Honoring Native American Voices: Recognizing Tragic History and Praising Brave Spirits

February 25, 2016

In 2013, while watching the film Broken Rainbow at a film festival, I learned something shocking as they talked about the Long Walk of the Navajo, which was the 1864 deportation and attempted ethnic cleansing of the Navajo people by the U.S. government.  I learned that Hitler had been deeply inspired by the treatment of the Native Americans by the U.S. Government.  Following the film, I immediately began my research.

In the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian John Toland’s classic, definitive biography of Adolf Hitler, he notes, “Hitler’s concept of concentration camps as well as the practicality of genocide owed much, so he claimed, to his studies of English and United States history.  He admired the camps for Boer prisoners in South Africa and for the Indians in the wild west; and often praised to his inner circle the efficiency of America’s extermination—by starvation and uneven combat—of the red savages who could not be tamed by captivity.”

Toland also noted,”He was very interested in the way the Indian population had rapidly declined due to epidemics and starvation when the United States government forced them to live on the reservations. He thought the American government’s forced migrations of the Indians over great distances to barren reservation land was a deliberate policy of extermination. Just how much Hitler took from the American example of the destruction of the Indian nations is hard to say; however, frightening parallels can be drawn. For some time Hitler considered deporting the Jews to a large ‘reservation’ in the Lubin area where their numbers would be reduced through starvation and disease.”


Burying the dead in mass graves at Wounded Knee; Bosque Redondo internment camp.              

I was incredibly perplexed by how I had never heard about Hitler’s admiration, and had decided to write the article, Hitler’s Inspiration and Guide: The Native American Holocaust.  Since then, I have learned about several other sources of inspiration for Hitler within the U.S. and around the globe, including the American Eugenics Movement‘s campaign for ethnic cleansing.

Native American Response

It has been such an honor how several Native Americans have reached out as a result of the article. Timothy Hunts-in-Winter from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, shared with me how an Israeli Holocaust survivor became his father figure after his biological father died.  I learned about Solomon Bibo, a Jewish immigrant and son of a Cantor, who had married a Pueblo woman and lived among their people, and even became governor of Acoma Pueblo.  I learned how Hitler sent scientists to Arizona, to visit the Gila River Indian Reservation in a town called Blackwater, to prove they were inferior peoples.

Solomon Bibo

Meeting Sarah

Last December, I received an email from a woman named Sarah Schmasow, who identified herself as a member of the Rockyboy Chippewa Cree Tribe of Montana.  She lives in Yuma, AZ, and works for Indian Health Service (IHS) as a Public Health Education Specialist at the Fort Yuma Health Center.  Most of the administrators at the federal health centers are run by every ethnicity other than Native American.

Sarah had wanted to talk about the ongoing genocide of her people, and that there is a dire need for culturally-based healing from grief, loss, and Intergenerational Trauma.  She shared solid examples of how poverty is systemic, rooted in economics, politics and discrimination.

What I learned: American Indians and Alaska Natives have the highest age-adjusted prevelance of diabetes among all U.S. racial and ethnic groups; Native Americans are five times more likely to die of alcohol-related causes than whites, according to the U.S. Surgeon General; native youth suicide rates are at crisis levels; native youth have the lowest achievement scores and graduation rates of any subgroup; the shameful exclusion within the school system of Native American teachers, the lack of current Native events or challenges within the curriculum, and the white-washing of history; the racial group most likely to be killed by law enforcement is Native Americans; how an estimated one in three Native American women are assaulted or raped in their lifetimes; and how U.S. law prohibits Indian tribes from prosecuting non-Indians who are “strangers” to their sexual assault and rape victims.  It seems to not be hard to come up with a pretty long list of the ways in which Native Americans have been mistreated and abused by this country’s government.

“The first Americans have become the last Americans.”
– Aaron Payment, of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Michigan

Sarah shared how she has been working really hard to bring a beading program to the Fort Yuma Health Center that would integrate Native American customs as a healing intervention.  It has been an absolute battle for Sarah to get funding for the program.

A student at the Haskell Indian Nations University (HINU), wrote a letter on her behalf.  “Disbanding the program is an ill-advised and shortsighted decision with long-lasting and debilitating effects on morale and organizational productivity.”   Some of the benefits of the program include: it addresses cultural competency of the service providers; offers a communications platform and device for cultural integration; creates a sense of belonging and relationship within the community; and allows for cultural integration by allowing new non-group members the chance to learn about and participate in the culture.  The letter ended with, “Sarah Schmasow has shown great initiative and serves as an inspiration to students like myself to imagine new and resourceful ideas that can make a long-lasting and powerful impacts in Indian Country.”

It makes complete sense to me why it is crucial to have culturally competent therapeutic practice at IHS, and quite frankly, I’m baffled by how programs like this aren’t prevelant at IHS centers across the nation.

Sarah is incredibly strong, but there are days when she feels defeated and alone in her battle.  She keeps on going because she deeply believes in the program, and deeply believes in justice for her people.  I find her dedication and strength to be inspiring.

“Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of thy neighbour.” -Leviticus 19:16

Judaism teaches us the dire importance of actively repairing the world through Tikkun Olam.  For me, a very crucial step was learning about the long history and current reality of the systematic destruction of Native Americans in this country.  In studying their history, I also developed a greater understanding of Jewish history.

Through acknowledging the past and the present, we allow a greater chance for healing the future.  And then you keeping taking the next step…


Suggestions for taking steps:

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