Thanks to the Tuscarora

There is no statute of limitations on hakaras hatov.

That’s the message of the decision by the Lewiston Historical Association to erect a monument to an act of courage and kindness performed on behalf of their ancestors by the Tuscarora Indians during the War of 1812.

When about 1,500 British soldiers invaded the western New York town and began burning it down, members of the local Tuscarora tribe came to the white settlers’ aid. As Lewiston villagers ran for their lives through mud and snow on that December day, two dozen Tuscarora, firing muskets and screaming a war whoop, interposed themselves between them and the much larger British force.

As Chief Elias Johnson wrote in an 1881 history of the Tuscarora: “It is evident that the timely intervention of the Tuscarora Indians saved great slaughter of men, women and children among the white people.”

The support of the Tuscarora could not have been taken for granted. Belonging to the Iroquoian-language family, with members scattered in New York, Canada, and North Carolina, their allegiances were split during generations of warfare as the French, British and their colonial subjects fought over control of the continent. In 1711-13,  The Tuscarora War in North Carolina took the lives of hundreds of Indians and whites. After defeat, many of the Tuscarora emigrated north to Pennsylvania and New York.

During the American Revolutionary War, part of the Tuscarora and Oneida nations in New York allied with the newly established United States. But most of their fellow Iroquois took the side of the British.

Two hundred years later, a permanent remembrance of the incident is being cast as a large, $400,000 bronze monument commissioned by the Historical Association.

One might argue that there is no need for such a monument. After all, the War of 1812 and its various moments of savagery and humanity have been long forgotten among the more celebrated events of a crowded American history.

But gratitude, although late in coming, is still called for, and genuine gratitude demands specificity in acknowledgment of the benefit received, in vivid, detailed recollection. And naming the benefactors is important. Only then will the Tuscarora feel that their friendship has been adequately appreciated; only then will the Lewistownians feel that they have properly thanked them.

This gesture of appreciation toward the Tuscarora may also help to heal some wounds  made  by more recent history. In the mid-20th century, New York City commissioner Robert Moses expropriated some 550 acres of the Lewiston, N.Y. Tuscarora reservation for a hydroelectric project in the vicinity of Niagara Falls. The local people fought it in the courts, but in 1960 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against them.

Nor does it matter how long ago it happened. It makes no difference whether thanks is given for a kindness done two hours ago or two hundred years ago. The feelings of the person who helped you in the very recent past are important, and the benefactors of centuries ago are long buried in the ground — but their descendants live, and they remember. They are linked to the past by memory, and so are we all.

Even if the Tuscarora would have left no descendants, there would still be an obligation to remember them. Because gratitude is so important a principle. We remember the good that was done for us, whether or not there is anybody left to thank, because that’s the kind of human beings we are.

Of course, this idea isn’t novel for anyone familiar with the Torah’s injunction to remember the kindness shown our forefathers by the ancient Egyptians. Even though the Egyptians were ultimately cruel and oppressive, the initial kindness of accepting the Jewish people into their land cannot be forgotten, no matter how much time passes.

Indeed, the very basis of Judaism is hakaras tov, for all the things the Creator has done for us: for giving us life, for taking us out of Egypt, for giving us the Torah; for all the things we thanked Him for during Pesach and every day of the year in Birchos Hashachar, Pesukei d’Zimrah and Birchos Hoda’ah. A person who does not believe in G-d, or fails to recognize His acts in history, is, besides being a disbeliever, an ingrate.

But, then, if we are already made aware by the Torah of the importance of gratitude, why do we need to take note of the story of Lewistown?

The answer is that we must try to learn from all our experience, from the world around us, from events of the past and news of the present — including an act of gratitude by some folks in upstate New York. It seems there are more reasons to be grateful than we realized; they are just about everywhere you turn. You just have to look for them.