By Ethan Tratner
The Mel Brooks comedy film Blazing Saddles (1974) features a Native American chief (played by Brooks) speaking Yiddish. Although this scene is used for comic effect, some people believe that the Native Americans are descended from the Ancient Hebrews. This belief recently resurfaced when the History Channel aired a special entitled Who Really Discovered America?(2010)1 which they questioned whether Christopher Columbus was the first person to stumble upon the Americas on his way to Asia. They propose many new theories about who may have first landed in the Americas ranging from the Welsh to the Indonesians. In one segment, the special proposes that the ancient Hebrews discovered America first. Unlike many of the other theories, the basis for the theory of the Native Americans’ Jewish origins has had deep roots in European Jewish and Christian thought for hundreds of years and continues to this day.
The belief of the Native Americans’ Jewish origins seems odd when compared with the commonly accepted and documented theory that the Native Americans originated in Asia and crossed the land bridge into North America tens of thousands of years ago. This is used to explain the origins of the vast populations of the Americas spanning North, Central, and South America. The History Channel special criticized not only the notion of who discovered the Americas, but also the question of whether all of these natives came from Asia. The segment about the Hebrews is featured about the Jewish belief of the “lost” tribes.
After the Assyrians destroyed the temple, the Jews were scattered throughout the Middle East and eventually Europe. Many Jews believed that aside from the known Jewish communities there were various “lost” tribes scattered to the far corners of the earth unknown to their religious brethren. Shortly after the discovery of the New World, many Jews and Christians suspected that these people could possibly be one of these supposedly lost tribes, because Europeans had never encountered anyone like them before.
As early as the 17th century, Jews took notice of these people and began writing about them. Manasseh ben Israel, a Dutch rabbi, wrote The Hope of Israel (1650) in which he saw the Native Americans as one of the lost tribes and saw this discovery as a sign of the coming messiah. This belief was also popular amongst Christians like Thomas Thorowgood who published his best seller Jewes in America (1651). Other subscribers to this theory include many of the founders of the original English 13 colonies such as William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania.2 These ideas continued into the 19th century, which was characterized with a new fascination with biblical history.
There were many Europeans and Americans who renewed their beliefs in the lost tribes. In 1831, Ephrias Jones, an American Bible professor, claimed that anyone “conversant with the European Jews and the Aborigines of America… will perceive a great likeness in color, features, hair, aptness to cunning, dispositions for roving.”3 In the United States of America, the belief in Native Americans’ Jewishness became one of the basis for a new sect of Christianity. This belief manifested itself in the sermons and religious organizations of European and American Jews and Christians. The Book of Mormon also expresses the belief that Jesus came to America and preached to the Native Americans, who were descendants of the ancient Jews. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, believed that he had to convert the Native Americans to Mormonism because of their ancient Israelite heritage.4 However the belief in the Jewish origins of Native Americans is not only restricted just to European Jews and Christians, but also to some native tribes themselves.
There are a number of tribes in the United States that have expressed the belief that they are descended from the Hebrews. Some members of the Cherokee tribe believe that they are descended from the Jews because their traditional medieval history contains traditions similar to those of the Hebrews. At one point they had a singular seven sided temple that was the center of their monotheistic religion unlike the tribes that surrounded them. Furthermore, some of their harvest festivals occured on the same days as old Jewish festivals. When the Cherokee went into battle they fought with a priest carrying a holy basket, much like the Hebrew ark leading the troops into battle.5 One Missouri branch of the tribe claims that, based on their oral history, they immigrated from far away in a place called Masada which was the fortress destroyed by the Romans and taken from the Hebrews.6 These theories seem validated with the archaeological discovery of many carvings that look like ancient Hebrew writings found in the United States.
Could these be the lost tribes, or are these claims based on mythology instead of facts? Jews throughout the Middle-Ages were oppressed in the many countries that they resided. Could the belief in lost tribes just be stories used to inspire an oppressed people to think that somewhere, at some time, Jews were flourishing? In the years after the creation of the state of Israel, a number of groups throughout the world proclaimed their Jewish ancestry from tribes in Africa, India, and even Korea. These discoveries and the proliferation of Mormonism give new life to the belief of the lost tribes. Although to many people this theory seems implausible, it has existed for hundreds of years, and the mystery continues to this day.
1 Who Really Discovered America?Andy Awes. Perf. James Lurie. History Channel. THC. 22 June 2010.
2 Koffman, David. “My Jewish Learning: Native Americans & Jews: The Lost Tribes Episode.”Judaism & Jewish Life – My Jewish Learning. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 May 2011. http://www.myjewishlearning.com/history/Modern_History/1700-1914/America_at_the_Turn_of_the_Century/Peddlers_and_Frontier_Judaism/Native_Americans_and_Jews.shtml
44 Jewish Ancestry of Native-americans and Mormon Lamanite Origin Claims.”Rethinking Mormonism, Polygamy, Temples, History and Sexuality. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 May 2011. http://www.i4m.com/think/lists/lamanite.htm
5 Shaddox, Daniel. “Cherokee and Jews.” Cherokee Origins-Jewish Indians. Lampstand Media, 12 Feb. 2005. Web. 7 May 2011. http://veldantia.com/bronzemen/hebrew.html
Published on page 33 of the Spring 2011 issue of Leviathan.