America Helped My Ancestors Flee Antisemitism. The Lakota Paid the Price.


It took me a long time to realize that there was white space at the margins of these narratives. Because while the stories we tell create the myths we pass down to future generations, so do the stories we don’t tell — such as the silence surrounding photographs like the one of my great-great uncle and the Lakota man.

I have spent almost my entire adult life reporting on the American West, attempting to write articles that expand our fixed ideas about the region. Yet, when it came to my own ancestors’ history on the South Dakota prairie, I maintained a blind spot. Only after years of reporting in Indigenous communities did it dawn on me that my family, that I myself, had benefitted from centuries of federal mistreatment of Indigenous people in the United States.

Finally curious about what had happened a century ago on the South Dakota prairie, in 2018 I began research for what would eventually become my book, The Cost of Free Land: Jews, Lakota and An American Inheritance. On visits to both Jew Flats and nearby Lakota reservations, I carried those mysterious photographs with me. What I would learn over the coming years would change the way I understood my family, America and my place in this country.

How to atone for historic wrongs — both as a nation and as individuals — has become a pivotal topic of debate in American politics. We don’t agree about reparations policies. We don’t agree about affirmative action. We don’t even agree about teaching the truth of our nation’s history in schools. As a journalist, my job has been to expose issues, to bring them into the cold light of day — not to provide solutions. But I would find repeatedly while working on The Cost of Free Land that my family’s personal narrative was inextricable from America’s collective history. How to move forward in a way that included the past was no longer a question I could ignore.

The rolling hills and grass sea of Jew Flats was “a place like the End of the World,” my great-great-aunt Rose, who grew up there, wrote years later. “Twenty-five miles from a railroad station, seven miles from a post office, three and a half miles from any neighbors.” Here, 13 miles from the southeast corner of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation, around 30 Jewish families homesteaded some 7,000 non-contiguous acres within a span of 44 square miles on former Lakota land. (By this point, the United States had taken approximately 98 percent of the land reserved for the Lakota by a treaty in 1851 and given it to white settlers and railroad companies.)

By 1912, four years after my ancestors sowed their first crop, there were an estimated 25,000 Jewish farmers in 46 states. More than 70 Jewish farm communities, composed of anywhere from a few dozen to 2,500 people, had been established in the United States — many in the West, many on formerly Native American lands. In the Dakotas, an estimated 1,000 Jews were homesteaders like the Sinykins. (Keep in mind, they represented a sliver of Dakota settlers, estimated at less than 0.5 percent.) Though their lives were certainly freer than those of Jews under constant threat in Eastern Europe, by no means were their lives easy.

That first winter that my ancestors arrived, they lived in a house made of dirt, its walls the cut bank of a hill, with roots and grass jutting from the roof. When it rained, it rained through a hole in the roof made for the stove pipe, and the floor liquified to mud. These sod houses were dark and smelled, I can only imagine, like bong water. A hole in the ground under a board on the floor served as both a “refrigerator” and a place to hide from the not-infrequent tornados. A cave in the back housed their animals. The temperature could swing 50 degrees in one day. At night, it was so cold that they could lie in bed, dressed in layers of clothing, and watch their breath freeze on their blankets.

The Sinykin’s 160 acres were free, but only if they could, under the rules of the Homestead Act, “improve” upon them by building a house and planting at least 10 acres within three years. My ancestors planted corn and wheat, but soon enough realized what the Lakota had known for years — that farming in this dry, unirrigated place was nearly impossible, especially during periods of drought. During several seasons in their early years on the prairie, it didn’t rain for an entire year; the best crops were prairie dogs, rattlesnakes and Russian thistle. One farmer in the country remembered that it was “so dry you couldn’t see a spear of grass.” The Sinykins lost their entire crop two years in a row.

Even though their lives were hard, the dominant family narrative is that “they loved it. They always called it ‘the Good Earth,’” says my great-aunt Etta Orkin, our 90-year-old family matriarch. “Their lives were so much narrower in Russia, and I think they were so happy to be free to be able to go and come and do. Owning [land] made them feel they were a part of America, that they lived in a free country.”

But in fact, that freedom came at great cost to my family’s Lakota neighbors.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, the United States was bent on seeding the northern plains with white people who would support, just by being there, a transcontinental railroad linking the new state of California, and its abundant natural resources, to the rest of the country. Standing in the way of this vision were millions of buffalo and tens of thousands of Native Americans whose leaders had signed legal agreements with Congress reserving Indigenous rights to the land. So, promises made became promises broken.

By 1908, when my family was planting their first crop on their South Dakota homestead, the United States had diminished Lakota lands by 98 percent in less than 60 years. In an effort to further diminish Native property, Congress had enacted policies of cultural genocide, aiming to assimilate Native people to the point that their economy, culture and religion were no longer tied to land.

What I didn’t know growing up was that the stories about my ancestors on the prairie failed to acknowledge the systematic benefits the federal government extended to us because we weren’t Indigenous but white — at least, white enough. Not only were harms imposed upon those living on reservations, freedoms were extended to those outside the reservations, creating inequity in two directions.

Unlike their Lakota neighbors, who were at risk of being jailed for practicing their ceremonies and religion, the Jews of Jew Flats were free to worship how they liked. Unlike their Lakota neighbors, whose children were regularly taken from their communities for nine months at a stretch to be assimilated at federal schools, the Sinykins were free to educate their children however they wanted. Unlike the Lakota, whom the Indian Agents tried to keep from farming or ranching in family groups with the intention of breaking apart traditional communal culture, the Sinykins and their cousins and friends survived by collective effort, unbothered by government interference. Unlike the Lakota, whose marriages and divorces were regulated by federal representatives, the Jews of Jew Flats could marry whomever they wanted. Unlike the Lakota, who were denied citizenship, which prevented them from voting and accessing a slew of rights, immigrant citizens (at least the men) could vote even when they couldn’t speak or read English. And unlike most Lakota, who couldn’t get a bank account or handle their own money, let alone leave the reservation to pursue jobs elsewhere, the Jews of Jew Flats could and did leverage the worth of their land for a mortgage or bank loan.

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

On a summer day in 2019, I knocked on a low-slung house on the Standing Rock Reservation, holding that photo of my Uncle Jack shaking hands with that man wearing Lakota regalia. Earlier visits to the Dakotas and interviews with Native historians had led me to believe that the man in the picture was Joseph White Bull, the nephew of Sitting Bull and a chief of the Mnicoujou Lakota. Now, the picture had led me to Doug White Bull, an elder who described himself as “my Grandpa Joe’s oldest living descendant.”

Doug had never seen such a picture before. Neither had any of his nieces, nephews or kids whom I interviewed. I searched for years to figure out why these two men might have taken this picture, visiting museums of all sizes, searching archives and speaking with elders and tribal historians. I heard many theories, including one that this wasn’t even Joseph White Bull, but I never solved the mystery.

When I started this project, I thought that, by understanding this picture, I could collapse the line between the past and today. I thought I might learn that it was Joseph’s ancestors who dropped the arrowheads my cousins found on Jew Flats. This longing, more than anything else, reveals my old ideas about land ownership, about the colonialism that has shaped me. Now I understand that photographs don’t tell stories. Photographs lead us to stories. Not having solved the mystery of this picture doesn’t matter as much to me anymore. The fact that their lives intersected at all has led me to know Doug White Bull and his relatives, whose insights and stories have changed the way I understand both American history and my own. When I look at this picture now, I see the world beyond the frame. I see the forces pushing both men to assimilate and pulling them apart. I see the thread linking both of their lives to mine.

As my research revealed all the myriad ways that my family benefited from policies that harmed Native Americans, I kept returning to the question of how much my ancestors knew about what was happening to their neighbors on the nearby reservations. Were the Sinykins aware of the persecution being done in this land of the free?

By 1908, the United States decided to allow white settlers to move onto Lakota reservations, further diminishing Native land. Newspapers published throughout western South Dakota between 1908 and 1911, the exact period during which my family was settling on the prairie, reported that Cheyenne River and Standing Rock Lakota didn’t want their reservations opened to non-Native settlement, and that they had signed treaties protecting these lands as their property. Despite this awareness, white ranchers urged public officials to open the reservations to them, justifying themselves in a way that exposed the racism at the heart of life on the plains.

“The opening of the Sioux Indian lands is developing them from that of the homes of indolent dependents of the government to the farm residences of thrifty Americans,” ran a 1908 article about the opening of the Rosebud Reservation to white settlement. “The Indians who have been content to live lazily on the fertile soil and draw their liberal allowances will soon see more of their lands converted to useful purposes.”

As far as I can tell, my family never bought any of these lands, and they weren’t among those making incessant requests to open additional land to white settlement. But that doesn’t mean they were ignorant of what was happening.

“Everyone knew what was happening to Indians,” says Judge Abby Abinanti, a Yurok elder and chief judge whose courtroom has become a national model for criminal justice reform, winning her widespread esteem including a lifetime achievement award from the Federal Bar Association. Abinanti’s approach, which infuses jurisprudence with traditional culture and values, leans heavily on compassion. Because of both the bigoted messages my ancestors learned in America as well as the brutality they had experienced in Russia, which we now call trauma, Abinanti is quick to offer them empathy.

“What do you expect of people who survived genocidal attacks but to survive, for God’s sake? When someone is fleeing for their life, if you’re on a dead run, you’re not stopping to have a restorative-justice conversation or question why you’re being helped.”

It’s now the job, she gently reminds me, of my generation, those of us who have grown up free of such upheaval, to do the work of considering the harms of this entangled history. According to Abinanti, justice works best when grounded in one’s own culture. She suggested that I study Jewish teachings about repair and healing for guidance about how to move forward. Fortunately, I didn’t have to do this alone.

Over the course of the following three years, I met regularly with my rabbi, Benjamin Barnett, to study ancient Jewish texts and the writings of contemporary rabbis for direction on how to repair after a harm has been committed, even and especially one that you didn’t commit directly but that you benefit from. I would begin to realize that truth-telling is critical to a repentance process, but its only one step of many needed to truly repair.

After many years of conversations with both Lakota elders such as Doug White Bull and Jewish leaders, I came to realize that simply telling the truth about the past, working to debunk long-held American myths as I do in The Cost of Free Land, was important, but not enough. Guided by Doug and others, I and my family have created a fund with the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, a Native-led non-profit, that has been working for years to help Native Nations buy back their stolen lands. (We sold the last piece of our family ranch on Jew Flats to other white ranchers in 1970.) Reparation economics is a developing field, and by no means is my family’s effort a definitive solution. It is just one of many happening throughout the country that aim to reconcile the benefits the United States has extended to those of us who are non-Indigenous at great cost and harm to Native people.

These efforts are complicated by the fact that we in America have a vacuum of federal leadership around how to consider the ways public policy and law have hurt Native Nations. However, if enough citizens lead by example, it’s possible Congress could be spurred to act. This happened in Australia in the late 1990s, when activists there created “Sorry Books” — available in public spaces such as libraries, churches and schools — that provided settler descendants the opportunity to apologize to the Indigenous people of Australia when their government refused to do so. The books were so popular that more than half a million people signed them, inspiring other grassroots projects and activism that eventually pushed the Australian government to take real action.

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.


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