Living as we do in a time of immigration panic, David S. Koffman’s The Jews’ Indian: Colonialism, Pluralism, and Belonging in America has special resonance. Its main interest is the relationship – on the ground and in the popular imagination – between American Indians and Jews. But it is the movement of people west, many among them European Jewish immigrants, that guided American policy and law regarding the lives of Indigenous peoples.
The early chapters of The Jews’ Indian examine the role played by Jews in a variety of mid-to late-19th century events: the acquisition of millions of acres of “tribally entrusted lands”; military skirmishes and massacres resulting from this process; and the development of transport and economic networks, which enabled waves of settlement aimed at “closing” the western frontier.
The Jews’ Indian conveys how early Jewish Americans identified with and found personal footholds in all these efforts of American westward development.
Koffman depicts the best-known economic positions of Jews in early America in detail. The popular historical version of Jews on the frontier focuses on their role as “economic spearheads,” from lowly peddlers to well-connected entrepreneurs supplying “mining camps, army fronts, farms, boomtowns” and trade routes for dry goods.
But the full picture is more varied. Jewish agricultural societies supported by Montefiore and Hirsch philanthropic funds settled tens of thousands of Jewish farmers on the land that was removed from Indian control. By the 1920s as many as 80,000 of these had gone west to the majority of U.S. states.
Jewish soldiers in the “Indian Wars” left diaries, which sometimes appeared as published memoirs, that confirmed mainstream views of the “Vanishing Indian” and celebrated the ongoing settlement project.
This “frontier Jewish identity” was represented in a wide array of American Jewish newspapers, where Koffman finds the turn-of-the-century editorial tone to be notably boosterish.
The Jews’ Indian takes time, too, to investigate how urban eastern Jews thought about the experience of their counterparts out west. The left-leaning New York-based Yiddish Forverts newspaper often sided with the settlers, but periodically it revealed its sympathy for Indians displaced in the process.
In the 1890s and early 20th century Forverts writers compared ongoing Indian resistance to the labour organizing so dear to many of its readers. The newspaper headlines from this period had their own peculiar character: “3 Indianer Gelintched”; “A Milchama Mit Indianer”; “Der Indianer Oifshtand.”
The most richly revealing section of The Jews’ Indian is the chapter titled “Jewish Middlemen Merchants, Indian Curios, and the Extensions of American Capitalism.”
Here Koffman offers a far-reaching portrait of the role of Jews as intermediaries who provided a contact zone of trade and cultural exchange between Indian and white communities.
Koffman’s narrative takes him all the way up the Pacific coast to Victoria, B.C., which became the capital of economic exchange between Indigenous people and Jewish curio traders. The Jewish men who took up these roles, born faraway in Prussia and imperial Russia, were not simply disinterested warehousers and distributors.
They “branded themselves,” Koffman writes, “as Indians’ custodians, Indians’ friends, and sometimes even as near-Indians themselves.”
The Jews’ Indian includes fascinating photos of outfits like Frederick Landsberg’s “Indian Curio” bazaar on Victoria’s curio row. Dealing with everyone from national museums to individual travellers, men like Landsberg contributed to the creation of a new generation of local art, which, as early as the turn of the 20th century, became a tool for the promotion of British Columbia abroad.
This part of Koffman’s study is novelistic in its scope, and the phenomenon of “near-Indians” is with us still. The appropriation of Indigenous identity was at the heart of the recent snafu regarding ancestral claims by Canadian writer Joseph Boyden; while early photos of Neil Young show him decked out in buckskin, dressed, as Americans wanted a Canadian to be, like a “Hollywood Indian.”
The Jews’ Indian examines these scenarios of cultural exchange, borrowing, and appropriation with sensitivity and a researcher’s skill and patience. To glimpse the lively character of this historical tableau, one need only look at the photograph in the book of Julius Meyer in the doorway of his Omaha, Neb. “Indian Wigwam” emporium, alongside a group of the most influential Indian elders and military strategists of his era, some of whom he “likely paid to pose with him.” Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, and Spotted Feather, Meyer’s compatriots, were at the centre of late-19th century American and Canadian history. Exactly where we should see men like Meyer in relation to them is what Koffman’s book reveals.