Gerald Kolpan’s article “Blazing Saddles It Wasn’t” brought forth little known true stories of Jews in the Wild West: those who fought Indians and those who befriended them, and in some cases, joined them.
My personal interest in Native American culture and ceremony was a major inspiration in my setting to work on Jacob’s Return, my debut novel. Jacob Goldman is the protagonist, a secular Jewish man committed to tikkun olam by way of his investigative journalism focused on social and environmental justice. From the outset, Sheila Strongblood, Jacob’s wife, was destined to be a powerful character. She is a full-blooded member of a Native American tribe in California.
When I was eight years old, I wrote my first stories about Native Americans, who lived “back then.” It was a time I yearned for but which I believed was untouchable. I spent much of my youth in the swamp behind our house, imagining I was a scout in uncharted wilderness, discovering turtles and frogs in ponds and holes of mud and water. I sledded and tobogganed each winter down Indian Hill.
In my fifth grade school picture, my skin shines dark from the sun and a thin cord of rawhide circles my neck and hangs just below my collarbones. That precious cord held against my chest two buffalo teeth alternating with colored clay beads. In my high school years, the profile of an Indian warrior adorned my soccer jersey. When I was young, I nurtured a romance with symbols instead of an experience with the actual native people of the area where I grew up.
My interest in Native America continued even when my initial break from Judaism came as an adolescent and my ambivalence toward my heritage grew as I became an adult.
In 1998 I began work on my first novel, Jacob’s Return, at a time in my life when I needed to find out about Jewishness, but not through the Conservative channel in which I grew up. In my bones I was drawn to earth-based, tribal life and ceremony. Once I moved to Oakland, California, and friends of Native American heritage invited me to participate in sweat lodge, I did so as a Jew. I faced boundaries that I hadn’t even known I’d constructed as a way to keep distant from God’s creation: I was scared of being scalded in the lodge, of my muscles hurting from long-sitting on the hard ground, of my weakness in general. I feared that I was an interloper in others’ deeply personal cultural ceremonies.
Over time, I realized that I was among those who were freely sharing their spiritual tools with me so that I might discover my own. I became grateful to be among those who deeply knew powerful earth-based ceremony, and who had beautiful appreciation of plant and animal medicine. These people took on the yoke of being stewards of God’s creation.
During these early years of earth-based practice, I entered the story of Jacob’s Return with the question of how my own ancestors, the Israelites, might have lived on the land. I believed that Sheila Strongblood Goldman’s tribe would help me understand something critical about myself. My searching led me to the San Joaquin Valley in Southern California where I connected with an active tribe, the Tachi Yokuts at the Santa Rosa Rancheria. I contacted Clarence Atwell, then Chief of the tribe. He invited me to meet with him and the tribal historian.
It was March, 2000, when I arrived. I visited a large building which housed a bingo hall and a 5‑star buffet and culinary school. I went to the tribal administration building where I was ushered into a wood-paneled conference room with Chief Atwell, his assistant, the tribal security officer, the tribal historian, and a few Native teenagers. Chief was large in spirit. His black T‑shirt had a bear paw print boldly on his chest. His black hair hung behind him tied in a pony tail. Chief bellowed, “What do you want?”
“I’ve been writing a book for two years,” I responded. “The two main characters are Sheila and Jacob. She’s Native American, he’s Jewish. I imagine Sheila being from this area. I’d like to learn about your people in an honorable way.” I sweat and shook inside. I worried that he would say, “Don’t write about our people.”
“Some others have written about our tribe,” he offered. “Many of us here didn’t like what they wrote. They made stuff up. They didn’t know what they were talking about.”
I didn’t know where the conversation was headed, but at least we were talking. I lifted an object wrapped in white cloth and tied with fiber.
“I brought this gift as a symbol from my people, the Jewish people.”
Chief Atwell unwrapped the mezuzah, which had been hand-carved by an Oakland artist. This was the most beautiful mezuzah I’d ever seen, carved from ebony, and with a delicate seashell set on top. I explained that it was an amulet most Jews used on their door posts to remind us of the oneness of Spirit, of God.
He did not say thank you. He did not smile. He looked at me and then at the front and back of the mezuzah. I thought, He’s probably thinking, “Who the hell is this guy?” I offered him tobacco which I’d grown in my garden and wrapped in cloth. When he took the package from me, it seemed to have shrunk to a miniscule offering. Here I was, I thought, offering nothing, but asking for tribal stories, secrets.
The others beside him also wore serious expressions. The tribal police officer sat at the end of the table to my left and went about his paperwork. Chief Atwell’s assistant looked on, giving away nothing. The cultural research director sat on my left. He was enthusiastic, but he was white, and I didn’t think that his enthusiasm was enough to encourage Chief to appreciate my earnestness.
Chief turned the mezuzah over in his hands and told me that his father had been chief when his people faced oppression during the period when Native American ceremony had been illegal in California (and the US). His relatives had been scattered throughout California and impoverished. He told me stories of the land treaties, which had been signed between representatives of the US government and his ancestors (as well as others in the valley) in the 1800’s.
Chief became animated recounting tales of his childhood, about when his grandmother, who he called Kamitzee, would bring him out for the day to harvest salt grass. They’d bring an old lard can filled with their lunch. He could barely wait for her to make salt grass taffy. The way he spoke intrigued me.
“May I use words from your language in my book?” I asked.
“That’s not for me to answer,” he said. “That’s for going up on the hill.”
From my experience in the sweat lodge community, I knew that “going up on the hill” meant a 3 day and 4 night fast: no food, no water. The ritual would take place in October, nearly 6 months away. There would be other fasters, each in his own prayer lodge. He was telling me that, if I wanted to use intimate details from his people’s experience, I would need to pray in order to receive permission… or not. I was terrified at the prospect, so I told him I’d think about it.
A month later, I called and told Chief Atwell that I would fast in October. In the ensuing months, I was unable to reach Chief or to receive any details about the fast over the phone — time or place — from anyone else. I visited Santa Rosa Rancheria a few times that summer on days when a sweat lodge ceremony would take place, and I’d spend a few hours as the fire got going, and then would enter the lodge with men, women and children for hours of song and prayer. Chief was off fishing a few times, and no one else I talked to had information about the upcoming fast.
In September, I finally got Chief on the phone. He told me the date of the fast, about one week later. I asked him what I should bring. There was nothing to bring. I found out that the fast would coincide with Sukkot. All I knew about Sukkot was from the Cohn family during my childhood. They would build a large sukkah every year and invite families from the congregation to join them for meals.
I bought my first lulav and etrog and packed for my trip. The day before the fast, I drove to Santa Rosa Rancheria. By then, the tribe had broken ground for a casino to be built from bingo proceeds. I walked over to the tribal administration building to meet Chief and to see when we’d be leaving.
“He’s out fishing and will be back tomorrow,” I was told. I didn’t have a place to stay, so I started asking around. I met Warren, a 23-year-old from the tribe who called Chief “Uncle.” “You can stay with me tonight,” Warren said. He was a champion bull rider who had kicked alcohol and found Christ. At his apartment, I explained that my Native friends from up north had recommended that I make 405 prayer ties and circle my prayer lodge with them for spiritual protection.
“I’ll help you,” he said. We set about taking the yellow, red, black and white pieces of fabric that I’d cut into squares. We’d pinch tobacco and say a prayer for each one, for the earth, for community, for family and for self.
I’d been taught that Judaism is full of paradox, but time with Native Americans helped me understand in a real way how two opposites, or at least what appear to be opposites, could really co-exist. During the hours we engaged in this task, what I’d fantasized would take place with prayerful chanting or silence, Warren put on “Big Daddy,” an Adam Sandler movie. Warren and I laughed and prayed, and we looped string to make prayer ties. Hours later, we finished the 405th one. We went out for burritos. Warren told me he’d bring me to his relatives on Tule River Reservation.
He introduced me to an uncle of his, who immediately offered me a beer. I declined. “How about weed?” he asked. I declined, feeling that I was making a faux pas.
“He’s here for a fast with Uncle,” Warren said.
“Oh. Will you pray for my son?” He told me that his son was in trouble with the law. He handed me marijuana. I nodded and took the herb, then I walked to a tree and prayed. I’d never prayed with marijuana.
That night, thinking that we’d return to Warren’s apartment and I’d sleep in preparation for my fast, instead we hopped house to house where big vats of hamburger meat and rice were kept warm for visiting family. We ate, talked, and around midnight went out with a cousin in his ’54 Scout up into the hills and hunted deer.
By the time I returned in the morning, I found that Chief had left with the 9 fasters.
“Where did they go?” I asked the receptionist at the tribal administration building.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Who knows?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said.
I bumped into Chief’s cousin who had run sweat lodge a couple of times I’d been there during the summer, a man whose silent manner intimidated me. “Do you know where the fast is being held?”
“Up that way,” he pointed northeast, “about an hour.” He’d said an Indian word for the place name.
“Do you know the road?” I asked.
“I think that highway,” he pointed. “Pick it up down there.”
“And then what?”
“Go north about an hour and look for cars on the side of the road.”
I felt betrayed and lost, but I didn’t think that I could afford to wallow in those feelings, because I had to get to the site. So I got in my car and drove up a highway toward the Sierra Nevadas, looking for some cars on the side of the road. I started to pray. I also tried to laugh. I knew the fast would be hard, but I had never thought that just getting to the prayer site would be tough. I drove through a town and came to a fork in the road. I chose one direction and kept going. I was racing against sunset that seemed to be less than an hour away. I came upon a ranger station. Inside were two rangers, and neither had ever heard of the place that I said I was looking for. “Maybe that’s an Indian name,” one ranger said. “I never heard of it.”
I used a payphone and called Santa Rosa Rancheria. I begged the receptionist to put someone on the phone who could guide me to the fast.
The man I spoke to earlier got on the phone. “Oh,” he said. “Maybe there’s one person.” He got the number for Rogelia in Fresno.
I called and told her my plight. “Where are you now?” she asked. I told her. “Turn back down the hill, now, and meet me in town. I’ll set you on your way.”
As I rolled into a parking lot in town, a woman in a pickup truck pulled by. “Andrew?” she asked. I nodded. “I’m Rogelia, let’s go.”
I followed her lead into the mountains. We were racing against the sun. A half hour out of town, getting into the wilderness, Rogelia pulled over, described what turn I was looking for, wished me the best, and then turned back. I headed out and, by the time I got to a high elevation and crossed a bridge, the sky was dark and there were no stars or moon shining. At some point I saw a small dirt road off to the right and I turned. I rolled along for a few minutes, doubting that I would see another living soul, or at least one that would want to see me. Then I saw a fire in a pit. I parked and turned off my headlights. After walking in the dark, I came upon some folks who I’d never seen, but who were Native American.
“Is Chief around?” I asked.
“No,” one of the others said. “He’s with the fasters in the sweat lodge.” It took all my strength not to crumple to the ground and cry. Maybe that was what I should have done.
They invited me to sit by the fire and they offered me something to eat. I sat by the fire and listened and ate, though I expected to be fasting by then. They told stories about people I didn’t know about. They joked with each other. They played cards. Harold started laughing as he mentioned that some folks were “Calling me Medicine Man. Oh, sure. I’m a Medicine Man.” He slapped his thigh and laughed. The others laughed, too.
“You a Medicine Man?” he asked the others, stressing the first syllables of the title. One of Harold’s friends gave him an empty soda can and insisted he show me what he learned in ’Nam. Harold silently put his fingers through the aluminum as easily as if it were tin foil. Then he peeled a strip in the can, poking new holes and peeling more strips. During this time, I was thinking that I wouldn’t be able to fast, that I was an outsider, and I wondered why I had come.
Later, it was time to bring the fasters to their lodges, which each faster had built during the day. I went with a group of folks who would be in camp praying for all the fasters. Each faster was brought to a lodge that he’d made that day with pepperwood poles and covered with tarps and blankets. Afterward, we returned to camp.
“You can go on the hill tomorrow,” Chief said to me. I felt myself relax a little.
That night Chief led some drumming on big drums as a way to give strength to the fasters. When he and the others weren’t drumming, there were card games, which were wagered for one frogskin, i.e. a dollar bill. Harold complained to Chief: “I hear that you’re going to midnight mass, and instead of donatin’, you’re breakin’ the bank.”
“Someone’s got to keep the white man’s money,” Chief responded, causing everyone to laugh.
We had some good food made in camp, tortillas made on the fire, not “storetillas,” and some laughter when one of the young men present poured on the Dumbass brand of hot pepper sauce as the older men nodded and winked at each other, then slapped their knees and roared when the guy couldn’t put out the fire in his mouth.
The next day brought its own trials. In the morning, most of us in base camp watched as Big Jim, dressed in orange overalls, wielded a chainsaw and cut a felled tree into big logs. I took part in carrying the logs to a pickup truck and piling them in. As I set down a log into the bed of the truck, someone else threw a log on top of it, say 50 lbs. on top of 50 lbs. My fingers felt crushed. I pulled them out and squeezed them with my full strength seeing, briefly, two deep red oval wounds. Nausea sent me to the ground as I heard voices, “Are you all right?” “What happened to him?” “He…”
Then I heard Harold’s voice. “He’s a faster, I can tell. Look how he’s going already.” I couldn’t laugh, though the others did. I could barely breathe. I thought, now they’re definitely not going to let me fast. Chief came to me and grabbed my fingers. Slice. Slice. With the tip of his jackknife, he cut the skin that had been hanging down.
Pyro, the firekeeper for the sweat lodge and fast came to me and asked, “You all right Two Fingers?” The nausea had subsided enough for me to laugh inside. I hadn’t come for an Indian name, but there it was.
That night I was brought into the sweat lodge and walked to my prayer lodge. By then I was only called Two Fingers. I carried my lulav and etrog into the lodge. The others covered the opening with a tarp so inside was pitch black. I sat and prayed for hours. I napped and then was up long before dawn, praying.
So began my 4 nights of fasting. I chanted the Shema. I asked God to help me know the matriarchs and patriarchs. I asked for wisdom of the earth that my ancestors had. I asked for guidance from Moshe, for wisdom of dreams from Joseph, for wisdom of drums and water from Miriam. Sometimes I heard another faster chanting in a Native American language. Sometimes I’d chant. There was something liberating about calling out the Shema with my full voice into darkness.
Other than to relieve myself, I stayed within or at the edge of my prayer lodge, my first sukkah. I looked at the clouds and imagined seeing Moses hovering over me. I looked at the crisscross of pepperwood making my dwelling. I had what felt like to be all the time in the world. I got to know my lulav, the palm, willow and myrtle branches. The etrog.
During the days, while I chanted and prayed, I realized that I had never prayed in Hebrew outside, that I had never felt safe enough to pray outside. On that particular Indian land, which had been in unbroken use by Native Americans for 10,000 years, I was finding out what it was like to pray as a Jew on the land. Each morning I succumbed to scraping the back of my finger against the tarp inside the lodge. A few drops of dew made it into my mouth.
By the last night, the other fasters were already back in base camp because they’d already spent 4 nights, I felt as if my brain had become a dried sack and was scraping against the inside of my skull. The hunger didn’t bother me anymore, but the thirst was overwhelming. My legs hurt and my head pounded.
My prayer lead me to the village where my grandfather, Meier, lived near Minsk, Tyznezitch. I had never met him. A voice in my mind told me that fear of the Russian bear infused my ancestors, and fear of the pogroms that ultimately wiped them out. There I was, on Mono Tribe land, Bear Country, where an 800 pound bear had been sited just weeks ago, in that area. My prayer brought me to my grandfather and Fear of Bears. I asked God, what did that mean? I kept asking as pain raged through my muscles and tendons around my bones. I was sensing that my pain was my own fear coiled around me.
I called to the spirits of the land, to the peoples of the land, as friends. I saw them as part of God. I growled and roared through the night. The hills and all that lived in the hills held wisdom. I prayed for God to teach me directly as well as to let the beings of the hills teach me. I was given insight into Grandpa’s way, once he made a family in the new country.
His way was to stay distant, to protect what he cherished most by not drawing the jealousy of the Russian Bear. I asked, what did that mean? I was filled with an overwhelming sense of understanding and compassion for my grandfather. If Grandpa had doted on who he loved, if he showed the world his deepest love, it could be taken from him. His intimacy would have endangered those he loved most.
Hour after hour my prayer and pain intensified. Then it struck me. Dad’s middle name in Hebrew was Dov, Bear. A smile cracked through my headache. The crack grew in size until the rope of fear began to uncoil. It felt to me that an actual, physical rope was unwinding in my legs. My legs shook with spasms over and over and over. First there were dozens of spasms, and then hundreds. Some shook my legs, and others, my torso. My head filled with gentleness. It was nearing dawn and I was no longer thirsty.
At dawn, Chief and the others came for me, and I was smiling. They raised the tarp and let the sunlight in. I stood, slowly. Someone pointed to the ground. There were bear tracks around my lodge.
In the morning sweat lodge after my fast, Chief asked, “Two Fingers, do you have anything you want to say?”
“I’m forming a new relationship with Bear,” I said. And with God, I thought.
At camp, I ate a homemade breakfast of tortillas and eggs. The others prepared an arbor, a large clearing surrounded by a wood fence and trees, where a bear dance would take place that night. Cold after the fast, I was given a wool poncho by a man named Lucky, half-Jewish and half-Indian. I watched the preparations and thought about my fast. I was grateful for these new friends who had taken in a stranger and let him pray in his newly discovered Jewish way on their ancient land.
Andrew Tertes’s debut novel, Jacob’s Return, is now available.