Returning to My Indigenous Roots This Sukkot

I implore the Jewish community to acknowledge the numerous homelands on which we reside in the United States.

“I managed to find so much meaning in rediscovering why Sukkot is so special to me as both a Native American woman and a Jew: The land remembers all,” writes Emily McDonnell. (Courtesy)

Like many Jews, because of the pandemic I am constantly working to create an atmosphere of holiness and connection that I typically feel during this time of year. Before each holiday, I like to set an intention, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to find inspiration in what has been a grueling few months. I came into erev Sukkot, the beginning of the holiday, feeling overwhelmed and mentally drained. It seemed like I was simply going through the motions trying to make it through the previous week, and I was looking forward to Shabbat and the holiday where I could unplug from the world for a few days.

Little did I know that inspiration would come to me not just once, but several times, creating the theme of lachazor (“to return”) for Sukkot 5781.

To connect with the Divine, I had to return to my Indigenous roots. I felt the first spark as I welcomed Shabbat. As the sun set, I had a conversation with my beloved Moreh, or teacher, from my hometown on the Navajo Nation. Like a seed that needs to be nurtured, my Moreh watched over me, encouraged me, and counseled me during my youth, ultimately bearing witness to my confidence and strength as an adult and a leader in the Jewish community.

The theme of “returning” was a constant presence throughout the weekend, most notably that our dwelling, the Sukkah, is crafted with pieces of the natural world, creating a beautiful fusion of my Native American and Jewish identities. As a Navajo woman, my connection to the land and the natural world is an integral piece of who I am. My love for the land and the added responsibility of stewardship began from a young age—my birth. Per Navajo tradition, my placenta and umbilical cord were buried within Dinétah (ancestral Navajo land) to symbolize how I will always be tied to the earth. This tie took on more than just a metaphorical meaning as I also returned to Tucson, the place I have lived the longest outside the reservation and still consider to be my home, to celebrate Sukkot.

The land remembers all. It strips everything away, revealing the unblemished truth, stories of sorrow, memories of triumph, and everything in between.

Although altered by the pandemic, the city still had a sense of familiarity even as I walked around the eerily quiet campus of the University of Arizona. I walked past the buildings that hold some level of significance for me, culminating in a stop at the Hillel building that I frequented during college. In this moment, I completed my “return” to the place that gave me my Jewish start, that accepted the duality of my identities, and that poured its energy into me so I could flourish beyond the walls of the university.

Like much of 2020, these constant reminders were not what I expected, yet I managed to find so much meaning in rediscovering why Sukkot is so special to me as both a Native American woman and a Jew: The land remembers all. It strips everything away, revealing the unblemished truth, stories of sorrow, memories of triumph, and everything in between. This reality, the experience I and so many of my fellow Native Americans live every day, stands in stark contrast to the widespread misconception that we are no longer here to care for the lands our ancestors protected and cultivated for thousands of years.

This Sukkot, as we remember our own history of wandering in the desert, I implore the Jewish community to acknowledge the numerous homelands on which we reside in the United States. The simplest way to begin this ongoing process is by making a formal land acknowledgement, followed by conscious action, as outlined below.

Formal Land Acknowledgement Tips

  1. Type your address into https://native-land.ca/ to begin. While this is a good place to start, it is by no means exhaustive. Supplement the information you find with your own research and really learn the history of the Native American tribe(s) whose land you reside on.
  2. Make a formal land acknowledgement. This can be done the next time you host a virtual (or in-person, post-pandemic) text study, challah bake, Shabbat dinner, Havdallah, you name it! Example: “Shabbat Shalom everyone! Before we start Shalom Aleichem, I’d like to begin by acknowledging that this dinner is taking place on ancestral _________ land.” It is also very important that you also use the correct name for a tribe(s). Keep in mind that the English/colonial names may differ from the names that tribes use to refer to themselves.
  3. Follow up with meaningful action. A land acknowledgement amounts to very little if you don’t also recognize the ways Native Americans continue to be marginalized in society. Donate supplies to your local Indian Center, contribute money to COVID-19 relief efforts on reservations, read and share articles, stories, and videos by Native American activists and artists on social media, and support Native land rights.

Emily McDonnell is an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation, where she lived until she graduated from high school. In college she was active in both Jewish and Native American organizations on campus. She recently earned her master’s degree in public administration from Arizona State University. She actively pursues opportunities to merge her Navajo and Jewish identities and enjoys facilitating and participating in discussions related to Judaism and race.

Archive Search

Search the world's largest online archive of material about Jewish diversity.


Archive Search

Search the world's largest online archive of material about Jewish diversity.


.