What are the stories we tell in families? What are the stories we don’t tell? And why don’t we tell certain stories?
"This is a difficult question, and I want to give you space to answer it however you’d like (or not answer it at all) — but how has your time researching and writing this book led you to understand the violence and devastation and horror of what’s happening in Israel and Palestine right now?"
I understand why it felt relevant and reasonable, even topical, to ask this question, but frankly I am very tired of people (mostly white, almost exclusively non-Jewish and non-Palestinian) feeling like it's entirely acceptable to essentially ask Jews to answer for the actions of the Israeli government, or to call on them to unpack their personal connection to a conflict unrelated to the topic of the book they wrote (settlement of indigenous land in what would become the "American west"). We as Jews are constantly called on the carpet to either perform our guilt for the sins of a government who we didn't vote for, or to disclaim and condemn the actions of an army which we can't control. It's exhausting and unending, and it's no more ok than asking a Muslim to condemn ISIS or al-Qaeda. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has nearly nothing in common with the settlement and colonization of the United States. It's clear that you attempted to be gentle, kind, and sensitive to the situation, but the fact that you asked the question at all is illustrative of the kind of context in which Jews find themselves increasingly these days, asked to perform guilt for something over which we have no control or to condemn and decry and disclaim a country that most of us can do nothing about, and a conflict through which white Americans are expiating and laundering their own settler guilt.
Every time I open your emails I'm so happy I made the decision to subscribe. I can only imagine the hours and care that go in to your writing and curating to be able to produce something that stretches my mind in so many directions and I feel so glad to be benefiting from it. Thanks again!
I’m a fifth generation Oregonian on my mom’s side, covered wagons and all, and it took me until my fifties to realize my pride in that is misplaced. I appreciate the idea that feeling complicated about your family past is different than feeling bad. I remain impressed with the courage and tenacity of my forebearers while also recognizing they participated in a land theft that I am still benefiting from even though I didn’t do it myself.
I'm so appreciative of the big questions and issues attended to in the book and in this post. There is a concept called "sankofa", which in the Akan language of Ghana means "go back and get it." The symbol used is often a bird with its neck turned backwards often reaching for a seed or an egg. The idea is to look back and grab the insights from the past to move forward, a concept that seems to be in employ here with the author and the story she tells. I am curious to know how the book has been received by members of the Lakota? I'm also curious whether the author has taken steps to engage in some sort of repair outside of publishing the book? I know in my instance where family history entangles more than once (thru John Elliot's Indian Villages of Massachusetts and the Great Swamp Massacre of 1675), I felt that my efforts always paled in comparison to my desires to "fix" it, always feeling that acknowledgement was not enough. I know there is a ton written on the subject of white guilt and personal responsibility; I don't pretend to do any justice to the topic or add anything new. I did write about sankofa and the difficulty I personally felt in reaching back to move forward - I'm still left with the question: is it good enough to learn and acknowledge history? Sharing here in case there is interest. https://medium.com/@emilykaminsky/the-third-way-65f7558e845a
This was a beautiful read, thank you! I love the idea of "there's something to be said about kids feeling complicated about themselves" -- wow! I am very liberal and work in a very conservative area, so I really appreciate having simple language to endorse children understanding complicated truths... the world is complicated, of course you're going to feel complicated about certain subjects sometime!
I have been thinking about my family's history here for a very long time. One side of my family arrived in South Dakota in 1882, according to notes my great-grandmother made in a scrapbook full of photos  and extensive histories of her mother's family, who arrived in the US from Germany in 1854, and settled first in Iowa, moving to South Dakota in 1910, just before my grandmother was born.
It would have been her husband's family--that of my Grandma's father, that is--that got to South Dakota before the massacre at Wounded Knee, if her narrative is accurate, and homesteaded in 1882 near Redfield, SD. But I have not been able to find a paper trail of land holdings other than a single quit claim that was taken up later, around 1895, just a few years after Wounded Knee.
I do not know what my great-great grandparents might have known about the land they were moving onto, and there is no mention at all of Natives in my great-grandmother's writings--she was writing about things that happened when she was very young and still in Iowa, but that was also relatively recently "opened for settlement" when her family arrived there.
I first read Dee Brown's "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" sometime in the 1980s. Although I had a sense growing up that the Indians had got the short end of the stick, especially here out West, Brown's book made the losing of the West extremely concrete--and violently bloody. It was, of course, a history I was never taught.
Sometime not long after I graduated high school in 1979, my grandmother sent me a copy of "Touch the Earth: a Self-Portrait of Indian Existence" for Christmas. It is a compilation of Edward R. Curtis photos and copies of speeches and addresses given by Natives, often on the occasion of treaty signings that drove them from their homes and onto reservations--if they were lucky. If they were even luckier, those reservations were at least near the land the US had taken from them. I looked through it without a great deal of surprise: the stick may have been even shorter than I thought, or little more than a scrap of bark, but I was beginning to suspect as much.
Her inscription inside the front cover reads: "Not our background, but a point of view to think about. Love, Grandma Elsie"
She died in 2010, at 99-1/2 years old. That side of my family is nearly gone; there were never very many of us, and my cousin and than my aunt died in the two years following. I had so many questions to ask them, but I grew up 3000 miles away and-- oh, family dynamics are so weird for me. I feel like I was just getting to know them and now it's just my folks, who are fundamentalist Christians and are certain G*d has ordained whatever violence we may be implicated in. We barely speak.
My mother's side of the family is large, but riven with brutality and abuse. They also came west early, but I know almost nothing about when or where or why.
I figure I could probably write several books, but about what, precisely, is not clear. There is still so much to find out, and I have only so much energy. I want to know when Europeans, and by inheritance, Euro-Americans forgot they were part of life on Earth and decided instead to subjugate any creature who was not a straight white Christian man. I want to know where we picked up these endless cycles of brutality, and how and why. We have pagan traditions, often Earth-centered--and they are often taken up in extremely problematic ways by white supremacists, who, if they are in North America, don't seem to find it salient that we left our lands deforested and worn, back across the Atlantic.
But we have them, somewhere, underneath the distortions of capital and Christendom and brute force--unless we were already starting to forget.
I have looked at the Neolithic Revolution(s)--which were not one and did not go in a straight line anywhere. I have looked at the Roman conquest of Iberia and Gaul, at what is known about the Germanic cultures that never came under Roman rule but did convert to Christianity at some point after the Roman Empire began to transform into the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. I have tried to understand the outlines of pagan-to-Christian conversion, but I cannot devour history like I once did. I am still looking at the Black Death, which killed 30% to 60% of the population across Europe in the 14th century.
The Twentieth Century, the World Wars, the Holocaust, the massive destruction Europe brought down upon itself while we in the US seemed to learn very little other than that we are always on the side of Good--even when we are obviously not: I was raised with all this, and wonder if the US is bound to make the same mistakes.
And my own family, on one side rehearsing historical brutalities at an intimate scale; on the other, open and friendly but, even when I knew them, reserved and hard to reach.
I cannot put any kind of conclusion to any of this because it is still wide open. Two things I am fairly certain of:
Euro-American culture is wound in a complex tangle of brutality, separation, and subjugation at every public and private level (I would argue that "public" and "private" are not at all exclusive anyway, but that's some other book..).
If we who inherit Euro-American colonial, violent, alienated cultures are unable to remember our connection with life on Earth, and to begin to remake that connection, we may not survive at all--and we will certainly cause a great deal more suffering during the upcoming evolutionary bottleneck.
 I was given a photocopy of this scrapbook in 1996, and have been poring over it since. I last saw the original when I was about 14, but until the copies were made, I never had a chance to read the whole thing.
As an American Jew, I'm intrigued by the relationship between American Jews and groups who have had a different and far worse experience in America. There has been a lot of interplay of course between Jews and Blacks, often cooperative, often contentious (the subject of a planned future post of mine), but this interview gave me some beginning insights into the relationship between American Jews and Native Americans. Thank you.
robertsdavidn.substack.com/about (no Paywall)
Really looking forward to reading this! I think amplifying these stories is so important right now as groups of Americans (eg Mom’s for Liberty, et al) are trying to whitewash history through book bans and selective education. We need to know these stories and as the author suggested, use that knowledge to think about human struggles with more empathy.
I really appreciated this interview and Rebecca’s thoughtful words -- I look forward to reading more of them in her book. Thank you!!
Jew Flats! Wow.
Aunt Etta’s response—so lovely.
When I started to read this piece I was reminded of how Oakland, CA was founded. Three White guys came and squatted on land that had been apportioned by the Spanish king to a Spanish family, who in turn of course did their own squatting and seizing of Native land. Ugh.
As history shows, whichever side manages to construct a systemic framework that legalizes their claim gets to keep the land.
An enlightening conversation throughout - but this may be the most important part:
"That the past isn’t their fault AND that they can be part of taking responsibility for a better future."
We say something similar to our kids: You are not guilty, but you are responsible - for understanding the past, for being aware of the present, for how you choose to vote, spend your money and time, and speak.
A nun running a social justice organization once said to my husband "a grateful and compassionate heart can do far more for justice than a guilty one."
I too often see wallowing in guilt as evidence of caring, when it's more likely to be counter-productive. But I understand where it comes from - click-driven media favors drama and the the rhetoric of shame, and so it perpetuates itself. Worst of all, it helps drive pushback among people who might otherwise be convinced.
Same thought as below - so happy to subscribe and always so impressed by the thought behind these posts. I've been aware of same pattern in my (Irish/German/Swiss) ancestors who "settled" parts of Central Wisconsin ... and the pioneer stories we've all heard or read. (Great-great grandmother walked 8 miles through "Indian country" to baptise her babies... well, yes indeed, it was Indian country. There was a lot of unwitting truth in some of the obits ...). I've started reading more about history of the Plains with a newly skeptical eye. This book sounds riveting; thank you so much for highlighting it here.
Here in Michigan, indigenous kids, especially in the northern part of the state, were rounded up and sent to boarding schools. We have sad stories like those that happened in Canada. The situation was so tragic, and we do not know the extent of the abuse, even now. I would hate to think that anyone profited by it.
Just ordered a copy of this book - thank you so much!