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Deanne Stillman Headshot

Barack Obama, Yom Kippur, Chief Plenty Coups, and Wild Horses

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When Barack Obama was running for President, he made a point of bringing Native Americans into his fold, understanding that they are America's first citizens. They responded accordingly and joined the hopeful parade. At the inaugural parties, one tribe presented Michelle Obama with a hand-woven shawl, bedecked with running horses - the very horses that the US government wiped out by the thousands in order to vanquish the Indians. She happily donned it and it was a beautiful moment and my heart swelled: there was our great icon of freedom, the animal that blazed our trails and fought our wars, entering the White House, even if in image only. Perhaps, I thought, the voracious wild horse round-ups that have continued across the West for decades would come to a halt; maybe, just maybe, we were about to follow a law that went into effect in 1971 - or what was left of it - and preserve the horse we rode in on.

While we are not quite there yet, a ray of hope cracks the darkness. In fact, a reconciliation that has been a long time coming may be upon us, and it cannot arrive too quickly.

Several years ago, while working on my book Mustang, I met with Joseph Medicine Crow, the oldest living Crow chief, during re-enactments for the Battle of the Little Bighorn. He spoke of his tribe's horse traditions and history, and also of the government's campaign to wipe out the Crow herds during the early part of the 20th Century, when bounty hunters were sent to the reservation; these men kept count by way of ears, and when they were finished, at least 45,000 wild horses that were then flourishing on Crow lands were gone. These killings were just a small part of an era that came to be known as "the great removal," during which America's wild horses were nearly wiped out - and would be completely gone today, if not for the efforts of Wild Horse Annie, who fought for two decades to end this brutal campaign.

Alas, the wild horse has endured yet one more violent season. This summer, the dwindling herds that still roam public lands were again besieged with massive takings. As the round-ups played out, and with more scheduled for the fall, I have found myself wondering what happened to the shawl that Native Americans presented to the First Lady? Is it locked up in government vaults with all the other mementoes that bear images of vanished animals? Where was it when Barack Obama presented Joseph Medicine Crow with a medal of honor this year, at the same time that several more herds were stripped from the range in Nevada?

We are nothing without our memories, and tonight, as Jews around the world gather to remember the fallen, atone for wrong turns, and prepare for a return to the righteous path, I belive that horses - and all animals - must be included in our prayers. After all, it was horses that carried the ancient Hebrews out of bondage, and it was horses that traveled with their descendants when they fled Spain during the Inquisition, and it was horses that carried them to freedom in the New World. For all of these horses, and for the countless other horses that continue to be taken from their homes and perish even as we fight to the death to preserve freedom in foreign wars, tonight is the time to remember them, and to include them in the ancient prayer for the dead:

Yit-gadal v'yit-kadash sh'may raba b'alma dee-v'ra che-ru-tay, ve'yam-lich mal-chutay b'chai-yay-chon uv'yo-may-chon uv-cha-yay d'chol beit Yisrael, ba-agala u'vitze-man ka-riv, ve'imru amen.
Y'hay sh'may raba me'varach le-alam uleh-almay alma-ya.

Yit-barach v'yish-tabach, v'yit-pa-ar v'yit-romam v'yit-nasay, v'yit-hadar v'yit-aleh v'yit-halal sh'may d'koo-d'shah, b'rich hoo. layla (ool-ayla)* meen kol beer-chata v'she-rata, toosh-b'chata v'nay-ch'mata, da-a meran b'alma, ve'imru amen.

Y'hay sh'lama raba meen sh'maya v'cha-yim aleynu v'al kol Yisrael, ve'imru amen.

O'seh shalom beem-romav, hoo ya'ah-seh shalom aleynu v'al kol Yisrael, ve'imru amen.

And, as we turn towards tomorrow, and the ancient words speak of who among us is inscribed in the book of life, let us take note of the good news and endeavor to make it manifest. In recent days, thanks to Senator Mary Landrieu, a long-time friend of the four-legged, the government has been ordered to overhaul its management of wild horses and burros within one year, and it can no longer sell mustangs that it has rounded up to the slaughterhouse - if the House concurs. Also, in recent days, thanks to Senator Robert Byrd, the Senate now must consider the ROAM Act (Restore Our American Mustangs), which has already passed the House by a wide margin. This bill broadens protections for wild horses, and burros too (the other beleaguered beast of burden that is so much a part of our ancient and modern heritage.)

A few years ago, I came across an interview with the 19th Century Crow chief Plenty Coups. It was recorded in 1930 by a man named Frank B. Lindeman, near the end of his life, and among other things, he spoke of the wild ones, several years after they had been gunned down on his - and their - homeland.

"...I have been told," said Plenty Coups, "that the white man, who is almost a god, and yet a great fool, does not believe that the horse has a spirit...This cannot be true..."

Perhaps it isn't.

And now, about that shawl...President and Mrs. Obama, where is it?