Tuesday, December 27, 2011


Because this is the eighth, or last night of Chanukah, it is fitting for me to delve into some historic secrets that might link people in different parts of the world. To do this, we need to dial time back to the early 19th century and Thomas Jefferson's preparations for what would be known as the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Jefferson was at heart an explorer and scientist. In early 1803, he wrote to three prominent Philadelphia scientists, including Dr. Benjamin Rush, asking each to send him their thoughts "in the lines of botany, zoology, or of Indian history which you think most worthy of inquiry and observation." Rush prepared a long list for Jefferson with questions aimed at many aspects of Indian culture, health, diet and habits. Among these, Rush included questions about Indian languages and ceremonies that might prove or disprove an old, persistent academic theory about the origins of native people in the American west, that they might be one of the lost tribes of the children of Israel.

We now know that Lewis and Clark did not find any direct evidence linking Native Americans with early Israelites; however, there are some interesting possibilities. Let's start with the anchovy. Lewis and Clark described and wrote about the "anchovy" in the lower Columbia River. They found this to be the most delicious fish they had encountered during their travels. They learned that these small fish migrated into the river from the sea every year, and were harvested by the native people. They also learned that these are very oily fish, and that the Indians rendered them for their oil, which they used and traded.

In fact, this fish is not an anchovy but is a smelt that is usually called the eulachon (Thaleichthys pacificus). It also goes by numerous local names, including hooligan and candlefish. The fish is so oily that, when dried, it can actually be ignited.

And so we get (finally) to the point. If Native Americans had been one of the lost tribes of the Israelites, how would they have celebrated Chanukah? If we combine the materials available to these people before European/Russian contact, and add a bit of over-active imagination, we might come up with something like the illustration below.

Ancient lower Columbia River Chanukah menorah. Materials used: board made from Western red cedar (Thuja plicata), candle holders made from Two-spot keyhole limpet (Fissurellidea bimaculata) shells and a Red sea urchin (Strongylocentrotus franciscanus) shell, candles are dried eulachon, or candlefish.
A bit far-fetched? Perhaps. But.....

Postscript: the eulachon is now listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. They still migrate into the lower Columbia River where they spawn in some of the larger tributaries.