Friday, November 16, 2018

Is an Indian Tribe one of the Twelve Lost Tribes of Israel?

The United States has the world's second-largest Jewish population. The Chicagoland area has the third-largest U.S. Jewish population, with New York and Los Angeles areas being first and second.

In either 3rd or 4th grade Sunday school, we discussed the 12 tribes of Israel and the 10 lost tribes with our Rabbi, Joseph M. Strauss (who lived to be 98 years old). We were the founding Rabbi of Temple Menorah in the West Rogers Park neighborhood of the West Ridge Community in Chicago, leading the discussion.

Rabbi Stauss told us that some Indian tribes have some Jewish-type traditions. I recall him talking about the Cherokee tribe (which I will address further in the article) and Indian tribes in the Midwest. After my intensive study of the Mississippi Valley Indian tribes, I can see where some of the tribes of the Illiniwek treat the Great Spirit similarly to how Judaism teaches.

This article does not try to prove or disprove the theory of one of the twelve Lost Tribes of Israel came to America by way of the Indigenous people. Some have said: "It's a simple presentation of folklore."

In the 8th century BCE, the Assyrians dispersed the Kingdom of Israel, giving life and legend to the Lost Tribes [1][2]. 

TRIBES                 HEBREW
Reuben                 (רְאוּבֵן‎ Rəʼūḇēn)
Simeon                  (שִׁמְעוֹן‎ Šīməʻōn)
Levi                        (לֵוִי‎ Lēwī)
Judah                     (יְהוּדָה‎ Yəhūdā)
Issachar                 (יִשָּׂשכָר‎ Yīssāšḵār)
Zebulun                  (זְבוּלֻן‎ Zəḇūlun)
Dan                        (דָּן‎ Dān)
Naphtali                 (נַפְתָּלִי‎ Nap̄tālī)
Gad                        (גָּד‎ Gāḏ)
Asher                      (אָשֵׁר‎ ’Āšēr)
Benjamin                (בִּנְיָמִן‎ Bīnyāmīn)
Joseph                   (יוֹסֵף‎ Yōsēp̄)
   ├ Ephraim (אֶפְרַיִם‎ ’Ep̄rayīm)
   ├ Manasseh (מְנַשֶּׁה‎ Mənašše)

The repatriation of these lost tribes eventually became an integral part of the Jewish–and Christian–-messianic dream, and there have been Lost Tribe speculations about numerous "discovered" populations. One of the most fascinating — and unfortunately forgotten — such discussions centered on Indigenous Americans. How did the greater Jewish community in America respond to this?

The Theory Begins
Notice the man in this photograph has "Payot," long-curled or braided sideburns. Payot is worn by some men and boys in the Orthodox Jewish community based on an interpretation of the Biblical injunction against shaving the "corners" of one's head. Literally, Payot means "corner, side, edge" in Hebrew.

Neil - Very interesting article. I did a little further research and... tell me if I'm crazy, but the headgear that the native is wearing looks to me a lot like the Shtreimel, the traditional round fur hat worn by Orthodox Jewish men. I tried to post pics of two examples, but wasnt able to in this post. I'll try to send it by email.  Rand Eller
Two examples of the traditional Orthodox Jewish Shtreimel headdress for comparison to the headdress of the Native American. Courtesy of Rand Eller.

One of the first books to suggest the Native American Lost Tribe theory was written by a Jew, the Dutch Rabbi, scholar, and diplomat Manasseh ben Israel. In
The Hope of Israel (1650), Ben Israel suggested that the discovery of the Indigenous Americans, a surviving remnant of the Assyrian exile, was a sign heralding the messianic era. Just one year later, Thomas Thorowgood published his bestseller Jews in America, or Probabilities that Those Indians Are Judaical, which was made more probable by some additionals to the former Conjectures.

The Lost Tribe idea found favor among early American notables, including Cotton Mather (the influential English minister), Elias Boudinot (the New Jersey lawyer who was one of the leaders of the American Revolution), and the Quaker leader William Penn.

The notion was revived after James Adair, a 40-year veteran Indian trader and meticulous chronicler of the Israelitish features of Native American religion and social custom, wrote The History of the American Indians . . . Containing an Account of their Origin, Language, Manners, Religion, and Civil Customs in 1775. Even Epaphras Jones, an American Bible professor, engaged the theory in 1831, claiming 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, etc."

Religious Connotations
Some of these writers were interested in Native American history, but most were interested in the Bible. Indeed, the Lost Tribe claim should be part of a general 19th-century fascination with biblical history. Explorations of Holy Land flora and fauna, the geography of the Holy Land, and the life of Jesus the man were very much en vogue. A close identification among some 17th and 18th-century Americans with the chosen people of Scripture helped Christian settlers see their colonization of New England as a reenactment of Israel's journey into the Promised Land.

It also contributed to a more general religious myth-making scheme that helped define the national identity of the United States. To cite just one example, in a 1799 Thanksgiving Day sermon, Abiel Tabbot told his congregation in Massachusetts:

"It has often been remarked that the people of the United States come nearer to a parallel with Ancient Israel than any other nation upon the globe. Hence, 'OUR AMERICAN ISRAEL' was a term that was frequently used, and common consent allows it apt and proper."

A curious incident that drew considerable attention and "proved," at least to some, that Indigenous Americans had ancient Israelite origins unfolded when tefillin phylacteries (Pronounced: tuh-FILL-in. These are the small boxes containing the words of the Shema that are traditionally wrapped around one's head and arm during morning prayers) were "discovered" in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in the early 19th century.
Phylacteries (Tefillin in Hebrew)
Their discoverer wrote that this "forms another link in the evidence by which our Indians are identified with the ancient Jews, who were scattered upon the face of the earth, and to this day remain a living monument, to verify and establish the eternal truths of Scripture."

Prominent Jews Respond
Around the time of the Pittsfield tefillin incident, Mordecai Manuel Noah, the journalist, playwright, politician, and Jewish American statesman, began writing about the subject. Noah wrote a play, She Would be a Soldier, or The Plains of Chippewa (1819), that resolved the tension between the Yankees and the British by identifying the Indian Great Spirit with the God of the Bible. Noah's ideas about Jewish Native Indian affinities grew in a distinctly political manner when he invited Native Americans to help settle "Ararat," the separatist Jewish colony he hoped to establish on Grand Island on the Niagara River around 1825.

Noah's writings on Jewish Native Indians came to their full expression with his Discourse on the Evidence of the American Indians Being the Descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel (1837). The work documented a host of theological, linguistic, ritual, dietary, and political parallels between Jews and Indigenous Americans. Most importantly, he identified several essential character traits shared by the Jews and the Native Indians, all of which were highly laudable. For Noah, the conflation of Indians and Jews sanctioned the latter as divinely ordained Americans.

Another notable Jewish-Indian incident occurred in 1860 when stones hewn with Hebrew inscriptions were found in ancient Indian burial mounds near Newark, Ohio. The story unfolded over many months and was followed closely by The Israelite, The Occident, and The Jewish Messenger, whose respective editors represented the intellectual vanguard of American Jewry.
The Newark Holy Stones, a set of artifacts, were discovered in 1860 within a cluster of ancient Indian burial mounds near Newark, Ohio. The collection consists of (1) the Decalogue with its sandstone box, which has Hebrew inscriptions on all four sides, (3) the box top lid, (4) the box bottom, (2) the Keystone, and (5) a stone bowl.
Isaac Mayer Wise, the leader of the Reform movement in America, employed philological proofs to undermine the stone's authenticity. He rejected any connections between Jews and Indigenous Americans, though it's notable that he bothered to engage the story. Isaac Leeser, a traditionalist, sided in favor of the Lost Tribes theory. Reviewing the relics, The Occident, Leeser's newspaper, concluded, "The sons of Jacob were walking on the soil of Ohio many centuries before the birth of Columbus."
The letters on the Decalogue stone appear to be very early Hebrew. For the past 1000 years, Hebrew has most commonly been written with vowel points and consonant points missing on both the Decalogue and Keystone. The absence of points suggests but is not conclusive of earlier dates.
The Torah is written without accents or consonant points.
From a historical and scientific point of view, the Native American Lost Tribe claim is clearly Narishkeit (Yiddish for foolishness). But, even a brief exploration of who was making it and why, who was refuting it, and why reveals essential insights about American Jewry. Popular thought about who Jews were — their place in America, with whom they could or should be associated — helps us understand how Jews negotiated their place in American society. Theories about Ancient Israelite Indians should not be dismissed as mere fantasies; instead, they are important precisely because they are fantasies.

Jews responded to the Lost Tribes' claims about Indigenous Americans in sermons, plays, public statements, scholarly works, and popular writings. The critical responses are more understandable: from the perspective of Reform and science, the theory is flagrantly nonsensical. But there are other reasons some may have rejected it: so as not to be associated with that which was thought of as naive, primitive, and barbarian, so as not to be considered as atavistic or lower on the evolutionary ladder than other Europeans, so as not to be thought of as imminently disappearing from history, and so as not to need Christian civilizing (i.e., missionizing). On the other hand, advocates had to go against the scholarly consensus and side with religious figures who could be dismissed as fanatics.

Accepting Indigenous Americans as ancient Israelites had several (sometimes mutually exclusive) implications for American Jews. Foremost, it meant that the Indians were, in some way, related. It could buttress the sentiment that America was the New Jerusalem. This was the destined place where the original exiles, scattered to unknown corners of the world, were ingathered to their God-chosen Promised Land. They were not "lost" at all. Instead, the near aboriginal connection of Jews to American soil served as evidence of the end of exile and another reason to support a new American Jewish identity.

The connection between Indigenous Americans and Judaism seems clear. Among the Cherokee tribe, they carried an ark into battle, celebrated seven feasts, kept the seventh day of rest, had cities of refuge, and didn't eat pork.

Many of the significant figures in 19th-century American Jewry weighed in–in one manner or another–on the Jewish-Indian controversy. The practical stakes were never high, but the claim — so ubiquitous and so fluid (since it was used for so many different functions by so many other people) — was taken seriously and fretted over by Jewish leaders of very different orientations. The Lost Tribe theory had significant symbolic stakes — for Jews, Christians, and Indigenous Americans. Linking America and its earliest inhabitants with the Bible and its theology meant staking a claim on America–and championing God's plan for the New World.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D. 
#Jewish  #JewishThemed  #JewishLife

[1] The lost tribes are one of the biggest mysteries of Jewish history and have inspired multiple theories. Maybe the Igbo Jews of Nigeria are one of the lost tribes? Perhaps Bene Menashe, in Northern India, can claim the title. Or the Pashtun people of Afghanistan. Or Indigenous Americans. These groups and many more have claimed to have descended from the lost tribes of Israel.

[2] The ten lost tribes were ten of the Twelve Tribes of Israel that were said to have been deported from the Kingdom of Israel after its conquest by the Neo-Assyrian Empire circa 722 BCE.


  1. This world of our is just chock full of surprises.

  2. Fascinating article. Would this now be put to rest one way or another, with DNA testing and the human genome work?

  3. The extreme violent, pagan cannibalistic "savage" behavior documented by French Explorers & Missionaries in the north. And Spanish records of South, & Meso (Inca & Aztec) Indians. Draws a plausible connection to Nephilim tribes that fled Canaan in fear of Joshua's army commanded by God to destroy every man, woman & child. Spies were told how Fear & dread of Israel went through Canaan before they crossed the Jordan.

  4. Neil - Very interesting article. I did a little further research and...tell me if I'm crazy, but the headgear that the native is wearing looks to me a lot like the Shtreimel, the traditional round fur hat worn by Orthodox Jewish men. I tried to post pics of two examples, but wasnt able to in this post. I'll try to send by email.


The Digital Research Library of Illinois History Journal™ is RATED PG-13. Please comment accordingly. Advertisements, spammers and scammers will be removed.