The Cost of Free Land: Jews, Lako­ta, and an Amer­i­can Inheritance

  • Review
By – October 1, 2023

Rebec­ca Clar­ren was over­come when she learned that her family’s land in Jew Flats, South Dako­ta — the basis of their com­fort­able, mid­dle-class life in Amer­i­ca — was stolen from the Lakota.

Clar­ren, a prize-win­ning jour­nal­ist who has writ­ten exten­sive­ly about the Amer­i­can West for The Nation, Ms., Salon, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, grew up hear­ing sto­ries of her immi­grant fam­i­ly brave­ly home­steading on the Dako­ta prairie. She is shak­en when she real­izes that she and her fam­i­ly have ben­e­fit­ed from cen­turies of fed­er­al mis­treat­ment of Indige­nous peo­ples.” She is advised by Native Amer­i­can Judge Abby Abi­nante to study Jew­ish teach­ings about repair and heal­ing, because jus­tice works best when it is ground­ed in one’s own culture.”

Clar­ren joins with her rab­bi in the tra­di­tion of havru­ta, study­ing togeth­er, to dig below the myth­mak­ing and under­stand how she can atone for this wrong­do­ing. This entire book can be read as a land acknowl­edg­ment,” she writes.

The author describes the untold, unex­pect­ed his­to­ry of Jew­ish set­tlers in the West. Jew­ish refugees from the Pale of Set­tle­ment were not wel­comed by the assim­i­lat­ed Ger­man Jews, who con­sid­ered the poor­er East­ern Euro­pean immi­grants embar­rass­ing.” These Ger­man Jews orga­nized to send the new arrivals West. At the same time, Con­gress was clear­ing the prairie of Native Amer­i­cans for white set­tlers and for west­ward expan­sion of the rail­road. The 1862 Home­stead Act promised 160 acres to those who built a home and tilled the land, whether they were cit­i­zens or not. What a gift this must have seemed like to the impov­er­ished Russ­ian Jews who were for­bid­den to own land in their own coun­try. Intrigued by posters about free land in the Dako­tas, 75,000 Russ­ian Jews — Clarren’s ances­tors among them — went West.

Clar­ren writes with laser focus about the government’s efforts — mil­i­tary, polit­i­cal, legal, and cul­tur­al — to remove Indige­nous peo­ple. They slaugh­tered mil­lions of buf­fa­lo, the main source of food for the Lako­ta. Their tac­tics ranged from steal­ing land and forc­ing reset­tle­ment, to abduct­ing of chil­dren to dis­tant board­ing schools, to out­law­ing reli­gious prac­tices and break­ing treaties, to destroy­ing sacred sites (the most dev­as­tat­ing being He Sapa in the Black Hills, which the US carved up into Mount Rush­more) and com­mit­ting out­right mas­sacres. Even the so-called human­i­tar­i­an USDA com­mod­i­ty food pro­gram — imple­ment­ed because Lako­ta lands were so deplet­ed that peo­ple couldn’t raise their own crops or ani­mals — was inju­ri­ous. The free, high­ly processed foods that the pro­gram offered were so laden with sug­ar, starch, salt, and fat that rates of dia­betes sky­rock­et­ed across reservations.

After the Pick-Sloan pro­gram dams destroyed more Indige­nous land than any oth­er pub­lic-works project in Amer­i­can his­to­ry,” thir­ty per­cent of all reser­va­tion res­i­dents on the Cheyenne Riv­er were forced to relo­cate — the same as the esti­mat­ed per­cent­age of how many Jews left the Pale and came to Amer­i­ca at the turn of the 20th Cen­tu­ry.” Is it any won­der that the Lako­ta are among the poor­est peo­ple in the coun­try today, with the low­est life expectancy?

Sift­ing through scrap­books, old cor­re­spon­dence, pho­tographs, and inter­views, Clar­ren comes to know her antecedents who set­tled the lit­tle shtetl on the prairie”: her great-great grand­fa­ther, Har­ry Sinykin, obtained a free home­stead after escap­ing a pogrom in Odessa, and her great-great-grand­moth­er, Faige Etke, took her mik­vah in a frozen creek bor­dered by wheat­fields. She also learns about her bron­co-rid­ing, Pro­hi­bi­tion-defy­ing, oil well-dig­ging Uncle Louie, known local­ly as Lou the Jew.” Caught up in the Amer­i­can myth, some of Clarren’s fore­bears knew their Lako­ta neigh­bors, but they didn’t real­ize that their free land” depend­ed on the dec­i­ma­tion of the Native people.

Clar­ren, on the oth­er hand, knows and feels this fact acute­ly. In addi­tion to study­ing with a rab­bi, she engages in exten­sive con­ver­sa­tions with the Lako­ta peo­ple whom she meets when she trav­els to South Dako­ta as a tourist of [her] per­son­al his­to­ry.” With her pow­er­ful book, Clar­ren not only shares this hid­den his­to­ry, but con­tin­ues to pur­sue jus­tice, to repair the world, to take respon­si­bil­i­ty for our part.” 

Elaine Elin­son is coau­thor of the award-win­ning Wher­ev­er There’s a Fight: How Run­away Slaves, Suf­frag­ists, Immi­grants, Strik­ers, and Poets Shaped Civ­il Lib­er­ties in Cal­i­for­nia.

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