Curly-Headed White Chief with One Tongue
On May 30, 1854, President Franklin Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which officially defined the territories of Kansas and Nebraska and opened up a significant part of what became known as the “Wild West.” From outlaws to “Indians,” the dangers and adventures of the “Wild West” have been a rich source of tales that have been recorded and reenacted in the full range of entertainment media.
Among the Jews who moved west to settle the land there were many traders and merchants as well as farmers. In the “Wild West,” even those with commercial interests were sometimes part of the great adventure.
Born in Prussia in 1851,* Julius Meyer arrived in Nebraska in the 1860s to join his brothers in trade. Legend has it that he was captured by Ponca People and was saved from being scalped by Chief Standing Bear. This began a relationship that would allow Meyer to make his mark upon the world.
Meyer felt comfortable among the different tribes and became fluent in six different tribal languages. Meyer’s interactions with the local Native Americans helped build his trading business (including his curio shop The Indian Wigwam). His respectful attitude and the personal interest he took in the tribes, set him apart from many of the other American settlers. In fact, Meyer’s was given the name “Curly-Headed White Chief with One Tongue.” The term “one tongue” was in honor of his honesty, for a person with one tongue cannot speak out of two-sides of his mouth.
Little more is actually known about Meyer other than that he served as both an interpreter for the Native Americans to Congress and as an “Indian Agent” for the government. However, Meyer left behind a rare trail of photographs from the era, including a photograph of himself with Spotted Tail, Iron Bull and Pawnee Killer. Additionally, records state that Meyer was involved with both the first synagogue in Nebraska, Congregation of Israel of Omaha (now Temple Israel), and Omaha’s Hebrew Benevolent Society.
May is Jewish American Heritage Month.
*Some sources say 1839.
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