Celebrating Jewish Literature: Jews, Native Americans and not-so-free land

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

“Every other week, my rabbi and I would meet to read ancient Jewish texts that proscribe how to atone and reconcile after a harm has been committed, even and especially one that a person didn’t cause directly but did benefit from... [we learned] before you can fix anything, you must tell the truth, not just to God, but out loud to the entire community.” – Rebecca Clarren
To “tell the truth, not just to God, but out loud to the entire community”: that is the reason for, and the purpose behind, Rebecca Clarren’s “The Cost of Free Land: Jews, Lakota, and an American Inheritance” (Viking). Clarren is not looking so much to assign blame, but, rather, to find a way forward that rectifies the harm that was (and still is being) done. She also wants to understand how a group of persecuted Jews (including her ancestors, which makes this personal) took advantage of the genocide of the Native Americans by the American government. It’s a tale of persecution and lies, one made even more disturbing when Clarren writes about how Adolph Hitler used the American treatment of its Native Americans as his blueprint for ridding Europe of Jews during the Holocaust. 

Clarren’s first chapter “Beyond the Pale” juxtaposes the treatment of the two groups. Native American culture had no concept that land could be sold so the first treaties made were unfair and meaningless from the start. The U.S. government continued to take advantage – to lie to and cheat Native Americans in an effort to rid the country of those they saw as either dangerous savages or innocents needing to be westernized. In fact, the government still controls much of their financial lives, giving Native Americans less freedom than any other group living in the U.S. Clarren also writes of the prejudice and attacks against the Jews in Europe, including how her great-great-grandfather was beaten during a pogrom and left for dead, something from which he never completely recovered. She offers comparisons between the U.S. government’s treatment of Native Americans and the Eastern European treatment of its Jews: both were only allowed to live in certain areas, neither could own weapons or land, and both were subject to the whims of government officials and their neighbors. 

However, things changed for those Jews who came to the United States. Yes, there was antisemitism and they were often not fully accepted by their neighbors, but they were finally able to own land, something they could not do in Eastern Europe. In fact, the government was offering free land – land stolen from Native Americans – but these immigrants didn’t look carefully at the reasons the land was available. Clarren does look at those reasons in heartbreaking detail, but she also understands why those like her great-great-grandfather weren’t concerned about the political motivations behind the offer. She notes that her ancestors “had finally escaped exile; they believed they were no longer wandering. I hope they felt a thrill, a sense of pride. For the first time in generations, they were standing on their own land.” That sense of pride lasted for generations – even for those who never farmed the land – and was still spoken of when Clarren was little, before she knew there was another side of the story. 

The author notes the U.S. government’s treatment of Native Americans, including the forcible removal of children from their parents and their placement in boarding schools (where they were punished for speaking their native language or practicing native customs), policies that forced larger family units apart in order to break Native Americans’ traditional practices and denying them citizenship to prevent them from voting. Also discussed is the continued breaking of treaties and the harm done by government policies that refused to see the Native Americans as anything but children unable to control their own destiny. Clarren shows the many ways that Native American activists have worked to change this, but, even today, they have not been completely successful.

The contrast between the lives of Clarren’s Jewish relatives and the Native Americans she writes of is stark: the Jews were able to own land, to marry whom they wanted and to give their children a Jewish education. Their ability to practice Judaism was not regulated and they were free to celebrate Jewish holidays and rituals. Perhaps the most important difference is that the Jews were able to control how they used their land – leveraging it for mortgages or loans, or selling it and moving elsewhere – while Native Americans were not allowed to handle the funds given to their tribes. The U.S. government still decides how most of that money will be used. 
Particularly distressing is the way Hitler was “inspired” by the American treatment of its “Indian problem”: “In a 1928 speech, [Hitler] applauded the way Americans had ‘gunned down the millions of Redskins to a few hundred thousand, and now keep the modest remnant under observation.’ Hitler ‘often praised to his inner circle the efficiency of America’s extermination – by starvation and uneven combat – of the red savages who could not be tamed by captivity,’ wrote John Toland in ‘Adolf Hitler: The Definitive Biography.’” Although Clarren’s relatives arrived in the U.S. after the slaughter of Native Americans during the Indian Wars, they never thought about what had occurred before they arrived on U.S. shores, nor did would they have realized how that treatment would later be used against members of their own religious group. 

Clarren is not looking to condemn her ancestors. She is helped in this by her conversations with the Native Americans to whom she spoke. One notes that the author’s ancestors were fleeing their own genocidal attacks and didn’t have the luxury of considering where their good fortune came from. They were only looking to survive. However, Clarren acknowledges that “it’s now the job... of my generation, those who have grown up free of such upheaval, to do the work of considering the harm of this entangled history.” The author realized that now is the time to have conversations about restorative justice as a way to heal historical wrongs. 
“The Cost of Free Land” is not always an easy work to read. The treatment of Native Americans is a horrific chapter of American history, one that is unfortunately still ongoing. Clarren is to be commended not only for revealing what occurred, but for showing compassion to her ancestors. She ends her work with resources so people can not only see if their ancestors benefitted from stolen Indian land, but what steps can be taken to rectify that harm. “The Cost of Free Land” is a moving, sad, incredible portrayal of U.S. history that belongs on the shelves of every American library.