Rebecca Clarren’s great-great grandfather, Harry Sinkyin, was beaten so severely during an 1881 pogrom in Odesa that he suffered its effects for his entire life. A few years later, he would move his family — wife Faige Etke, and their children — to America, landing in New York. They started over as homesteaders in South Dakota. But the “free land” they were given was not in fact, free. It was stolen from the Lakota people who had occupied it for generations.
As she recounts in her sharply insightful “The Cost of Free Land,” Clarren’s family saw Harry’s story as the classic immigrant survival story. “My family’s stories about Harry have always followed a classic script: we highlight his pluck and how he overcame adversity on the road to opportunity. We fail to acknowledge the reverberations of our family’s good fortune, or the fact that it came at the expense of others.”
After 20 years of reporting on the western United States as a writer for “High Country News” and “The Nation,” among others, Clarren felt the urgent need to understand just how much her family had benefitted from the genocide and erasure of its land’s first people. The result is what will become a classic of personal journalism and memoir, a book to join Jesmyn Ward’s “Men We Reaped,” Terry Tempest Williams’ “Refuge” and Elissa Washuta’s “White Magic” as examples of work that sees the clear link between the personal and American culture and history.
For Clarren, who lost members of her family in the Holocaust, the questions strike especially hard. Her persecuted ancestors settled on land stolen from persecuted people. What can she do to repair the harm as a direct beneficiary?
Researching her family’s records, public documents about land sales, and conducting oral interviews with both her family and large numbers of Lakota Elders, she pieces together history gouged as deep as wagon ruts into the Great Plains.
Clarren is not interested in measuring the depths of the harms suffered by Jews and the Lakota as some form of competitive suffering. Rather, she sees how traumas inflicted on Jews — loss of land, exile, segregation, ethnic cleansing — are similar to the ways the U.S. government has treated Native Americans. Descendants of the Battle of Greasy Grass (Little Big Horn) incurred systematic punishment for their challenge to “Manifest Destiny.” Efforts to erase the Lakota people included horrific massacres, land theft, and attempts to eradicate Native language and culture. In our present day, many Americans would rather cheer for teams with Indian mascots while ignoring their Native American neighbors.
As scholars have noted, white settlers felt justified in taking over Native land because its natural state made the land not “productive” in their world view. This Eurocentric ideal of transforming the land through labor and grit filtered into views of both Jews and the Lakota: Both were seen as weak, coded as unintelligent and too feeble to make the proper impact on the “wilderness.” The Lakota had been incredibly successful with their lands, utilizing the native environment and hunting plentiful bison, but such ways were seen as “savage.” Because Jews had had very little access to land ownership, they were assumed to be incapable of farming.
Clarren’s Sinkyin ancestors struggled to overcome their Christian neighbors’ perceptions of them as they tried cultivating various crops. As the family grew, revenues from those lands became the basis for wealth accumulation in a variety of businesses, including the illegal production of liquor during Prohibition. Her family’s financial success grew from the original harm.
It bears mentioning that 91 million Americans are the inheritors of wealth gained from land grabs. Those who claim no benefit from the treatment of American Indians still reap the gains from land grant universities, infrastructure, drilling for minerals and petroleum, and other public projects that were built on confiscated land. Anyone who uses hydroelectric power or lives on controlled floodplains does so because the dammed rivers drowned land where Native peoples had thrived.
It would have been easy for Clarren to have turned this into a handwringing narrative about white guilt rather than one offering solutions. But Clarren is more interested in reparation — not financial per se but as a means of repair. Her approach is multi-pronged, focusing on spiritually based practical solutions derived from Judaism, especially from scholars like Maimonides, but also on working with Lakota individuals to offer restitution that leads to truth, healing, and reconciliation.
In drawing a connection between her immigrant family’s achievement of the American Dream and the ways in which various governments and their policies have consistently defrauded Native people of their culture and power, Clarren constructs a monumental piece of work. While monuments are often nothing but sanitized versions of official histories, Clarren’s history is made from mud and clay and blood and bone — richer statuary than those made of bleached white stone.
THE COST OF FREE LAND
By Rebecca Clarren
Viking, 352 pages, $32
Lorraine Berry lives in Oregon.
This story has been updated to correct a reporting error. The Sinkyin family was not sponsored by a Jewish philanthropic organization for resettlement in South Dakota.