March 17, 2005
Call Me Shoshynsh
One of the worst things to say about an American Indian is that he or she acts like they have no family. Every spring I go back 200
years; I go upriver to see my American Indian family.
Last Yom Kippur, Rabbi Ken Chasen of Leo Baeck Temple read the names of the past year's departed loved ones during the Yizkor service. One name was Tseluknot --my Dad. This might have have been the first speaking of Chinook by a rabbi and the congregation probably missed it.
I am the son of a chief of an Indian nation. Tseluknot and Ceotit adopted me, the son of Max and Grace Schwartz of Brooklyn.
Back in 1979, after four years as a lawyer representing American Indians charged with murders and insurrection, I moved to Oregon for a simpler, quieter life. But, in 1982, the state and federal governments decided to finish a process begun in the 19th century. They wanted all Indians moved away from the Columbia River. Mass evictions, military raids and undercover arrests of fishermen and their families hit the region like a firestorm. I was asked by the American Indians to move in and join the tribes' struggle. And after a number of years in court, we again won the right to live, fish and pray along the Columbia River. One of the defendants, who was also the chief, adopted me as his son.
My Indian mother decided that I would have the family name Shoshynsh. This means Steelhead Trout, the one fish that always makes it back up the river, to sustain the people.
A ceremony was held along the Columbia River many years ago, in the Celilo Village Longhouse beside what was once the great Celilo Falls of the Columbia River Gorge. My birth parents were invited to the ceremony. They were given presents from the tribe, including a long knife for my father, because the American Indians thought it was probably dangerous for them to live in New York City.
As I stood before the gathering, I listened to speeches of the elders. They talked about why they approved of my adoption and naming. I did not know most of the speakers, but they had been watching me for quite some time. They stated that most outsiders came and helped for a little while, and then left before the job was done. However, I did not leave.
Two of the men who spoke said that they had not known a Jewish person before they went to Europe during World War II. They learned that I was Jewish, and said it made sense that their tribe's lawyer would be Jewish because what the white people had done to the Jewish people in Europe made the Jews the only non-Indians who would understand what it would be like to be Indian.
In August of last summer, after being hounded by the authorities over the care of his horses, my American Indian Dad took ill and went into intensive care. He died, and his grandchildren dressed and painted him. We, the sons of the chief, buried him by our own hands, on Labor Day.
In January, the Jewish world and its friends memorialized the death camps at Auschwitz. We mourned the victims and honored the dead. Today, we must struggle to prevent genocide wherever and whenever it happens. Indian America had its own holocaust. And, sometimes, in some parts of our country, race hatred as public policy still rears its ugly head. We have to stop it -- now and forever.
Jack Schwartz is a lawyer and adjunct professor of law, and is still looking to meet someone to have Jewish children with. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.