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Another Desert: Jewish Poetry of New Mexico and Looking for Lost Bird: A Jewish Woman Discovers Her Navajo Roots

Another Desert: Jewish Poetry of New Mexico by Joan Logghe and Miriam Sagan, Sherman Asher, $15.

Looking for Lost Bird: A Jewish Woman Discovers Her Navajo Roots by Yvette Melanson with Claire Safran, Avon Books, $22

It is a sadly well-documented fact of history that Native American children have been systematically taken from their homes to be raised in the white world—taken to live in boarding schools, taken to non-Indian foster homes, taken for illegal adoption. In the Indian community these children are known as “Lost Birds,” after the infant survivor of Wounded Knee who never  knew her family of birth.

Yvette Melanson is one of these Lost Birds. Brought up in an affluent Jewish home in Queens, Melanson always knew she was adopted. But it wasn’t until she began researching her roots via the Internet that she ever considered the possibility that she was Native American. After making contact with a Navajo family whose story matched up with her own, Melanson decides to move from Maine to Arizona, with her husband and two children in tow.

How Melanson integrates her past identity—wealthy, Jewish,  urbanized, white—with her new one—poor, rural, Indian, but still Jewish—is at the heart of the book. As a “newly-minted Indian” she struggles to make a new life for herself and her family. She learns to weave, starts an online business selling handcrafts from her community at Tolani Lake, experiences traditional Navajo ceremonies, and helps her husband and children as they deal with their particularly ambiguous places in the world of the reservation.

Melanson never takes a blood test to determine whether or not she is in fact related to the Navajo family which embraces her. In some ways, the story being told here shows that the medical truth is unimportant in the face of real familial feeling and love. However, the evidence presented for the truthfulness of Melanson’s claim may leave some skeptical readers unsatisfied. For others, perhaps especially those seeking their families of origin, the palpable emotional satisfaction the various characters receive from their new relationships will be an affirmation.

Another Desert: Jewish Poetry of New Mexico also situates a Jewish presence in the Southwest. An anthology even non-poetry fans might enjoy, these poems use readily understandable structures and images, and the five sections address explicitly Jewish concerns (Diaspora, Holy Days & Blessings, Ancestors, Kaddish, Conversos). The range of contributor backgrounds is wide, drawing across denominational backgrounds and including Jews by choice and descendants of Converses, so that bits of Spanish, Ladino, Hebrew, and Yiddish are scattered throughout the texts. Spanish-language poems have side-by-side English translations. This anthology is particularly successful in building an integrated whole, partially because of the thematic connections, and partially because of a common Southwestern imagery—candles at night, “dusk on grey sandstone,” silken shawls, “fiery tips of poplars,” throwing crumbs into the Rio Grande on Rosh HaShanah. Thematically, the eternal Jewish themes of exile, searching, and longing cut across these poems, even while the poets affirm their Jewish lives and identities in an unlikely but beautiful land.

Terren Ilana Wein recently graduated from the University of Illinois with a Master of Library Science degree.