Brief chapter of Old West’s Jewish chief

In case you thought that the only Jewish Native American Indian chief was the Yiddish-speaking one portrayed by Mel Brooks in that hilarious film, Blazing Saddles, you are mistaken.
Among the European immigrants who came to “America, the land of opportunity,” was a Jew, destined to play an important leadership role in America’s Indian Southwest.
Sixteen-year-old Solomon Bibo decided in 1869 to join his two older brothers who had emigrated years earlier.
With America’s Civil War over, the transcontinental railroad completed, free farmland available under the Homestead Act, and sporadic announcements of gold and silver strikes out west, European immigrants surged across America’s West seeking a better future.
While his brothers were building a trading business in the New Mexico territory, Solomon, at first, stayed in the East, finding work and learning English before eventually joining them.
While hard-working European immigrants like the Bibos envisioned a better life, Native Americans were facing a losing battle: loss of ancestral lands and traditional lifestyle, broken treaties, and an ever-uncertain future.
Bibo and his brothers became successful traders and transporters of goods, earning a reputation for honesty and fairness.
Other traders often treated Native Americans unfairly, taking advantage of their English-language deficiencies in the signing of contracts and agreements, often cheating the Indians.
The Acoma Pueblo of New Mexico came to accept the Bibos as honest and fair. Solomon had learned their language and, with their permission, he became their spokesperson in a land dispute with a neighboring tribe.
The disputed survey would give the Acoma people less land than they felt they historically owned.
Letters to the Department of the Interior by Solomon and his brother Simon resulted in the victory of a second survey being taken, but in the end the agency ruled against the Acomas.
The Acomas were disappointed to have lost their case, but they appreciated the Bibos’ effort to win their case.
Solomon Bibo endeared himself even further when he announced his forthcoming marriage to Juana Valle, the granddaughter of a former Acoma governor.
No rabbi was to be found in the New Mexico Territory so two weddings took place.
The first wedding was a traditional Indian ceremony supervised by a Catholic priest, automatically making Solomon a member of the tribe.
The second ceremony, four months later, was before a JP. Juana had renounced her Catholic faith and converted to Judaism.
That same year, 1885, Solomon Bibo was elected by the Acoma Indians as their governor (the equivalent of chief) and was re-elected three more times for eight straight years.
The highlight of Governor Bibo’s leadership was his overseeing of the installation of the federal government’s mandated educational system for the Pueblo’s children.
Showing support for the educational initiative, Bibo turned one of his buildings into a school for the educators’ use until the new school under construction was completed.
In supporting the new educational program, Bibo soon ran into opposition by parents who complained that their children were being taught to give up traditional tribal beliefs. So Solomon began to feel unwelcome as a supporter of the government’s program.
In 1889, after his governorship was over, Solomon decided it would be a good time to move his family to San Francisco, where his businesses were expanding and his children could get a Jewish education.
Solomon would make occasional return visits, but the era of the Jewish Indian Chief had passed, a most unusual but proud chapter in America’s Jewish pioneer history.

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