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The Cost of Free Land
What are the stories we tell in families? What are the stories we don’t tell? And why don’t we tell certain stories?
What is our responsibility to understand our family’s past? What stories of that past do we recognize — and what stories do we suspect but fear to touch?
Rebecca Clarren reported on the West long enough to realize: my place here, and the relative power that stems from it….it is the result of a government stealing land from one group of people — people who had lived on that land for time immemorial — and giving it to another. Clarren also knew enough about the legacy of extraction to understand that even if you, yourself, are generations removed from that policy, that “free land,” that doesn’t mean its ramifications don’t echo through your life.
So what does it mean to own that history? To see it clearly? To atone? In her gripping new book, Clarren is doing that complicated, messy work. She’s taught me a lot about the history of Jews in the West and what it means to get really curious and honest with yourself. I can’t recommend it — or the conversation we have below — highly enough.
As a means of introduction, I’d love to hear more of how you came to report on the things you’ve reported about (historically) and how that, in turn, led to you The Cost of Free Land. (Being a reporter in the West I know at least part of the answer here but I’d love to have us spell out how all these forms of resource extraction connect).
I started my career at a publication called High Country News, a magazine that covers the American West. I’ve spent the majority of the past twenty-three years continuing to write about and report on the region. As you know, it’s a fascinating, complicated place full of loads of overlooked places and communities that many people in the rest of the country haven’t considered.
Throughout this time, I’ve written primarily for national magazines, and often about immigrant labor and also about how resource extraction can impact the environment, public health and local economies. No matter the topic, I’m always motivated by the same basic question: how do seemingly boring federal laws and bureaucratic policies play out in the lives of families and individuals?
It’s impossible to cover the American West without writing about Native Nations, so throughout my career, I’d written stories that took me to reservations and urban Native communities, but it wasn’t until 2017, when I was hired by an investigative non-profit to write an entire series about Indigenous communities, that I had a somewhat embarrassingly late realization: all this time I’d been reporting in Indian Country as if I was an unbiased, distant reporter, as if the stories there had nothing to do with me, not really. And yet the more I looked into the legacy of federal policies impacting Native communities, the more I realized that in fact, my family, my own self, was implicated.
In the book, you offer a deeply textured look at the wars waged against the Lakota and the promises and treaties broken in the late 19th century. You also paint a vivid picture of Jew Flats — and a population of settlers that is often left out of popular history. How did one make the other possible?
My family were Jewish homesteaders on the South Dakota prairie, and yes, in a place that some locals near Wall still call “Jew Flats.” My ancestors were able to escape pogroms and oppression in Eastern Europe and settle in America in large part because of the free federal homestead the United States gave my great-great grandparents. And then gave their children and their children’s partners. For my family — who, as Jews, weren’t allowed to own land in Russia — this land meant a tremendous amount. It made them feel more American, less like immigrants of suspect status.
Apparently, my great-grandmother and her sister always called the land “the good earth.” The land also gave them a huge leg up economically — I pulled every deed on Jew Flats, and then I pulled every mortgage taken out on every one of those deeds, and what I found when I compared the dates on the documents to details I learned from researching old newspapers from the area and digging through the trove of old letters and journals my family had kept all these years, is that my ancestors would take out a mortgage and then start a new business, or expand their land or even move, keep their land, but move. Economists I interviewed explained that more valuable than the amount of money they received on the sale of the land when they sold it (in 1965 mostly and the last bit in 1970) was the value of these relatively small loans along the way. I did a bunch of math and had people check my math and adjusted for inflation, the value of those mortgages is $1.1 million today.
But all the ways they benefitted from this land came at great cost to their Lakota neighbors, some of whom lived on the Cheyenne River Reservation only thirteen miles away. The United States had broken a series of treaties and agreements it had made with the Lakota, reserving the land for Lakota usage, until by the time my family planted their first crops in 1908, the Lakota were living on just 2 percent of the land the U.S. had promised them in 1851.
Not only did the government take and steal Native land, it passed a series of laws making Native religion and traditions illegal, in an attempt to assimilate Indigenous people to the point where they no longer had a culture that cared about land. It took children away from their families and sent them to Industrial Boarding Schools, intentionally far away from their communities, so that they’d sever their connection to their Nation’s traditions — again an effort to assimilate people that was, in my read of history, again another attempt to make it easier to dispossess them from their land. It also kept and keeps most Native land in trust, meaning Native people can’t take out a mortgage or a loan on the value of most of their land. The U.S. of course didn’t succeed in this effort and today there’s a huge resurgence of Native language and religion, but those efforts leave a legacy of harm.
Something that’s stuck with me from the book is the focus on the way families tell stories about themselves — and what those stories, generations down, attempt to express (about who you are as a family, about what life was like, about “character”) but just as importantly, what they exclude. Can you talk about how you think about your family’s stories from your current vantage point?
This book really started with three questions: What are the stories we tell in families? What are the stories we don’t tell? And why don’t we tell certain stories?
My family’s stories followed what I now understand as a classic immigrant script: we highlighted pluck and tenacity (like: your cousin could clear a path of rattlesnakes from the house to the outhouse every morning when he was only five years old! Like: your great-great grandmother used to dunk in the freezing cold creek in the winter to take her mikvah!)
I now understand that these stories — what I call our greatest hits — were meant on some level to telegraph certain values of toughness, of religious commitment. They were meant to keep us safe. As a parent, I really get this impulse. I tell my kids all the time that my job is to keep them safe. But understanding the impulse doesn’t lessen the challenge of seeing my ancestors for the more complete picture of who they were — to read in letters and journals about some of their less positive characteristics.
I have to say, I still love the old stories. They really were amazing people, who endured great challenges. And I know now that their lives were more complicated, that they were less perfect, than I understood growing up. Knowing that they were human, that they made mistakes, it honestly helps me have more compassion for myself and my entire living family. It’s less a sense of oh, our ancestors were so good and now we’re flawed, it’s: there’s always been mishigas, there’s always been blind spots, and we can acknowledge that and try to do better without shame.
You describe how, meeting with your rabbi and talking about the subject of atonement, you continued to circle back to this idea that in order to even start thinking about the work of fixing something, you must first tell the truth.
In your rabbi’s words, “Almost two thousand years ago, Jews would atone through animal sacrifice, but today I think the offering and the sacrifice is both economic and it’s truth-telling, and the truth-telling, that’s the harder part.”
With that in mind, how did you approach the work of essentially “reporting out” your family’s past, and what advice would you give others attempting to do the same?
Don’t do it.
So, I think that’s actually two questions. Let me take the first part first. How I did it: I interviewed every single person in my Mom’s generation and older who was willing to talk to me and most everyone was. None of these relatives were born in Russia, they were the children and grandchildren of homesteaders, but I asked them for their handed stories. In many cases, the stories were told exactly the same but in many important cases they varied. In the book, when the stories didn’t agree, I made a point of sharing that on the page or in the end notes.
I also was fortunate that we have a gene in my family that seems to compel many of us not to throw anything away. I myself have boxes in my own attic of old letters and school playbills that date back to the 1980s. I am not proud of this but it certainly helps with the writing of history. My parents had boxes taken from my grandparent’s house of old letters and journals and newsclips. My Great-Aunt Etta’s house is like a family museum; she had kept 30 day diaries of her mother’s, my great-grandmother’s. She had boxes of ancient letters, many written in Yiddish, even tax returns from 1911. It was a real treasure trove and I feel very grateful that she let me go spelunking in her closets. Several of my relatives, Etta included, had written their own family histories in which they had interviewed some of those homesteaders in the 1970s and 80s. They let me see their notes.
I tried to be transparent about what I was doing and because of that I made different choices than I’ve made as a journalist in the past — the biggest one being that I let people read the book before it went to press. Following the advice of Mary Karr, who has written extensively about how to write about one’s family, I printed the book out when it was already several edits in, and travelled to Minnesota and Seattle to hand deliver a copy to my relatives who appeared in the book.
Many difficult conversations ensued in which I tried my best to mostly listen. I didn’t change anything important to the arc of the book but we had a chance to have a lot of hard conversations about why I was including certain things and why I wasn’t including others. In the end, though difficult, this process has been one of the most gratifying experiences of my life. Even though my Aunt Etta would have vastly preferred I left certain family secrets out of the book, she wrote me an email right before Yom Kippur this year, having received an early copy of The Cost of Free Land, and she wrote that while it was painful to read some of it, that she loved me, she was proud of me and, she said, “thank you for helping me be more of a realist at the age of 90.” I cried when I read that email. I still cry sometimes when I talk about it.
So my advice: be very clear about why you’re writing the story you’re writing and tell as big and wide of a truth as you can, but also be compassionate, be kind, lean towards the love you have for your family.
A few years ago I was co-reporting a story on systemic disenfranchisement on Navajo Nation, and in one of the sections of the draft, my co-reporter (who is Cherokee) used the word genocide to describe what had happened to the ancestors of one of the subjects of the story. An editor (who was not Native) flagged it, essentially saying the word was too strong. We went back and forth and back and forth pushing for its inclusion. I just went back and looked up the piece, and here’s the language we settled on:
For decades, Native children were sent to Indian boarding schools, often built just miles from their homes, where they were taught English and stripped of their Navajo ways of living and language. It was both condoned and encouraged by the federal government. That forced assimilation was part of a larger, centuries long pattern that could plainly be called genocide or ethnic cleansing.
*Could* plainly be called. It’s been years, but I think about this a lot. How have you come to understand this persistent reticence? I think some people see it as, like, performative self-flagellation, but to me it just feels even more shameful to hedge the truth of the past. (Alternately, there’s the whole line of thinking that we shouldn’t make kids “feel bad about themselves,” but I think there’s something to be said for “feeling complicated about yourself”)
I have to say, I don’t understand it. Call it genocide. It WAS genocide, or cultural genocide. It’s so clear in their own writing that the Indian Wars of the 19th century were a clear effort to as some of them wrote wipe the Indian off the Earth. And then there was this secondary effort, ushered in when the cost of keeping the army on the Plains proved too great, to assimilate them, which was really cultural genocide — the attempt to erase their culture. And here’s the part I think is critical: genocide or cultural genocide is how my Indigenous friends and sources describe America’s treatment of Native people.
As for we shouldn’t make kids feel bad about themselves, I guess I just haven’t seen that born out. I talk to my own kids about this history, I’ve talked about it with their classmates at our synagogue’s shabbat school and they’re able to hold multiple things at once. They can see how horrible it was that kids their own age were taken away from their parents and sent to boarding schools (for example), and they can understand that we can make different choices today because we know that history. That the past isn’t their fault AND that they can be part of taking responsibility for a better future.
This is a difficult question, and I want to give you space to answer it however you’d like (or not answer it at all) — but how has your time researching and writing this book led you to understand the violence and devastation and horror of what’s happening in Israel and Palestine right now?
Like most everyone I know, I see the news and feel completely devastated and heartbroken and furious and scared. All the things. I’m not an expert in the Middle East. I didn’t write this book considering a comparative history of Israel and the United States. Unfortunately, painfully, I can’t say that having written this book actually does help me understand what’s happening in Israel and Palestine in any big complete way.
That said, I can say that in light of the suffering happening throughout the region, it feels more important to me than ever to study histories of oppression. To me it feels like a critical way to combat the dehumanizing language that so many governments use in times of war to describe the other side. And I’m hearing from many readers that because my book has rhymes and resonances with the news, it’s helping them consider very human struggles over land and oppression through a lens of context, nuance and empathy. In my experience of working on this book, it’s real conversations and relationships between individual people on different sides of a conflict which can lead to healing. ●