov­ered dead in Omaha’s Hanscom Park. He was clutch­ing a revolver and had two bul­let holes in him: one in his tem­ple and anoth­er in his chest. He was legal­ly declared a sui­cide, although to this day, there are peo­ple who believe that this great Jew­ish friend of the Indi­an was murdered.

Still, if Julius Mey­er was an hon­orary Indi­an, Solomon Bibo became the real thing: real enough, in fact, to become a chief.

Bibo was born in West­phalia in what is now Ger­many, in 1853. Like Mey­er, he immi­grat­ed in 1869 and joined his broth­ers in busi­ness. The Bibos were among San­ta Fe, New Mexico’s most suc­cess­ful traders, known for square deal­ing with their Indi­an neigh­bors. Bibo and his broth­ers became speak­ers of sev­er­al Indi­an dialects and Solomon was often called upon by the Aco­ma Pueblo to nego­ti­ate treaties between their tribe and the U.S. government.

In 1885, Bibo mar­ried Jua­na Valle, the grand­daugh­ter of an Aco­ma chief. Lat­er that year, the Aco­ma elect­ed Bibo their new gov­er­nor,” the equiv­a­lent of trib­al chief — a posi­tion he held four times. He helped cre­ate the tribe’s first mod­ern edu­ca­tion sys­tem, hired its first school­teacher and super­vised the first Aco­ma school building.

Solomon Bibo

Solomon and Jua­na were mar­ried for near­ly fifty years and had six chil­dren. Years before, she had con­vert­ed to Judaism. At 13, their son, Leroy became a tra­di­tion­al Bar Mitz­vah but also par­tic­i­pat­ed in the Aco­ma rit­u­als of man­hood. The cou­ple was sep­a­rat­ed only by his death on May 4, 1934; they are buried side-by-side in a Jew­ish Ceme­tery in Col­ma, California.

Vis­it Ger­ald Kol­pan’s web­site for more about Mag­ic Words and his first nov­el, Etta.