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Historian of Jewish Homesteading: Teach Fuller History!

Speaking of history, Rebecca Clarren, author of The Cost of Free Land: Jews, Lakota, and an American Inheritance, says we need to teach a fuller, richer history than the blinkered “Yay, colonialism!” pap of South Dakota’s new gubernatorially imposed social studies standards:

“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” [Seth Tupper, “The Cost of Free Land and Either-Or History,” South Dakota Searchlight, 2023.11.20].

Every one of us should have an interest in amplifying Clarren’s history, our history of benefiting from imperialism, and talking about what we should do to remedy our unfair advantages:

Ultimately, I hope that readers of The Cost of Free Land will be inspired to find themselves in this American story of the dispossession of Indigenous lands. To help, I’ve collected the resources that were helpful to me when I set out to attempt to untangle this complicated history. Because no matter when your family arrived in this country, all of us who aren’t Indigenous benefit from the fact that our country was built on the unfair taking and sometimes outright theft of Native lands. Broken treaties cleared the way for the foundation of our highway systems, our cities and our industrial agriculture. The sale and leasing of former Native lands funded public universities that have offered low-cost tuition to millions of Americans. Many of us have access to cheap power from hydroelectric dams that flooded Indigenous lands. Throughout its history, up to this moment, the United States has made choices to benefit settlers and their descendants at the detriment of Native Americans. This is our inheritance. What we do about it now is the question [excerpt from Rebecca Clarren, The Cost of Free Land: Jews, Lakota, and an American Inheritance, in Politico, 2023.09.29].

Seth Tupper notes that talk like that will likely get Clarren’s book banned in South Dakota schools:

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 [Tupper, 2023.11.20].

Hey, history teachers: the Hillsdale standards the Governor imposed on you over your own colleagues’ better judgment include requirements that you teach students “westward expansion’s effects on relationships with Native Americans” (5.SS.6), the “land speculation and settlement” that arose from the Homestead Act (9-12.USH.13.G), and the impact of the Homestead Act on South Dakota history (9-12.USH.15.G). It’s not hard to make the case to your administration that Clarren’s book helps meet those standards. And even the most prominent intellectual on the committee that rubber-stamped the Hillsdale Standards will agree that we need to get back to having kids read books! Order Rebecca Clarren’s book today and put it on your students’ reading list!


  1. ABC 2023-11-24 07:31

    Look up Strool Township, South Dakota in Wikipedia.

    Ben Strool founded Strool SD in 1908. He got elected to School and Public lands twice. His town in Perkins County rented the land to settlers instead of selling it.

    Very innovative!

  2. Richard Schriever 2023-11-24 07:42

    Likewise, having the history of modern Israel fully taught would change quite a few attitudes toward the Middle East conflicts. For example, that the contemporary residents of Gaza are there primarily because 700,000 of their indigenous ancestors were dispossessed of their lands, with 600 villages being destroyed in 1947 alone, by European Zionist “settlers” (sound familiar?). They have been confined to the almost purely fine sand “land” of Gaza – forcefully, ever since (like being locked into an urban reservation). This was all done, of course, with the full support of European and US governments, and still is, after WW2.

    I have not read Claren’s book, but the title suggests the topic may be covered.

  3. jerry 2023-11-24 09:08

    Black homesteaders were in South Dakota as well. There family trees included slavery. “Fox News host Brian Kilmeade praised “slave owners” because he said the United States of America would not exist without them.

    Kilmeade made the remarks on The Charlie Kirk Show on Monday while promoting his book about Booker T. Washington and President Theodore Roosevelt.

    “But for the most part, we are a country that was born, like every other country, every continent had slaves,” Kilmeade said. “In the South, most houses, most plantations had slaves. Nobody condones it. But without those slave owners, we don’t have a country. So you make your choice.”

    Without the theft of lands and slavery, we would be about as successful as Hungary.

  4. jerry 2023-11-24 09:14

    Thanks from a Ukrainian Jew. “Volodymyr Zelenskyy / Володимир Зеленський @ZelenskyyUa
    On behalf of all Ukrainians, Olena @ZelenskaUA and I wish all Americans a happy Thanksgiving.
    We thank you, the people of America.
    We know how many of you sincerely sympathize with our struggle and wish Ukraine victory. We saw how many of you took to heart the illegal and unprovoked attack on Ukraine and felt that it was also an attack on your values.
    Thanks to American support and global leadership, millions of Ukrainian lives have been saved.
    Ukraine is grateful to you! And we have faith that the unity of the free world will always overcome any threats to freedom.
    Freedom must not, and will not, fall. We guarantee it together.
    10:03 AM · Nov 23, 2023

  5. John 2023-11-24 09:17

    As our nation trundles to its 250th Anniversary a better, more accurate view and versions of its history are imperative if our nation is to last.
    I look forward to reading Clarren’s book. Several other works must also be taught and re-taught in the run ups to 2026. Among those include:
    The 1619 Project. It’s pathetically easy to forget the Europeans on this land mass were in colonies almost as long as is the history of the nation, the US.
    African Founders. This is a detailed survey of Africans who meaningfully contributed to building the US. They survey is artfully accomplished by regions, and includes some work on Indigenous peoples.

    And while far outside the narrow confines of the US, Howard Fast’s, The Jews, is an epic survey of that culture. Here’s two stunning take-aways among dozens. One, during the Middle Ages when literacy was about 2% (kings, their courts, priests), the Jews literacy was around 96% since they ran schools. Second, the scale of scope of Martin Luther’s antisemitism was incredible, yet the modern church with his name pretends that they are the persecuted ones.

  6. Eve Fisher 2023-11-24 09:29

    Don’t forget Linda Schloss’ “And Prairie Dogs Weren’t Kosher: Jewish Women in the Upper Midwest Since 1855”. That is a GREAT book.
    From Amazon reviews:
    “[My parents] got tired of eating potatoes, and prairie dogs weren’t kosher.” —Isadore Pitts, son of Jewish immigrants to South Dakota, about 1913

    Linking the personal and the historical, Linda Mack Schloff integrates oral accounts, diaries, letters, and autobiographies with original research and interpretation to present the little-known story of the Jewish experience in America’s heartland. And Prairie Dogs Weren’t Kosher uses the voices of four generations of Jewish women who settled in Minnesota, the Dakotas, Iowa, and Wisconsin to show how they transported and transformed their cultural and religious life in a region inhabited by few Jews.

    As the wives of fur traders and homesteaders, storekeepers and professionals, they were the key link in creating Jewish homes and helping their families fit in—often under harsh conditions. But in the process of becoming Jewish Americans, they also carved out new roles for themselves as jobholders, synagogue-builders, and social activists.

    “And Prairie Dogs Weren’t Kosher begins to fill a void in American Jewish history and admirably expands our access to the religious, cultural, and social lives of women in the middle of America and their contributions to the larger community.” —Nebraska History

    “This book is a treat for all who are interested in the social, economic, and cultural history of Jews, women, and immigrants. Lavishly illustrated, it successfully combines historical insight with the diverse voices of the immigrants themselves as they reflect on the processes of shaping their lives in a new land.” —Paula Hyman, Lucy Moses Professor of Modern Jewish History, Yale University and author of Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History: The Roles and Representation of Women

    “And Prairie Dogs Weren’t Kosher jolts simplistic images of Eastern immigrant ghettos and bedraggled pioneer mothers. Linda Schloff documents the many ways that women’s labor, domestic religious practices, and public service knit Jewish communities in the Upper Midwest. We see how women adapted traditional practices in new social environments, transformed religious institutions, and stretched their own possibilities as women and as Jews. An engrossing entry into the connected histories of religion, place, and gender.” —Elizabeth Jameson, Associate Professor of History, University of New Mexico, co-editor of The Women’s West, and contributor to Rachel Calof’s Story: Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains

    “Authoritative, authentic, and informative, this fine book adds forgotten voices to the American story. As a rabbi in the Upper Midwest for half a century, I enjoyed reading about families I know and seeing pictures of them and their forebears. Prairie dogs aren’t kosher, but this book is because it is simply splendid.” —Bernard S. Raskas, Rabbi Emeritus, Temple of Aaron, St. Paul, and Distinguished Visiting Professor of Religious Studies, Macalester College

  7. Edwin Arndt 2023-11-24 09:31

    You do not have to study a whole lot of history to learn that those with the
    better weapons, the better organization, the greater numbers, the greater
    resources, are the ones who prevail. Yes, whites took land from the indigenous
    people by force of might. Was it right? No. Was it inevitable? A study of history
    suggests that it was. The United States also took land from Mexico by force
    of armed might. Was it right? No. But we took land from Mexico because
    we could. We can discuss the immorality of it all ad nauseam, but none of what
    happened will be undone.

  8. Rambler 2023-11-24 11:12

    Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee in a 1970 non-fiction book by Dee Brown. It should be another required reading by all SD high school students giving them an actual history of the double-dealing and cruelty inflicted on Native American peoples.

  9. Roger Elgersma 2023-11-24 13:24

    When I started farming in 1978 all the towns in the area had their centennial within about five years. The farmers also started to receive century awards if their farm had been in the family for 100 years. But only about one percent of the farms got a century award in those first years. It has always been that the price of land is the highest cost in the price of grain. But the homesteader paid nothing for the land and they mostly did not last in the long run. Some left because the kids died walking home from school in a blizzard, and others had other calamities.
    But then I noticed that those who lasted had fed the Natives when they came hungry rather than shoot them. The best example I saw was one whose ancestor had crossed the Missouri two years before that area was open to homesteaders. He bought land from the Natives without the pressure of a recent war to affect the price. Two generations later his family owned seven sections. When the Natives would come to their house hungry without being able to communicate with the same language, they would kill a chicken and add potatoes and vegetables to feed them a fresh meal. The English came first because the first churches were Episcopalian, and very few of them survived. It seems now that there are more Episcopalian Natives than whites. I think, and not all will agree, but I think the lose by the homesteaders was God’s justice for taking stolen land. One can also ask, where is the justice for the Natives?

  10. Roger Elgersma 2023-11-24 13:41

    The idea that slave owners built economies is ridiculous. People with no incentive to improve their own situation do not work as hard or efficiently. I learned in school that the main reason the north won the civil war was because they had the well developed economy when they did not have slaves. Psychologically one’s mind set is developed from zero to twenty years old. Slaves less than twenty brought more money because the older ones did not work as hard. New York was started with about two hundred people and eleven of them were slaves. An obviously biased documentary on prejudice said that those eleven people did all the work. There is no way that a new colony can be started without every person working hard. All the houses, barns, stores etc. have to be built the first year and it is not possible to do that much work without everyone working. New York was also the first colony to let slaves have their own house, garden and wife legally. They found that with some incentives the people did better. That trend continued till they had freedom from slavery. The slave owners apparently got lazy from letting others do the work because before the civil war the south did not develop textile mills but sold the cotton to Europe and the north. Economies and industry grow better with paid employees.

  11. Richard Schriever 2023-11-24 15:08

    Roger, FWIW the average life-span of a slave in the US in 1850 was 22 years. At age 22, one’s brain is not even fully matured. What’s some notion of “motivation” got to do with it?

  12. jerry 2023-11-24 15:24

    “Jews have settled in New York State since the 17th century. In August 1654, the first known Jewish settler, Jacob Barsimson, came to New Amsterdam. The Dutch colonial port city was the seat of the government for the New Netherland territory and became New York City in 1664. The first significant group of Jewish settlers came in September 1654 as refugees from Recife, Brazil to New Amsterdam.”

    Indian lands were the last real chance that many had to survive in this country, especially if you were Irish. All you had to do was build a shack and live on quarter for 5 years, pay $30.00 for fees and there ya go, or pay $1. 25 an acre. Sounds easy enough, but even on these stolen lands, the seasons are cruel. Those incentives were not given to the Natives though.

  13. e platypus onion 2023-11-24 17:17

    A Jewish family that challenged christian prayer in their local school fled their home town after then-evangelical attorney Mike Johnson warned of an “enemy” that was “silencing the gospel,” according to a new report.

  14. JAN FREED 2023-11-25 08:20

    The idea that Arabs were dispossessed of their lands should be more nuanced. Most left because their Arab neighbors attacked Israel. To dispossess the Jews At its founding. Yes, there were a few. Arab villages that were forced out but they were seen as a part of the Arab attackers. Also, many of the Arab leaders urged the residence of Israel to flee the dangers of the war they created.

  15. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2023-11-25 09:00

    “Inevitable” Edwin? Now you’re preaching Manifest Destiny. Having better technology didn’t oblige us to invade and colonize the New World, slaughter the buffalo, renege on our treaties, or send Indian kids to boarding schools. We could have evited—avoided—any of those actions by making more moral choices. The cotton gin didn’t choose to colonize, lie, and slaughter; humans did. Our ancestors did. We benefit today from technology and from immoral choices.

  16. larry kurtz 2023-11-25 09:35

    Speaking of cults: the Mormon Church is buying up Nebraska but is that better than the Chinese or Saudis doing it?

  17. Arlo Blundt 2023-11-25 15:20

    There was a large (about a township) Jewish homesteading colony in southern Aurora County, south of Plankinton, in the 1890’s that was pretty well established despite various droughts and plagues. It gradually faded away…another of those interesting experiments that “could have been.”

  18. grudznick 2023-11-25 15:52

    The Mormon Church is driving the Lutherans in Nebraska towards the west-north-west, across the sand hills, where they will root down again in Edgemont.

  19. Edwin Arndt 2023-11-25 22:52

    Read what I wrote, Cory. It was not just in North America that stuff
    like this happened. The Incas in Peru conquered the Chanca, the Quechua, and the Chimu.
    And then the Spanish came. Alexander
    the Great conquered a lot. The strong generally prevail, whether or
    not they are in the right. This has been going on throughout history
    in both hemispheres. Genghis Khan comes to mind.

  20. grudznick 2023-11-26 07:20

    Yes, the Mongol Horde amassed the largest contiguous empire in history, and they weren’t very nice about it at all.

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