The cost of free land and either-or history

November 23, 2023 5:40 am

A man poses with a homestead shack in the area between Dupree and Eagle Butte, on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota. (Palmer Sigvald Gilbertson Collection, University of South Dakota)

Some white South Dakotans love to talk about their generational connection to the land. I’m one of them: a proud, fifth-generation descendant of Dakota Territory homesteaders.

The federal government awarded nearly 100,000 parcels of free land to South Dakota settlers via the 1862 Homestead Act and successive rounds of related legislation. Modern South Dakotans celebrate that legacy in myriad ways, including an annual State Fair ceremony honoring farms and ranches owned by the same family for 100 or more years.

Too few of us pause to consider how that must sound to Native Americans. Their connection to the land spans hundreds of generations and thousands of years. Before any white settler rushed to claim free land in western South Dakota, the federal government broke a treaty that promised to reserve all of that land as a Great Sioux Reservation.

White South Dakotans rarely talk about that side of the homesteading story, because it threatens the independent, self-made pioneer aspect of our ancestral identity. Too many of us hold an either-or view of history, believing it can only be good or bad, not both.

In a new book, “The Cost of Free Land: Jews, Lakota, and an American Inheritance,” author and journalist Rebecca Clarren cuts through that worldview like a plow through prairie sod, exposing the roots to scrutiny. She wants the descendants of homesteaders to know they can “hold two things in their heads at once.”

(Courtesy of Viking/Penguin Random House)

“I hope that people living in South Dakota can read this history and not feel attacked by it, and say, ‘I do feel proud. My family has really made something of ourselves,’” Clarren told me in an interview. “And now, how do I consider the great harm that these policies cost our Native neighbors, and what can we do about that today?”

Clarren lives in Oregon, but her Jewish ancestors homesteaded in western South Dakota after fleeing persecution in Russia. Utilizing her family’s trove of documents and photographs, plus historical research and interviews with her relatives and modern Lakota people whose ancestors crossed paths with hers, Clarren takes readers on three interwoven journeys: her family’s odyssey from Russia to South Dakota and beyond; the concurrent fate of Lakota people, who were pushed off their land and onto reservations; and her own journey to absorb that history, make sense of it, and discern what to do about it.

Between colorful tales and character sketches, readers also learn about the forced enrollment of Native American children in boarding schools; federal policies that opened reservation land to non-Native ownership; misguided federal programs that relocated some Indigenous people from reservations to urban areas; and the permanent flooding of fertile reservation bottomlands during the construction of Missouri River dams.

While all of that was happening, Clarren’s ancestors were working hard and exercising their freedom to mortgage and remortgage their homesteaded property. They expanded their ranch holdings and moved away to cities, where they converted their land wealth into successful businesses.

By juxtaposing Native and non-Native stories, Clarren shows it wasn’t only discrimination against Native Americans that created unequal social and economic conditions in South Dakota. The simultaneous freedoms and advantages extended to non-Native people also played a role, providing what Clarren described as the “platform shoes of social class.”

“To look only at one piece of this history,” Clarren wrote, “is to ignore the depths of this unfairness.”

Yet in South Dakota, we routinely celebrate homesteaders without acknowledging the other side of the story. Clarren eloquently diagnoses the self-defeating causes and effects of that situation.

To look only at one piece of this history is to ignore the depths of this unfairness.

– Rebecca Clarren, 'The Cost of Free Land'

“Our failure to teach American history in its full and nuanced complexity leads to ignorance, which saps empathy and allows racism and hatred to flourish,” she wrote, “which keeps our caste system in place, which keeps marginalized people poor and disenfranchised, which allows the dominant class to maintain a historical narrative that is inaccurate in its simplicity.”

So we have to start there, with learning the history. Then what? Clarren’s family decided to start a fund with the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, which works to help tribes buy back pieces of lost land.

There are other ideas in the book; more than that, there’s encouragement and a road map for descendants of homesteaders to learn their own family history and decide what to do about it.

In the current political climate, I don’t know how many South Dakotans are open to Clarren’s message. Some will dismiss it as an example of “critical race theory,” the academic framework that’s become a code phrase for any history that makes white people uncomfortable.

As for this fifth-generation South Dakotan, I think the book aligns with the common sense we claim to have inherited from our pioneer forebears: When you’ve wronged someone, you should listen and apologize. And then you should try to make amends.

This commentary is republished from South Dakota Searchlight, a sister publication of Kentucky Lantern and part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. 

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Seth Tupper
Seth Tupper

Seth Tupper, editor-in-chief of South Dakota Searchlight, has devoted his career to chronicling the people, places, history and politics of South Dakota. He was raised in the small towns of Wessington Springs and Kimball, graduated from South Dakota State University in Brookings, worked as a journalist at newspapers in Mitchell and Rapid City, and served as a supervising senior producer at South Dakota Public Broadcasting’s Black Hills Studio. Along the way, he won the South Dakota Newspaper Association’s Outstanding Young Journalist Award and a National Edward R. Murrow Award for investigative reporting. He is the author of “Calvin Coolidge in the Black Hills,” about the 30th president’s three-month sojourn in South Dakota; the co-author of “Surviving the ’72 Flood,” about one of the nation’s deadliest natural disasters, the 1972 Black Hills Flood; and a contributor to “The Black Hills of South Dakota,” a travel guidebook. He lives in Rapid City with his wife and two children.