cover image The Cost of Free Land: Jews, Lakota, and an American Inheritance

The Cost of Free Land: Jews, Lakota, and an American Inheritance

Rebecca Clarren. Viking, $32 (352p) ISBN 978-0-593-65507-8

Journalist Clarren (Kickdown) provides an empathetic and eye-opening account of her attempts to reconstruct her great-grandparents’ state of mind when they fled Russian pogroms in the 1880s and settled alongside other Jewish homesteaders in western South Dakota on land taken from the Lakota people, who continued to live on nearby reservations. Tracing the parallel history of the two groups and their sporadic interactions, Clarren notes that the settlement where her ancestors lived, called Jew Flats by its residents, was home to 45 homesteads, and that most of its families only continued farming for one or two generations due to the harsh conditions. The Lakota, meanwhile, were victims of an ongoing genocide and large-scale theft of their land; in 1904, for example, the federal government decreed that 9.3 million acres of Lakota land were “surplus” and thus open to white settlement. Throughout this sweeping history, Clarren focuses on individuals, profiling several generations of her family, all of whom eventually left Jew Flats—one relative became a rodeo rider and oil prospector—as well as Joseph White Bull, a Lakota chief and contemporary of her great-grandparents, and his descendants, some of whom she got to know in the course of her research. This is a unique and important contribution to American history. (Oct.)