We know now that free land wasn’t free

By Rebecca Clarren

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, free land in the West 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-acre parcels 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.

The land also had serious economic impact. Between 1908 and 1970, 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 Nation reserving tens of thousands of acres in the Dakotas —in perpetuity—for the Lakota Nation.

But when the railroad companies, the largest corporations of their time, wanted to connect a line between California and the East Coast, promises made became promises broken. By 1908, when my ancestors were planting their first crop, 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 Native American connection to the land, the United States made it illegal for Native Nations like the Lakota to practice their religion, culture and speak their language. Lakota children were taken from their parents, sometimes forcibly or under threat of jail time, 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 to clean up. 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 towards 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).

Badlands National Park, South Dakota, Joshua Hubbard via Unsplash

This column was published in the following newspapers:

03/18/2024 Steamboat Pilot Steamboat Springs CO
03/18/2024 Craig Daily Press Craig co
03/19/2024 Grand Junction Daily Sentinel Grand Junction CO
03/19/2024 Montrose Daily Press Montrose CO
03/19/2024 Denver Post Denver CO
03/19/2024 Rock Springs Rocket Miner Rock Springs WY
03/20/2024 south dakota searchlight Pierre SD
03/20/2024 Beaverton Valley Times Beaverton OR
03/20/2024 Forest Grove News Times Forest Grove OR
03/20/2024 Hillsboro Times News Hillsboros OR
03/20/2024 The Newberg Graphic Newberg OR
03/20/2024 Columbia County Spotlight Scappose OR
03/20/2024 Valley Times News Portland OR
03/19/2024 Moab Times Independent Moab UT
03/20/2024 Aspen Daily News Aspen CO
03/20/2024 News from the States
03/20/2024 Jackson Hole News & Guide Jackson Hole WY
03/19/2024 Your Oregon News Portland OR
03/20/2024 Vail Daily Vail CO
03/21/2024 Taos News Taos NM
03/23/2024 The Mountain Mail Pagosa Springs CO
03/26/2024 Las Vegas Sun Las Vegas NV
03/26/2024 Four Points Press Garryowen MT
03/20/2024 KVNF Radio Paonia CO
03/18/2024 Wenatchee World Wenatchee WA
03/21/2024 News from the States
03/20/2024 Lake Powell Chronicle Page AZ
03/22/2024 Huron Daily Plainsman Huron South Dakota
03/26/2024 Coyote Gulch Denver CO
03/26/2024 Durango Telegraph Durango CO
05/13/2024 Sky-Hi News Granby CO
04/20/2024 North Dakota Monitor Bismarck ND
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Greg Groves
2 months ago

Thanks for telling this important story. I was not aware of the migration of Jewish people to South Dakota. Nor was I aware that the land they homesteaded was Lakota land. Finally, I had no idea that Hitler admired the U.S. for how the Indian nations were treated.

Martie Crone
2 months ago

My grandparents homesteaded in Wyoming. Do you know of a resource for finding out what tribes may have lived on their land before it was “given” to my grandparents?

Eric Smith
2 months ago
Reply to  Martie Crone
Martie Crone
2 months ago
Reply to  Eric Smith

Thank you, Eric!

2 months ago

Thank you for this column. It takes a lot to recognize the mistakes of our ancestors and reckon with the reparations we need to make in present day contexts. Currently, in Steamboat, water rights were recently expanded for our city and yet the Utes in Southern Colorado who used to live on our land do not have their water rights secured. No one wants to talk about this inequity. The Supreme Court also ruled against giving the Navajo water rights last year. Injustices continue, but voices like yours, especially in light of your identity and what is taking place globally gives us all reason to stop and think. Very grateful for your time and voice.

We know that free land wasn’t free — Writers on the Range – Coyote Gulch
2 months ago

[…] the link to read the article on the Writers on the Range website (Rebecca […]

Nancy Cavazos
2 months ago

Do you realize that Jews from all over the world have been given free land in Palestine, forcing the indigenous people from their homes?

Last edited 2 months ago by Nancy Cavazos

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