There’s a sliver of rolling prairie in western South Dakota that locals call Jew Flats. Though no Jews have lived there for decades, more than a century ago this place was populated by around 30 Jewish families, all of them immigrants who had fled the ravages of Russian pogroms, some of them my ancestors. These recent arrivals were homesteaders, recipients of free land the United States had given them that was theirs to keep if they could tame the wild prairie into farmland.
By 1912, there were an estimated 25,000 Jewish farmers in 46 states. In the Dakotas, about 1,000 Jews around that time were homesteaders like those on Jew Flats. (Keep in mind, they represented a small slice, fewer than 0.5 percent, of Dakota settlers.) These Jewish farms were “the visual and tangible sign of religious liberty and political emancipation,” according to the 1908 report of the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society, an organization dedicated to relocating Jewish immigrants from overcrowded East Coast cities.
These little shtetls on the prairie weren’t exactly easy living: My great-great-grandparents’ first house wasn’t made from brick or stone or wood but from the cut bank of a sod hill. There were prairie fires, tornadoes, blizzards and drought. According to family lore, one of my relatives spent mornings of his childhood clearing the path to the outhouse of rattlesnakes. And yet, the story handed down to me was that this place, this Jew Flats, was heaven on earth.
“Their lives were so much narrower in Russia, and I think they were so happy to be free to be able to go and come and do,” says my great-aunt Etta Orkin, age 90, our family matriarch. “Owning [land] made them feel they were a part of America, that they lived in a free country.”
Time on the prairie allowed my ancestors and others, desperate to shed their old skins, the opportunity to digest a new identity and to bridge the conflict between their immigrant and American selves, according to historian Debra Shein, currently at Portland Community College. Owning land wasn’t only helpful psychologically; it had real financial implications. Within the first decade of homesteading, the Jews of Jew Flats took out more than $24,000 in mortgages on the value of their land (what today would be around $609,000). They used the money to buy equipment and expand their landholdings, but also to leave and start new businesses in other parts of the state and beyond (under the Homestead Act, settlers had to live on their land for only six months in a row per year).
The free land that helped pave my family’s path to wealth came at great cost to their Lakota neighbors.
And yet what I didn’t know growing up was that federal treaties first signed in the middle of the 19th century had reserved this land for the Lakota Nation. In short order, however, the United States determined that the Great Plains would be critical for a transnational railroad line connecting California and its raft of natural resources to the rest of the country, and so Congress broke its promises and took Native land. By 1908, when my family seeded their homesteads with corn and oats, Lakota people were living on nearby reservations where they were not allowed to leave without permission from a federal representative. Let me make clear what I only recently understood: The free land that helped pave my family’s path to wealth came at great cost to their Lakota neighbors.
I have spent almost my entire adult life reporting on the American West, attempting to write articles that expand our fixed ideas about the region, highlight inequities and tell the stories of people and places often overlooked. When writing, for example, about the environmental and public-health effects of oil and gas development or the dangerous working conditions endured by farm workers, I have tried to deepen my reporting with historical context. Yet, when it has come to my own ancestors’ history on the South Dakota prairie, I had maintained a blind spot. Only after years of reporting in Indigenous communities did it dawn on me that my family, that I myself, had benefited from the centuries of federal mistreatment of Indigenous people in the United States. In fact, my family’s Jewish immigrant history and Lakota history are intertwined like a double helix—invisible, yet shaping everything.
Grappling with how exactly to respond to this realization, I consulted Abby Abinanti, chief justice of the Yurok Nation, whose compassionate approach to jurisprudence is becoming a model for state and federal judges nationwide. She told me that justice works best when grounded in one’s own culture, in traditional models developed over generations in small communities, places where a lack of anonymity pressured people to create moral societies. Village people, she told me, don’t steal from the village, because it’s not tenable. “Our ancestors worked much harder than we do on values, and those values weren’t grounded in greed.”
At Abinanti’s urging, I set out to study my own culture for guidance. Although I had a bat mitzvah and belong to a synagogue, I’d never studied Jewish text in a serious way before. Fortunately, I didn’t have to do it alone. My rabbi, Benjamin Barnett—who describes himself as part mystic, part skeptic, and whom I would describe as all mensch—agreed to meet with me regularly, to study together in an ancient practice called chevruta, or studying in pairs. Together, we read sections from the Torah and the Talmud that describe how to make amends. We looked at the sermons of other rabbis throughout the country who are turning to these old stories and laws for direction in their efforts for social justice.
What we learned would change the way I think about my family, about America, and how to engage with our complicated history.
The Torah teaches that, even if we as individuals haven’t committed harms directly, we are responsible because sin has a communal effect and must be dealt with collectively. In Deuteronomy, there’s a teaching that, if a murdered person is found in the road and no one knows who the murderer is, the crime must be absolved by those who live nearby (in ancient days, this required a bloody ritual involving a river and a heifer). To determine which community should incur the economic damage of sacrificing animals for this ritual, the leaders of the closest towns would measure their distance from the victim, and those living closest to the corpse would assume responsibility. But if nothing was done, the land would become polluted, endangering everyone.
“Sin is not a private affair, sin is social, and its effects are felt by the entire community,” Toba Spitzer, a Reconstructionist rabbi, once said in a Yom Kippur sermon about this Torah portion. She urges us all to ask ourselves, “What measuring stick links me to the foundational sins of this nation? How am I connected?”
As the great-granddaughter of homesteaders, my connection to the hurt caused by federal land policies is closer than that of someone who arrived in this country last week or whose ancestors were brought here against their will on slave ships. But all of us who are non- Indigenous and living in America today are benefiting from stolen land and broken treaties: The real estate the United States took from Indigenous nations forms the foundation of our cities, our highway systems, our railroad lines and our industrial agriculture. The sale and leasing of former Native lands funded public universities that have offered low-cost tuition to millions of Americans. Many of us have access to cheap power from hydroelectric dams that flooded Indigenous lands. Throughout its history, up to this moment, the United States has repeatedly made choices to benefit settlers at the expense of Native Americans. Not only do past actions leave a legacy; our failure to teach American children a more nuanced and honest version of America’s treatment of Indigenous people creates ongoing harm.
Ignoring this history diminishes the legitimacy and the power of our nation, writes Sharon Brous, a rabbi and the founder of IKAR, a Jewish community in Los Angeles. There’s a debate described in the Talmud between two rabbis over what should be done if it’s discovered that a house, or even a palace, was built using a stolen beam as part of its foundation. One rabbi says the entire building must be demolished so that the beam can be returned to its original owners. The other rabbi, far more pragmatic, says the building can remain standing if the full value of the beam is repaid. Both rabbis make it clear that, as soon as it is known that the beam was stolen, those living in the house must do something—they must make amends.
“Our country was built on a stolen beam,” wrote Brous in a 2017 Rosh Hashanah sermon. She considers the teachings of Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky, who explained that building without a solid foundation inevitably leads to collapse. A Holocaust survivor, he understood the societal danger of theft and denialism.
But what to do? How to respond? My book The Cost of Free Land: Jews, Lakota, and an American Inheritance asks more questions than it answers, but I found direction from a key piece of the Jewish approach to making amends that our people have been following for nearly 1,000 years.
The 12th-century Sephardic philosopher and rabbi Moses ben Maimon, known as Maimonides, arguably one of the most prolific and influential Jewish scholars, dedicates ten chapters of his legal code the Mishneh Torah to “Laws of Repentance,” which codifies a playbook for repairing relationships. Of the six steps he requires of a person who has caused harm, an apology doesn’t occur until step five. First, he writes, we must stop doing the harm. Next, confess as specifically as possible what harm you have caused and, ideally, say this truth out loud in public. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, in her book On Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World, details how Maimonides’s model helps us today to “envision a way forward.”
When I call her and ask why it’s so important not only to be honest with yourself and the person you’ve hurt but to say what you’ve done in public, she tells me, “’Cause you’ve got to own your stuff, man. It’s accountability.”
The Cost of Free Land is my effort to take this step, to dig into the past and reveal the cost of that “free” land on the prairie. But as I learned from Maimonides, telling the truth, making a confession, is important but it’s not enough. To truly repair and repent involves an additional four steps, including making financial restitution that reflects the size of the harm. To that end, my family and I have joined others throughout the country who are working to help Native-led efforts to recover stolen lands. My family’s fundraising goal is set at the amount, when adjusted for inflation, that my homesteading ancestors received as mortgages on the value of their “free” land. This is our piece of the stolen beam.
The book isn’t a complete history of either the Lakota or of immigrant Jews but a narrative of the connective tissue between these groups. The ways their entangled histories pull and push against each other refute the idea that pieces of the past exist in isolation. In its most basic form, this is an American story. It belongs to us all.
This article has been adapted from The Cost of Free Land by Rebecca Clarren, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright (C) 2023 by Rebecca Clarren.
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