A Reflection on my Native American Neighbors
One person I have come to know since living in NYC is an Egyptian-American businessman I met who had started coming to my concerts in 2009. He has lived in the United States for over 40 years, since coming here for college. Over one meal we had, he asked where I was from. I told him I am from Green Bay, Wisconsin, and he exclaimed, “Oh yes, I have been there!” When I asked him why he had visited Green Bay, he told me it was to spend time with the people of the Oneida Tribe. I asked him what his connection was to the Oneida Tribe, and he explained that he spends a lot of time traveling to visit the Native American reservations around the country. He said simply: “I knew when I moved to the United States from Egypt as a young man that I would have to befriend the Native Americans, because I would be living on their land.”
His comment struck me deeply. I was struck that an Egyptian-American living in New Jersey knew more about my own neighbors in my native land of Wisconsin than I did. I asked him if he could put me in touch with someone in the tribe, as I wanted to go and talk to them the next time I was back visiting my family.
In the summer of 2010, he helped me arrange a meeting with Norbert Hill, a member of the Oneida Tribe, and the Vice President of the College of the Menominee in Green Bay. When I got into Norbert’s car that morning, I had little idea how profoundly I would be impacted by the 4 hours we spent together driving around the land where I grew up.
He drove me by a modest looking house which I had driven by many times before, and he stopped the car to tell me the story of his grandmother who had lived in that house. His grandmother was Lillie Rosa Minoka-Hill, the 2nd female Native American in the history of the United States to earn an MD and become a doctor. Lillie had been found as a child in an Indian village, where she was the only person left alive. She was adopted by a Quaker doctor in Philadelphia, who gave her a full education, and encouraged her to go on to become a doctor. She married an Oneida man from Wisconsin, and moved there to live on a farm. For 40 years, she ran a kitchen clinic from her house, and later became the only person ever officially adopted by the tribe in Wisconsin. They named her Yo-da-gent by the tribe, meaning “she who saves” or “she who carries help.”
After leaving this house, Norbert drove me to see a granite monument that had been put up in her honor. The inscription reads: “Physician, Good Samaritan, and friend of People of all religions in this community, erected to her memory by the Indians and white people.” It also states: “I was sick and you visited me.” I remember thinking to myself: How could I have grown up in this area, and have never known about this distinguished woman?
As we continued driving around the reservation, Norbert pointed out a symbol which was painted on many rooftops, and other places, which was two curvy blue lines, evoking a stream. It is called the Two Row Wampum Belt, and Norbert explained that they taught their children in the tribe that this symbol represented the Native Americans living at peace alongside the white people who had settled on their land. He said they taught their children a lot about the people of Green Bay. Then he asked if I had been taught anything about the Oneida people as a child growing up in Green Bay. I admitted that I had not been taught anything – that I knew almost nothing about my neighbors. He looked sad, and shared with me that he had often asked to speak in the Green Bay public schools about the Oneida tribe, but they would only open their doors to him the week of Thanksgiving. He said that was the one time of the year he refused to be a guest speaker, because of the way the holiday is celebrated. He did not want to be part of that story line.
As we continued to drive, Norbert pointed out the boundaries of the reservation land, and explained how the tribe was slowly buying back its land from the people of Green Bay. I learned that originally the Oneidas were forced to relocate in Wisconsin from New York in 1821, to a land of around 500,000 acres. In 1838, this was whittled down to 65,400 acres, which belonged to the Oneida Tribe.
However, in 1887, the Dawes Allotment Act forced the tribe to give all of the land to individuals in allotments, forcing them to lose much of their identity as a community. 25 years later, the majority of the land had passed along to non-Indians. In 1934, the US passed the Indian Reorganization Act, which allowed Native Americans the right to purchase land back for tribal ownership. Since that time, the Oneidas have slowly been purchasing back the land, hoping to reclaim their 65,400 acres at some point. As of 2013, they had secured 25,042 acres, about 39% of their original land.
I remember a moment when Norbert became silent, and then said with tears in his eyes that sometimes it was painful to him that their tribe had to buy back land that was stolen from them. Tears came to my eyes in that moment, because I knew that the neighborhood where I grew up was part of their original reservation. My childhood home was part of the stolen land they are painstakingly trying to reclaim.
The journey with Norbert that day made a deep impact on me, as I heard the voice of my neighbors for the first time in 30 years. For the places in our lives were we are in the position of power, I believe our faith calls us to be quiet and listen to the voice of the ‘other.’ Before we can even think of the Biblical call to love our neighbors, we have to first hear their voices, and understand without being defensive. As we walk through our days, may God help us to hear, and teach us to love our neighbors, particularly any voices that are powerless or oppressed.