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Plains Folk

Since 1890

This new book by David Treuer, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, is long, winding, and sometimes exasperating. I was making my way through its treatment of Indian relocation in the 1950s when suddenly the author launched a rangy exposition on the building of interstate highways--how they enabled rapid transit across the regions of America, and how turkey buzzards, taking advantage of the increased roadkill, followed the asphalt into whole areas of the country they never had inhabited before.

I sensed I was being sucked into a great big metaphor about economic modernization and federal policy promoting the movement of things and people, including American Indians, and about how some parties prospered while others were run over. And then I got a grip on the looping argument Treuer laces through his whole book: that Native Americans are Americans indeed, enmeshed in the developments and generations of American life. That the stories of American Indians, while peculiar to themselves, nevertheless sync up with the stories of the mass of Americans.

Treuer, himself an Ojibwe from Leech Lake in Minnesota, says, “We are, for better or worse, the body of our republic.” Euro-Americans are inclined to point to Indian reservations--Pine Ridge, for instance, which boasts the poorest county in the United States--as places of dysfunction. Treuer says, this is because they are American places. And to correct the dysfunctions of American life, we may profit “by looking at Indians, at our communities, and our history.”

The book is subtitled, “Native America from 1890 to the Present,” but it reaches back for millennia before that. 1890, though, is that date when, in traditional Euro-American histories, the frontier ended and Indians disappeared. As a prairie boy and a History major from the 1970s, I can confirm that preconception. Treuer essays to catch us up on what happened after 1890. He says his book “is adamantly, unashamedly, about Indian life rather than Indian death. . . . This book is written out of the simple, fierce conviction that our cultures are not dead and our civilizations have not been destroyed.”

Nor was their survival inadvertent; it resulted from purpose, agency, and conflict. “The only reason there were any Indians left at all was that they had fought,” says Treuer. “They had fought against the government, and they had fought with it. Deprived of every conceivable advantage or tool or clear-hearted advocate, they had continued to fight.”

Treuer situates himself in this lineage, not as some haughty warrior, but as a determined fighter deploying new weapons of argument. He is not alone as a chronicler, of course. Many scholars, most prominently Donald Fixico, have detailed the history of events here treated. Two novelists--N. Scott Momaday with House Made of Dawn and, just this year, Louise Erdrich with The Night Watchman--have won Pulitzer prizes for fictional narratives of struggle.

Treuer goes farther. He presents not only a narrative but also a reasoned piece of advice: engagement. American Indians may have a somewhat different American dream than their fellow Americans; American Indians desire to carry their culture forward with them; but they accomplish this best by engaging, even while they remember how to hunt and rice and sugar. Treuer notes Native women are at the forefront of engagement--and I think immediately of 3rd District Congresswoman Sharice Davids of Kansas and state representatives Tamara St. John of South Dakota and Ruth Anna Buffalo of North Dakota.

So this recent 4th of July, I remembered Treuer’s description of Tulalip, the reservation just north of Seattle, which boasts “the largest fireworks bazaar west of the Mississippi”-- and I resolved to light a rocket or two for Native sovereignty.

-Tom Isern

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