Free land wasn't free
Family takes steps to right history's wrongs against Native Nations

Free land wasn't free

A U.S. Department of Interior flyer from 1911. / Courtesy Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

Rebecca Clarren / Writers on the Range - 03/21/2024

There’s a place in South Dakota, about 25 miles north of Wall Drug, that some locals still call “Jew Flats.” 

More than 100 years ago, the United States gave my great-great grandparents and their children, cousins and friends – around 30 Jewish families in all – free land under the Homestead Act. 

All of the recently arrived immigrants spoke Yiddish; most escaped Russia with their lives but less so their livelihoods. These federal homesteads of 160 acres were theirs to keep if they could turn wild prairie into farmland. 

My family told their children that owning land in South Dakota made them feel like real Americans. Coming from Russia where Jews weren’t allowed to own land, their ranch on Jew Flats allowed my ancestors to shake off their suspect immigrant status. 

Clarren

The land also had serious economic impact. Between 1908-70, when my grandmother and her sisters sold the last chunk of Jew Flats, my ancestors took out $1.1 million in mortgages, in today’s value, on their free land. With that money, they were able to start other businesses, buy more land and move away.

Yet this land that paved my family’s pathway to the middle class came at great cost to the Lakota. Throughout the second half of the 19th century, the United States signed treaties with the Lakota, reserving tens of thousands of acres in the Dakotas – in perpetuity – for the Lakota Nation. 

But when the railroad companies, the largest corporations of the time, wanted to connect a line between California and the East Coast, promises were broken. By 1908, when my ancestors were planting their first crops, Congress had taken or stolen around 98% of the land that an 1851 treaty said would always be for the Lakota.

To attempt to further eradicate the Native American connection to the land, the United States made it illegal for Native Nations like the Lakota to practice their religion and culture or speak their language. Lakota children were taken from their parents, sometimes forcibly or under threat of jail, to be educated in boarding schools that would convert them to Christianity. These schools taught an “industrial education,” training native children for a trade that didn’t rely on land.

None other than Adolf Hitler was inspired by this American model of dispossession. When crafting laws to diminish the rights of European Jews, Nazi lawyers studied U.S. laws. Hitler not only admired American reservations, which he equated to cages, but he publicly praised the efficiency of America’s attempts to exterminate its Indigenous populations.

“Your people and our people went through the same thing,” Doug White Bull, a Lakota elder and former teacher, told me. “But our people had a holocaust that started 400 years ago. Americans condemn Hitler, which you should … but at the same time, they should condemn themselves.”

Unlike Germany, which has grappled (albeit imperfectly) with its genocidal past, the United States has made little efforts to reconcile its thefts from Indigenous people. Yet filling this vacuum of federal leadership are efforts at the local level. 

Just recently, the Quaker church paid one Alaska Native community $93,000 in reparations, the amount the federal government had paid the church to forcibly assimilate their ancestors. Throughout the country, other churches have returned land to Native Nations. And in some cities, residents pay voluntary land taxes to the Native Nations that originally lived there.

Following the guidance of Lakota elders, my family has started a fund at the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, a Native-led nonprofit that has spent decades helping Native Nations buy and reclaim their traditional lands. I’ve set our fundraising goal at $1.1 million, the amount we received in mortgages on our free land. Anyone can donate, and many people have.

Indigenous elders have taught me that our job in life is to be a good ancestor, to act in a way that doesn’t create a mess for our children or grandchildren. For me, for my family, attempting to acknowledge and own the damage that was done to the Lakota – at great benefit to us – is a small step toward ending this cycle of harm.

Rebecca Clarren is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. An award-winning journalist about the American West, her latest book is “The Cost of Free Land: Jews, Lakota and an American Inheritance” (Viking Penguin). 

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