The US government stole Lakota land. Her Jewish family benefited.

It is ironic that author Rebecca Clarren’s Jewish ancestors, driven from Russia by brutal pogroms, ended up settling in the American West on land taken from Native Americans by violent force. As she sets out to examine in “The Cost of Free Land: Jews, Lakota, and an American Inheritance,” her family benefited from policies that encouraged hundreds of thousands of people of European ancestry to move west and claim Native American land. 

Clarren has reported extensively on the American West. Her book grew from a desire to understand, and possibly redress, the role her family played – directly and indirectly – in the denial of land rights to Native Americans. She took to heart advice from Abby Abinanti, chief justice of the Yurok Tribal Court and a former judge for the California State Superior Court. Judge Abinanti advised her to look into what Jewish tradition teaches about repairing harm. Clarren writes, “She told me that, if I was lucky, eventually some Lakota might trust me enough to share their own cultural concepts of contrition, for how to make something right after you’ve done a wrong.” The judge told her, “Every culture has experience with being wrong, with finding a way forward.” 

The book delves into the author’s wrestling with history, acknowledging harm, and seeking a path toward healing. 

THE COST OF FREE LAND: Jews, Lakota, and an American Inheritance. By Rebecca Clarren, Viking, 352 pp.

Clarren grew up hearing stories of how her relatives found new opportunities in the West at the turn of the 20th century. Like many immigrants at the time, they received 160 acres from the government, property they could keep if they could turn the wild prairie into farmland. The author writes, “Only after years of reporting in Indigenous communities did it dawn on me” that the acreage her ancestors were given, and which they expanded over time, had been home to members of the Lakota tribe for thousands of years. 

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