Over 20 years ago, journalist Rebecca Clarren made a life-changing faux pas. While interviewing an Oglala Lakota farmer on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, Clarren mentioned that her family had once owned a ranch in South Dakota, in a place called Jew Flats. The farmer said nothing but smiled tightly, and Clarren realized that she had somehow offended him. It would take many years for her to understand fully why the presence of her family’s ranch on Jew Flats would be a source of profound skepticism, anger and sorrow to the Lakota nation.
Clarren’s ancestors escaped persecution in czarist Russia to establish that South Dakota ranch in Jew Flats. They braved drought, loneliness and disease, and transformed the ranch into the wellspring of their good fortune. But there is a dark flip side to this Horatio Alger story: The land, far from free, was paid for in the blood and grief of the Lakota Sioux, who had initially lived there.
In The Cost of Free Land: Jews, Lakota, and an American Inheritance Clarren interweaves the story of her family with the timeline of the U.S.policy of destroying the American Indian nations. She documents in harrowing detail not only the many ways the government lied to, battled against and outright stole from the Indigenous peoples, but also how her family, and many others like them, directly benefited from these depredations. The injustices committed by the government against Native peoples are so vast and comprehensive that their reverberations are still felt—and Clarren makes a strong case that all non-Indigenous U.S. residents benefit directly or indirectly from them to this day.
If telling this history were Clarren’s sole goal, it would be worthy and timely, but this book is far more ambitious. Drawing on Jewish traditions of reconciliation, Clarren seeks to find a path for meaningful reconciliation and reparation for the harm done to Native people. Learning our history is a crucial first step, and Clarren’s helpful research resources makes this task easier. But that is only the beginning of the process, and Clarren’s present-day family provides a remarkable model for compensation, repentance and transformation that can begin to heal the wounds from our past.