The Cost of Free Land: Jews, Lakota, and an American Inheritance
“provides a unique and valuable contribution to the history of the many ways our nation and its people have mistreated Native Americans.”
There is no shortage of books that document our nation’s mistreatment of the indigenous people who were here long before anyone in Europe had an inkling there was a “New World” out there. Forced displacement, bad faith bargaining, the spread of disease, broken treaties, double dealing, theft, slaughter, and attempted genocide are well chronicled.
The Cost of Free Land covers those tragedies and more, but does so through a different and likely unique lens. The author descends from Russian Jewish immigrants, and her family history is the driving force in the narrative. The story originates in Kapulye, a village, a shtetl, in what was then Russia but now Belarus. It was a divided village, with the road forking at the edge of town, one fork leading to the Jewish section. Conditions there became intolerable owing to discrimination, bigotry, and pogroms, leading numerous Jews from there as well as other parts of the country to emigrate. Many sought the promise of America as did the author’s ancestors, the first arriving in 1891. Once here, many were lured to the Dakotas by promises of free land under the homestead act and encouragement from the railroads.
The extended families settled, moved on and resettled in numerous places, including the plains of South Dakota where family members took up homesteads in a place that became known as Jew Flats and, later, some settled in the Black Hills. Others operated businesses in Minnesota. Farming, ranching, cowboying, storekeeping, saloons, bootlegging, and other pursuits were among the livelihoods they sought.
While they suffered discrimination as Jews, many thrived and used their success to help others in the extended family. Ever present in their lives, but kept somewhat at a distance, were the native inhabitants of the land, the various bands of Lakota and other tribal groups loosely assembled (not of their own choosing) as the Sioux nation. Some family members interacted with these neighbors, others feared and avoided them.
The author’s curiosity led her to question and research her family’s relationships with the Lakota. She discovered that much of the land her family had homesteaded or purchased, both on the plains and in the Black Hills, had been stolen from the Native Americans. Further study revealed the extent of the displacement of the Lakota through the disregard of treaties and agreements, efforts at assimilation, allotment, damming rivers, leasing reservation lands to outsiders, mortgages, taxes, termination, violence, and other government programs that relieved the indigenous people of the Dakotas of nearly all their land.
Clarren draws many comparisons between the mistreatment and discrimination faced by Jews—both in Europe and America—and that wielded against Native Americans. She also explores, with some uncertainty in her conclusions, her family’s participation, whether implicitly or complicitly, in perpetrating the same kinds of injustice against the Lakota that they themselves had suffered as Jews. The author also brings Adolf Hitler into the story, telling of the dictator’s use of American treatment of Native Americans as inspiration and justification for his attempts to eliminate Jews from the face of the earth.
The author’s family’s role in the displacement of the Lakota from the plains and hills of the Dakotas was never talked about at family gatherings. It is unclear, even, the extent of their knowledge of the damage their presence had caused the indigenous people. Clarren’s myriad methods of family research and her sometimes surprising findings are reported throughout the book as she follows the lives of the extended family. If there is a criticism to be offered, it is that the family tree sometimes seems thick with foliage and keeping track of the people and their relationships is sometimes challenging. Still, The Cost of Free Land: Jews, Lakota, and an American Inheritance provides a unique and valuable contribution to the history of the many ways our nation and its people have mistreated Native Americans.