At home in two tribes
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At home in two tribes

Native American Jew reflects on his roots

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Ronald Yonaguska Holloway

People scratch their heads most of the time,” Ronald Yonaguska Holloway said, describing the typical first reaction to him.

He stands at 6 feet 5 inches, and with his broad build is a bear of a man, but behind his imposing physical stature are a soft-spoken voice and effervescent personality that put people at ease. As chairman of the Sand Hill Band of the Lenape-Cherokee tribe, Holloway is leading its struggle to reclaim what he said are its historic land, water, and hunting rights in New Jersey. (He lives in Milford, Pa.) That struggle led him last February to file a lawsuit against this state, alleging illegal seizure of lands, breach of treaties, and attempted genocide.

What he wants most when the fight is over, he told The Jewish Standard late last month, is “to see a place our tribe can call home.”

Holloway is obviously proud of his Native American heritage. The Sand Hill are the oldest indigenous tribe in New Jersey, he said. Among its history of warriors and leaders, though, Holloway may be unique – he is also a member of another tribe known for its longevity, the tribe of Israel.

As closely tied as he is to his Native American tribe’s leadership and heritage, Holloway’s convictions have been shaped by his family and dual heritage, which may seem at first glance at odds, given the polytheistic nature of Native American beliefs and Judaism’s steadfast monotheism. But Holloway has spent a lifetime meshing them to become the man he is today.

A nice Indian boy and a nice Jewish girl…

Holloway was born in 1963, a year after his mother, Dolores Havel, wed his father, Carroll Holloway. The family moved from Philadelphia to California when Holloway was 5 or 6 years old and his parents divorced when he was 7.

Holloway and his newborn brother Jeff went to live with their mother in Burbank. Havel did her best to give the older boy, in particular, a Jewish education, but struggled because of her own strained ties with her religion.

“The late ’50s and early ’60s were not a time for strong cultural ties,” he said. “It was a looser time, and that came back to haunt her when she was trying to pass tradition on to me. As with any culture, without a strong core it’s amazing how quickly tradition and language can fall by the wayside.”

When he was growing up, Holloway recalled, his mother would allow him to bring home only Jewish friends. His family did not belong to a synagogue, but Havel would encourage her son to visit other families, who would then bring him along to shul and holiday meals.

“She made sure I was taken care of by placing me with people she knew would tend to what I needed to round me out,” he said. “My understanding of Judaism always came from my friends and their parents. The first thing is you get fed,” he added with a chuckle.

At 13, Ron Holloway “pecked and hemmed and hawed, grunted, tried to cough a couple of times” through a makeshift bar mitzvah in his mother’s apartment. Guests mostly included his mother’s coworkers. His bar mitzvah preparations consisted of lessons from his mother after dinner before she turned to do laundry and other chores. Despite her own loose affiliation, Havel made sure that her son had a handle on his heritage.

“She would always whisper in my ear, ‘You’re a chosen one,'” Holloway recalled.

In junior high, Holloway began going to “powwows and did standard Indian stuff” with his father, “looking at rocks and weapons, and talking about streams and rivers and all those things that are important to him.”

Holloway developed a deep sense of spirituality, which he continues to draw on today. His father was generally supportive of Holloway learning about and growing in his Jewish heritage.

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Ron, right, and R.J. Holloway about 10 years ago. PHOTOS PROVIDED BY RON HALLOWAY

“In order to grow, a proper human had to understand where they were and where they came from,” Holloway said. “I can’t think of one time he ever belittled either [culture].”

Last year, Holloway earned a doctorate in theology, which he said gives him an understanding of other religions that is sorely needed.

“If you want to understand people you have to understand what they believe,” he said.

Under U.S. law, Native Americans were forbidden from practicing their religion until the establishment of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978. Holloway noted the irony that his people were forbidden to practice their religion in a country founded on the cornerstone of religious freedom.

“I find the two cultures have really suffered similar atrocities from being considered second-class citizens, being belittled and not wanted,” he said.

Being a ‘chosen one’

“Being of Hebrew and Indian descent, it’s a little easier than some would suspect,” Holloway said. “They’re both very tribal. A lot of the Native American holidays or important days parallel the Hebrew lunar calendar. From that aspect it was a fairly simple blend. It was more unique that you get your Hebrew descent from your mom and in the United States you get your Indian descent from your dad, so nobody could quite stake a claim.”

After graduating from high school at age 17, Holloway enlisted in the Marines. After training in Japan, he was shipped to the demilitarized zone in South Korea, where he ended up serving as the Hebrew lay leader on his base. With the help of a rabbi in Japan and his own limited experience, Holloway cobbled together a 15-minute service for other Jewish soldiers.

Holloway enjoyed the hospitality of the Jewish communities of Japan and Korea, which he described as “nice and tight-knit.”

The Marines, he said, are one of the most diverse units of the American military, and he rarely encountered trouble because of either of his heritages.

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Dolores Havel married Caroll Holloway in 1962 and gave birth to Ron a year later.

“In squad bay they’re calling you chief, but after maneuvers you pull out the yarmulke,” he said. “The Catholic chaplains were always weirded out by that, too.”

Holloway returned to California after his service and became a police officer. In 1986 he married a non-practicing Jewish woman. Holloway and his now-ex-wife would often laugh about their mothers. In 1990, their son R.J. was born. Like his father, R.J. can claim a dual heritage.

“He finds himself in the same situation I find myself in: Jewish mom with Indian dad – except his dad is Jewish, also,” Holloway said.

R.J. is looking at both cultures now, Holloway said, and is interested in learning more about his Jewishness. Because of his own admittedly weak Jewish education, Holloway said he has not been particularly dutiful in educating his son.

“But I make sure he’s constantly aware of it,” he said. “I try to inculcate all the important lessons.”

Holloway said he’s raised his son to be spiritual but not religious. His hope is that one day he will succeed his father as chief of the Sand Hill and R.J. will succeed him as chairman. Whether R.J. will find a Jewish bride, like his father and grandfather, is not something Holloway is campaigning for.

“I do not believe in enforcing who he should or should not marry,” he said. “As long as he finds somebody he loves and who’ll make him happy I’ll support that.”

“But,” he adds with a hearty laugh, “if he can find a Jewish Indian girl, I’m set.”

The battle continues…

On Nov. 27, Holloway represented the Sand Hill in Manhattan at a ceremony organized by the Dutch Collegiate Church. The ceremony marked the church’s official apology to the Lenape for centuries of mistreatment. Holloway, who delivered the keynote address, called the event “a great first start in healing.”

“You get a chance to see the human race has a good chance to move forward when those old wounds are healed,” he said later.

The Lenape, along with other tribes between New Jersey and Rhode Island, are what is known as a first-contact tribe. They were the first to deal with British and Dutch settlers, and as such, signed treaties with those governments. Those treaties were transferred from Britain to the newly formed United States. According to Holloway, those treaties guarantee the Sand Hill Band certain land, water, and hunting rights in New Jersey, which the state has not honored.

At the request of the Sand Hills’ then-Chief Sam Beeler, Holloway began getting more active with the tribe’s affairs in 2005, becoming its executive director, as it struggled to reclaim these rights.

“We’re looking to coexist but have ourselves acknowledged as being part of the state,” Holloway said of his tribe’s lawsuit.

In 2008, the tribe switched over from a traditional government to a constitutional government and redefined the role of chief. His father became chief and Holloway was elected chairman, the tribe’s supreme secular authority according to its constitution.

As a result of that change, the chief assumed control of tribal matters of a more traditional nature. Chief and chairman work together but operate independently.

The N.J. Indian Commission declined to comment on the case when reached earlier this week.

Holloway is seemingly as driven in his current role by his mother’s Jewish heritage as he is by his father’s Lenape roots.

“I feel that if I can offset or rectify one wrong, then I will have kept both sides of ancestors happy,” he said. “I’m proud of both heritages. I wear them both equally. I find both peoples to be equally strong.”

Native Americans have long suffered in the United States, where they weren’t even acknowledged as citizens until 1924. For thousands of years the Jewish people have suffered pogroms, expulsions, inquisitions, and other violent and horrific acts of anti-Semitism. Suffering is not the only commonality between the two cultures, but it can create a powerful bond.

“I use my dual heritage really as a lesson,” he said. “Both peoples – we’re both keenly aware of what our Hebrew brothers and sisters went through during the Second World War and suffered over the centuries. The American Indian is not too dissimilar.”

During the Holocaust, Jews in Europe were forced to sew yellow stars on their clothes to identify themselves. Native Americans must carry what Holloway called an Indian card, to identify themselves.

“It’s very belittling to have to carry something to prove who you are,” he said.

Holloway’s parents both taught him the dangers of appeasing those who treat others as second-class citizens.

“That only emboldens those [people] to go on further,” he said. “I’m very conscious of the atrocities that have happened. That is something that both cultures have in unison. That is something that is branded into my conscience by my father and my mother.”

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