I grew up hearing a version of my family’s American immigrant success story that left blank space around the edges. What I knew, what I was told, was that my Jewish great-great grandparents and their six children fled antisemitism in Russia around the turn of the 20th century and came to South Dakota because the United States gave my family free land, a homestead of 160-acres that was theirs to keep if they could turn the wild prairie into farmland. The stories that relatives told me about this little shtetl on the prairie underscored our unfailing tenacity, a specific toughness, as if it were a part of our DNA.
Included in our greatest hits: the story of my great-great grandmother dunking herself in the ice-choked eddy of the creek near their sod house, a Jewish ritual bath to mark the end of her period. And another about my great-grandmother surviving a blizzard by staying close to the cows. There’s the one about saying prayers over the candlesticks they’d schlepped from Russia.
That my family handed down these particular anecdotes—selected from the slush pile of history— is instructive. Because, of course, this is how myths are created and then passed down. After years of research, I’ve learned that my family’s history is more complicated than I once understood. In fact, it’s tangled up with the history of the Lakota Nation, the people who had lived and hunted on the prairie for generations.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, the U.S. wanted to seed the northern Plains with people who would support, just by being there, a transcontinental railroad linking the new state of California, and its raft of natural resources, to the rest of the country. Standing in the way were millions of buffalo and tens of thousands of Native Americans. Inconveniently, earlier in the century, the U.S. had determined that the Great Plains were useless for both agriculture and industry, so Congress had made legal agreements with sovereign Nations like the Lakota reserving Indigenous rights to the land. So, promises made became promises broken.
By 1908, when my family planted their first crops on their slice of the prairie, in an area which would come to be known as Jew Flats, approximately 98% of the total land reserved for the Lakota by an 1851 treaty was owned by white settlers and railroads, according to my research. By the late 1920’s, when my family had leveraged their ranch for a pathway to the middle class, many Indigenous people in the U.S. either had no land at all or didn’t have enough land to subsist on. Most Native Americans were, according to a 1928 Congressional report, “poor, even extremely poor…the health of the Indians as compared with that of the general population is bad.” Many Lakota I spoke to describe this time in their history as a holocaust.
And yet the public narrative that was spun to describe what happened was a form of mythmaking on a national scale. Throughout the 20th century, politicians, bureaucrats, and the media continuously described America’s taking of Native land as being good for Indigenous people. For example, when arguing the government should stop paying such “high prices” to Native Nations for their land, Connecticut senator Orville Platt said in 1902, “when we make an Indian tribe rich, we delay its civilization.” When subsequent land policies resulted in the further loss of Indigenous land, one bureaucrat writing from a South Dakota reservation near Jew Flats wrote to his Indian Agency bosses in 1913 that it was an educational experience for the Lakota, teaching “independence and self-reliance.”
In reality, the taking of Native land wasn’t only terrible for Native people, it was a boon for white people like my ancestors. During the approximately 60 years my family owned a piece of Jew Flats, my relatives took out 29 mortgages on the ranch. This money, which adjusted for inflation comes to approximately $1.1 million, allowed my ancestors to expand our landholdings, to start other businesses, and to move away. Legal scholars Joseph William Singer and Ann Tweedy describe policies that stripped Native Americans of their land as “a huge form of affirmative action for white people.” More than a quarter of American adults, as many as 92 million people, descend from the estimated 1.6 estimated million homesteaders who received free land; relatively few of them are Black, Indigenous, or people of color. In the meantime, people living on Lakota reservations in South Dakota are among the poorest people in America today.
As I discovered while investigating the truth of my own family history, the national mythologizing of what happened on the prairie isn’t only a relic of history. Contemporary textbooks used by high school students in South Dakota still refer to the massacre at Wounded Knee Creek, in which the U.S. Army murdered hundreds of unarmed Lakota children and elders, as “a battle.” The state legislatures of both South and North Dakota recently removed large swaths of Native American history from state curricula because, in the words of one governor, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem she wants children to have “a patriotic education.” She’s in good company: nationwide, approximately half of all states fail to require Native American curricula taught in their K–12 schools, according to a 2019 report by the National Congress of American Indians. Of those that do, nearly 87% of the time they don’t teach anything about Indigenous people living in the U.S. after 1900.
Our failure to understand a more complete version of this history isn’t only the result of our education system. A 2021 audit of all American monuments, conducted by the non-profit Monument Lab in partnership with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, found that of those that mentioned pioneers, only 15% also referenced the terms Native American, Indian, or Indigenous. As of today, there are only around 13 independent (non-Native-government owned) news organizations in the country that have a desk dedicated to covering the more than 574 federally recognized Indigenous Nations, according to Jodi Rave Spotted Bear, Director of the Indigenous Media Freedom Alliance.
These attempts at erasure help explain our failure to understand and recognize the harms of the past. As I’ve grappled with my own family’s history, and spoken to Native elders and Jewish scholars, I’ve come to understand that a more nuanced and honest accounting of the past can be a path to healing.
When Native and non-Native people talk together about their shared history of trauma and loss, they build common ground, says Faith Spotted Eagle, a politician, activist, and Ihanktonwan Elder from the Yankton Sioux Tribe. “The Native people’s objective is to heal. The non-Native people’s objective is to come out of denial.” What she calls “freedom from denial” is much more powerful than guilt, she says, and allows non-Native people to step towards repair.
There’s much work that needs to happen across the entire country, but I know it’s possible. Another long-held idea about Americans is that we’re good at thinking outside the box, that our ability to navigate complex ideas is the foundation of our enterprise and innovation. That’s not to say that nuancing our old narratives is easy. In my own experience, exposing family secrets is painful. But it’s also freeing: understanding that my relatives were human, so of course they made mistakes, allows me to judge myself and them with more compassion. I no longer have the expectation of living up to these picture-perfect ancestors who overcame adversity through grit and hard work.
I’m sure there is more to learn, and more that I’m failing to convey. But the effort to fill in the edges of the dingy old stories I was handed down, both those belonging to my family and to America, feels like a necessary first step towards that more perfect union.
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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