In November, we celebrate Native American Heritage Month. The National Congress of American Indians guides us to recognize November as:
"a time to celebrate rich and diverse cultures, traditions, and histories [while] acknowledging the important contributions of Native people...educate the general public about tribes, raise general awareness about the unique challenges Native people have faced... and the ways in which tribal citizens have worked to conquer these challenges."
Unfortunately, much of North America is just beginning to recognize the contributions of Indigenous peoples. As Jews, our own experiences with discrimination create sensitivity and solidarity with the plight of the Indigenous population. This is especially true for those of us with intersectional identities, including BIPOC Jews. Still, all of us must bear the responsibility to shed light on racial injustice. From Yalkut Shimoni ("Gathering of Simon") 1:13, one midrashic commentary on the books of the Tanach that was compiled between the 11th and 14th century, we understand our communal responsibility to ensure equity is every person's reality:
"God formed Adam out of dust from all over the world: yellow clay, white sand, black loam and red soil. Therefore, no one can declare to any race or color of people that they do not belong here since this soil is not their home."
Yet, our society continues to fail Indigenous communities in many ways, illustrated especially by the thousands of Indigenous people who have gone missing or been murdered throughout the United States and Canada. Indigenous people are working to raise awareness about how their communities are being harmed - but why is the rest of the world not listening?
Our Jewish values instruct us to listen to the words of God, the teachings of our ancestors, and the commandments that help us live a moral, Jewish life. There remains a continued need to prove our trauma to the rest of the world and for the world to hear our stories, just as there is a need for the Indigenous population to be heard. Holocaust denial continues to fuel a rise in antisemitism. So too will Indigenous communities continue to be threatened if we do not listen to their cries. Of the 5,712 Indigenous women reported missing in the United States in 2016, only 116 were logged by the federal missing person's database, according to the New York Times. We must do better speaking out when another group of people is being intentionally targeted and harmed.
Lack of awareness is what makes the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two Sprit (MMIWG2S) Movement a necessity. This movement gained traction in Canada in 2015 as Native women and their families spread awareness about the threats to their communities. Indigenous women and girls are at a disproportionate risk of violent and non-violent victimization. In Canada, Indigenous women and girls are 12 times more likely to be murdered or abducted than any other group, according to CanadianWomen.org. In America, four out of five American Indian and Alaskan Native women experience violence in their lifetimes according to NCJRS, more than any other racial group. Protests and an increased use of social media advocacy have been useful in building awareness about these issues and the movement's momentum, but Indigenous citizens have been speaking out and sharing their stories for years.
In 2009, The REDress Project was founded by artist Jamie Black, first seen on the campus of the University of Winnipeg and Manitoba, Canada. Over 100 red dresses were displayed to "acknowledge the spirits of those who have crossed over and honor their lives by collectively creating a growing movement towards social change." Since the exhibit was first presented, it has been shown in public spaces internationally and has sparked an arts-based movement in support of the MMIWG2S Movement. However, without support and action from the Jewish community, Americans, Canadians, and non-Indigenous communities, Native people will continue to be overlooked, their contributions erased, and experience unnecessary disparities which have allowed Indigenous peoples to go missing and be murdered.
It is our duty to listen and to act. As the ancient Israelites promised: "We will do and we will hear" (Exodus 24:7). But we must do better. We must hear better. The Exodus story shows us that our work is ongoing. The journey of our people continued after we were freed from Egypt; our journey for justice also persists. We have a divine responsibility to care for our neighbors and we must continue to fulfill our role in upholding the world God created by making it more equitable for all.
That is why, this Native American Heritage Month, we ask that you take action to help your Indigenous neighbors:
- Learn more about the missing and murdered Indigenous People crisis by
- Reading resources provided by the U.S. Department of the Interior, Office of Justice Services on Indian Affairs
- Watching webinars which share the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls
- Reading the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma's summary of actions taken in the U.S. in support of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two Spirits Movement
- Reading more accounts of impacted families
- Seek out opportunities to raise awareness by