Yes, You *Can* Be Native and Jewish
“Wait, you’re Native and Jewish? How can you be both?”
“Does that mean you follow two religions? Is that allowed?”
“But you’re more of one than the other, right?”
“I’ve never met someone who’s Jewish and Native.”
These are some common responses from strangers when they find out someone is, in fact, a Native Jew. Other responses range from flat-out disbelief and dismissal to open hostility.
Anna Eckert, who is Bad River Ojibwe and Ashkenazi, says a lot of non-Native Americans have not met a Native person in real life—or, at least, they think they haven’t. “People are especially confused when they meet a Native who doesn’t follow Christianity or what they think of as traditional tribal religions,” she explains.
It’s true that being both Native and Jewish is somewhat rare. In 2020, a Pew Research Center poll found that Jews make up around 2% of the overall population, and less than 1% of American Jews identify as Native.
But as populations grow and shift, being a Native Jew might no longer be such a rarity. According to Indian Country Today, the number of people identifying as American Indian or Alaska Native on the 2020 U.S. census, either alone or in combination with another racial identity, had risen to 9.7 million, an 86.5% increase from 2010.
Of course, census data only gives us a surface view of any given demographic. For both Native and Jewish communities, conversations of identity and belonging are ongoing, as definitions shift over time and place.
One of the challenges to greater Indigenous inclusion in mainstream media representation is erasure. Instead of being clearly identified, Natives (and other minorities) are often forced to select “other” or “identity not listed,” and are categorized with labels such as “something else.” When audiences see “other,” it often represents an amalgamation of identities deemed too insignificant for individual attention. What does that say about how mainstream media view survey respondents and their respective identities? When this happens repeatedly to minorities who are already ignored, dismissed, and underrepresented, it sends a message of deliberate erasure.
Within Jewish institutions, it is difficult to find any kind of solid representation of Native Jews, and a general lack of awareness or understanding about Natives is not uncommon. For most Native Jews, the situation is frustratingly similar to what they’ve experienced in other non-Native spaces, where they’re used to encountering ignorance or miseducation about Native histories, peoples, and cultures.
Daniel Delgado, who is Quechua and Ashkenazi and whose Indigenous relatives mostly live in Peru, wishes mainstream Jewish communities understood being Native not as a racial identity, but as a political and cultural form of belonging. “Nativeness is not about race,” he says. “It is a complete, relational, land-based peoplehood.”
Brixton Lieberman, who is a Diné (Navajo) and Ndé (Mescalero Apache) Jew, describes the usual responses he gets from non-Native white Jews. “There’s usually some question about blood quantum, which is the amount of ‘Indian blood’ a person has,” he explains. “And some joke about how ‘we all have a little Native in us.’ A lot of people get confused because I’m Jewish and brown!”
Native Jews can also feel fetishized. “White Jews try to get a sense for how Indian I *really* am,” Daniel says. “And they’d rather hear about my Quechua customs than my thoughts on Torah.”
These comments might not be meant maliciously, but they reveal the systemic racism and ignorance embedded in mainstream American institutions, of which synagogues, Jewish day schools, and summer camps are a part. It is not uncommon for non-Native Americans to speak of Indigenous people in the past tense, or to forget that the struggles against violent colonialism are still being waged every day. The brutality of colonization continues to erase Native presence and deliberately create a sense of invisibility. The simple exclamation “We Are Still Here!” is at the forefront of contemporary Native art, media, and activism, including as the title of a children's book, photographic collection, and documentary.
It’s important to remember that because Indigenous people have always been here, connections between different Nations have always been made, and cultures have always grown and been shaped by those growing around them. While Native peoples are each distinct and unique, nobody has existed in a vacuum, and resources and ideas are actively exchanged between tribes.
“Native people, especially early contact nations like mine, have a long experience of creating syncretic relationships between our traditional worldviews and other systems,” Daniel says. “If we do that with Judaism, it is not immediately avoda zara [a form of idolatry] or an attack on Judaism.”
Just because you’ve never met someone who is Native and Jewish, does not mean Native Jews are not out there. Yet curiosity about Native Jews can become problematic when Jewish communities perpetuate stereotypes about Natives, or even about what it means to be a Jew.
“I’ve felt very welcomed by my Navajo family,” says Isabella Robbins, who is Diné and Ashkenazi, “but I feel less comfortable in Jewish spaces. I’m from the rez [reservation], where the nearest synagogue or Jewish center is at least three to four hours away. Sometimes other Jews look down on me for how little I know.”
Because most Native communities don’t have a large Jewish presence, many Native Jews, like Isabella, have trouble accessing mainstream Jewish life. Especially in areas that are dominated by American Christianity, it can be difficult for Native Jews to find like-minded religious communities.
Sometimes even practicing their traditions can create uncomfortable situations. “There’s a lot of food in my pueblo I can’t eat due to kashrut,” Daniel explains, “which is awkward, because declining food that is offered to you is not something [Quechua people] really do. Also, alcohol is important to both Quechua and Jewish ceremonies, and sometimes Jewish restrictions on the use of wine have created minor conflicts.”
Sometimes Native Jews have to navigate competing considerations. For example, in Jewish practice, many types of fish are considered kosher, but Anna will only eat those harvested by Indigenous people and practices.
“Growing up on the reservation, I ate spam, which is obviously not kosher,” Isabella adds. “I also had to choose between having a bat mitzvah and having a kinaalda, which is a Navajo women’s puberty ceremony. It was just a matter of time and resources.”
Despite conflicting traditions or narratives, Native Jews also find that their cultures’ histories can invoke similar stories and emotions. “Both our communities faced horrendous acts of genocide,” says Brixton. “We carry intergenerational trauma. I think of the similarities to our Black Jewish relatives, and of the burdens of ancestral trauma.”
Being Native and Jewish can place these historical narratives in relation to each other, highlighting similarities as well as differences. Anna discusses Ojibwe ties to her land, and how they shape her culture and way of life. “Being Indigenous strongly centers connections to our lands, but I don’t feel that as a Jew. There have been a lot of diasporas. I can’t speak for other Jews, but I do not see my Judaism reflected in Israel, and I don’t feel connected to it as a homeland. My grandmother didn’t claim Poland and Poland didn’t claim her. I wish I had the feeling I have about the area around Bad River for the places where my Jewish family grew up.”
Isabella emphasizes the importance of recognizing Judaism as a cultural marker. “Judaism isn’t just a religion—it is culture and family. My culture and family is also about Navajo language and community. I don’t have to choose—I can make things work for me in the ways I need to, and take care of all parts of me. My parents always encouraged me to take part in ceremonies and learn the language...It’s sweet to see the way they treat each others’ cultures and honor both for me.”
Like other multicultural Jews, this is what Native Jews want the larger Jewish community to understand—that they are not “divided” between two cultures but expanded by them. There is no one “correct” way to be Jewish. Native Jews are complete and beautifully diverse.