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The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee ~ Sue Balcom ~ Tom Isern

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Ojibwe scholar Dr. David Treuer, author of "The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee," a re-aired conversation. Tom Isern with a Plains Folk essay, "Oh Give Me a Home" and Sue Balcom talks fire cider.

Transcript: Dr. David Treuer interview

Doug Hamilton: David, thank you for joining us.

Dr. David Treuer: Thanks for having me. It's the next best thing to being home. I miss it. I miss the North.

Doug Hamilton: …Why did you write the book?

Dr. David Treuer: Well, I mean, it's a big book that was many years in the making, but I wrote it out of…a feeling of frustration that I've had for a really long time and I think maybe a lot of other Native people have had. Which is that we…often live lives that are unremarked upon. That most people think that Native life, so defined, died around the year 1890, and that if there are any Native people left, all we're doing is living lives of perpetual suffering, which isn't really any kind of life at all. And you feel this in your interactions with people when you explain to them where you're from and who you are, and they either are surprised - like the woman my brother was talking to in college who told him he couldn't be Indian because he was alive. That actually happened - or…they make the assumption that our lives are necessarily awful.

And this…kind of attitude, we find it in people we talk to on the street, we find it in our social interactions, and we find it in the literature. Dee Brown's classic, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee - and that was the real impetus for my book - published in 1970…says on the very first page that he's focusing on the Plains Wars, and he starts in 1850 and he ends in 1890, where, quote, “the culture and civilization of the American Indian was destroyed,” end quote.

…I wanted to write a book that filled that void. The void of the last 125 years where we've been doing more than simply surviving, that should be understood as more than simply a...history which is a…laundry list of abuse. I wanted to point to the fact that we've been making our own history. We've been living our lives. We've been doing interesting things. And our lives are complex and varied and textured….I wanted to…explore that.

Doug Hamilton: Well, your life is, of course, interesting in its own right. You were...born and raised on the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota, and your…mother is Ojibwe as well. Your father was a survivor of the Holocaust…so you've got this interesting background. Let's just…explore a piece of that. Why did you choose to study…anthropology?

Dr. David Treuer: …I've never taught anthropology, I've never written anthropology, but I was a student of it as an undergrad and as a grad student. And for me…I felt that at that time anthropology was a great place to have an argument - and I love having arguments. And anthropology was tackling really, really important things. It was looking at how we understand other people. How…do we see other people without mapping our own biases on top of them? What role does storytelling play…in the formation of our shared realities?...That last part is really important to my book, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee. I was really interested in writing not just a counter history with different names and different dates and different events that we're used to hearing - I wanted to write a counter narrative. That is, I wanted to leave behind and…largely destroy the tragic narrative, which is used almost exclusively to tell stories of native lives, and replace it with its opposite, which is not, I should say, a story of hope. Hope is just the other side of the tragic coin. It's the same currency. What I was interested in doing was telling the opposite of tragedy…using a different narrative…To me that's a narrative of complexity, depth, layering and diversity. Those things together are the opposite of tragedy.

Doug Hamilton: Structured throughout your book, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, are lines like, “Through it all, Indians remain”. Why does this idea bear repeating?

Dr. David Treuer: Well, because people think we don't. And we often think we don't. And that's part of it too. This book isn't just for outsiders. It's not just for non-Indians. It's for us. I think too often we assume the worst of ourselves and our understanding of our own history is often overly inflected by the dominant narrative, which is that we were once great and we are great no more. And our history is only a litany of abuse that we've managed somehow to survive. I think we share that perception, and I wanted to destroy it in us, too, and replace it with something else.

Doug Hamilton: Well, about the time that Dee Brown's book came out, of course, there was a counterculture movement in our country. I was a young man at that time, so I'm well aware of that. And about that same time, the American Indian movement started. How would you characterize that movement, and what resulted from it?

Dr. David Treuer: Well, the American Indian Movement's pretty complicated…You had the actions of some of its leadership, like Russell Means and Dennis Banks, which left a lot to be desired in my opinion. And I'm only speaking for myself, by the way. And you had the actions of the rank and file - .f the people who staffed the schools that AIM started in places like Minneapolis and hired the teachers and taught the kids. People who went on the AIM patrols, policing the police in neighborhoods like South Minneapolis. You had the people who started and worked to secure funding for and staffed places like American Indian OIC….and other things like that…that provided job training…and benefits for people in cities like Minneapolis. So AIM was a mixed movement, to be sure. And one thing…that AIM did do, in relation to its street theater and its takeovers and so on - which was really positive - was…it drew the nation's attention to our continued existence and to the continued deficit the government runs in terms of how well it attends to its treaty obligations in relation to sovereign Indian nations.

Doug Hamilton: At the time of that book, and again still today, most American Indians live in urban areas, don't they? What were the consequences of moving away from their tribal culture? You referred to Minneapolis. Little Earth is there - I mean there's a sort of a cultural center for Native Americans in Minneapolis, but how has this changed?

Dr. David Treuer: Well, two things…One, most Indians don't live in cities. But when people say…that over half of the native population lives off of reservations, that can include on land just outside the border. It can include towns like Bemidji and Grand Rapids and Deer River [and] Walker, as well as large cities…There has been a diaspora from reservations outward to all different parts of the American land and cityscape. So that's one thing. Let's talk about the sentiment contained in the second part of your question, which is, what does it mean for Indians to leave their culture behind? Who's to say that that happened? Who's to say…that Native folk didn't bring their cultures with them to places like Minneapolis, and Chicago, and Los Angeles, and Denver, and Seattle, and New York?

Doug Hamilton: Point taken. The Dakota Access Pipeline protest around the Standing Rock Reservation brought many tribal activists together. Matter of fact, I was in Singapore, ran into one of them there. Is that evidence of Native coalitions finding strength through unity now, or…is there a movement out there?

Dr. David Treuer: I mean, there are many movements out there. That's…one thing that I hope my book communicates - that there's no such thing as Indian life. There are only Indian lives. Tribal cultures were diverse before Europeans set foot in North America. We remained diverse during the long period of colonization. And we remain today diverse as we go about the business of being native and modern and American and whatever else all simultaneously…if history has shown us anything, it's that when tribes have not worked well together, that we were at our weakest.

And what…the protest that Standing Rock shows us is that when...we are able to build broad coalitions, not just amongst ourselves, but with broader and wider America, then we can really flex the power that we've always had…I think it's important to note that in places like North Dakota and South Dakota, Minnesota, for example, it's increasingly harder to get elected unless you have a relationship with Indian communities. If that weren't true, then there wouldn't be voter suppression laws on the books in places like North Dakota.

Doug Hamilton: There are a record number of indigenous people, especially women, who have run for office and have been elected. What change do you think they might bring to the job?

Dr. David Treuer: Well, let's face it. Those of us who are from the parts of America that coastal folks think of as flyover states increasingly have a difficult time getting access to education, to capital, to adequate health care, and to employment. So, most of middle America is finding itself in the position that Native people have been in for centuries. So who better to lead all of us to some better future than someone who understands exactly what that's like?

Doug Hamilton: How do you wish Indigenous history were taught in our schools?

Dr. David Treuer: Well, that's a big question, but one thing is that people could maybe let go of using the past tense almost exclusively, and think about using the present tense even in terms of how they talk. Not what Indian lives were like, but what Native lives are like…That would be a big change. And one big change, you know, in terms of how our history and how our realities are taught in schools is something that is worth consideration by all of us - which is that we have been making history, not always with tools of our choosing, but making it nonetheless. And that to understand America, to understand American history, you need to understand American Indian history. The colonists' very first act in defiance of the British government was to throw tea in Boston Harbor. And they didn't just throw tea, they dressed up like Mohawk Indians and then dumped tea in Boston Harbor. Since then, and throughout, America has understood herself in relation to Native people, has practiced the American experiment in relation to us. You can see America's best behaviors and its worst behaviors in how it's dealt and lived with us. So to understand America, you need to understand us. I think that would be important to note.

Doug Hamilton: We hear terms like, and I've been using terms like, Native American, Indian, Indigenous people. Is there consensus on the terminology?

Dr. David Treuer: Nope. There's no consensus. The rule of thumb is to always ask. I use the phrases American Indian, Native American, Native Indigenous, Indian, First Nations, interchangeably. And that's just me. I don't speak for anybody else. And I don't really care. As long as people don't use an epithet. However, a lot of other people care deeply and as they should. So when talking to someone or about someone ask the person you're talking to. That's the best rule of thumb.

Doug Hamilton: Well, you were raised in the Ojibwe culture. How would you characterize that to someone who wasn't? How would you describe being Ojibwe to somebody who isn't?

Dr. David Treuer: How would you describe being white to somebody who isn't? It's impossible to describe. It's impossible to describe it in any kind of concise way. What it's like to be Ojibwe is as vast as what it's like to be white, or Asian, or African American, or Latino. It's both as vast and as particular, because it's just an individual experience. So it's impossible to say, and I don't think…I want to try…and cram it all…into a soundbite, if you don't mind.

Doug Hamilton: In your book, you write that by 1944 - when the World War II was trailing off, getting near the end - more than a third of the native adult male population had served. Why do you think so many did?

Dr. David Treuer: Ah, there's so many reasons. I mean, on one hand, for American Indian men in the 1930s and 40s, the best many of them could hope for was day labor if they could find any kind of work. And so, joining the military guaranteed you a paycheck and three square meals a day, and that's certainly part of people's decisions to join. But also, American Indian people then and now - many of them thought of themselves as both Native and American, and saw no contradiction between those two things. And by defending America, they were also defending their tribal homelands, and so…they're patriots. My grandfather was no exception. He volunteered to serve in the Second World War, and he fought at Normandy in the Battle of the Bulge, and he fought as a Native man, and he fought as an American, and he was proud. And different tribes value that kind of service differently, perhaps, than mainstream America, at least in my context. For Ojibwe people, there are certain ceremonial jobs that are only open to veterans. So that's another reason why at least some Ojibwe people would join up and want to fight.

Doug Hamilton: Movies and other historical representations often portrayed Indians as not understanding or believing in property ownership. Where did that idea come from?

Dr. David Treuer: Oh, that idea came from people who wanted to steal our property.

Doug Hamilton: Okay. It's easier to take it from somebody who doesn't own it?

Dr. David Treuer: Right. It's the best way. It's not really stealing if the person I'm taking it from doesn't even understand that they own it. Or doesn't even understand what ownership is. No, that's just part of a land grab. That's certainly not true culturally. It's not true socially. It's not true intellectually. It's basically a lie that people told so that they could steal our land and not feel quite so bad about it. That's the only place that's from.

Doug Hamilton: Well, let's take another kind of cultural process here. Native casinos. You know, they have gambling, some of them offer liquor. That seems antithetical to the culture, at least as it's presented to my culture. From the perspective of non-Indians, that is what I'm saying. What's your take on that?

Dr. David Treuer: We've always had gambling. I mean, at least my tribe has, and many other tribes. Gambling is something we've always done. It's a right we've always had, and it's a right we never surrendered. And so, once we could make the United States Supreme Court and - thus the American government - understand that that tribal gaming was a right that we had reserved and never given up and we were just going to continue to practice it in a modern context, then we started to operate casinos. What effect does that have on tribal cultures? Well, what effect…does the Apple Corporation have on white culture? What effect does Google have on French culture? Well, probably some positive effects and probably some negative effects. It's complicated. Continents are no different. It's impossible to summarize their total effect on all these diverse cultures across the country because the effect is…complicated…Are they bad in some ways? Sure. Are they good in some ways? Absolutely.

Doug Hamilton: …The good part is providing employment, providing economic development, helping to…transform some reservations from places where there's a fair amount of poverty and crime to better places to live.

Dr. David Treuer: You know, it's a really ironic - and you'll notice this if you just pay attention to the news - what's really ironic is that outsiders start talking about the deleterious effects that casinos are having on Indian people only in relation to the casinos that are earning a lot of money. And that is because the idea of rich Indians bothers people. And I should note that of the 320 plus federally recognized tribes in the United States, only about a third have gambling operations. Of…that 100 or so, a tiny fraction earn a lot of money, the rest, not so much. But that tiny fraction disturbs everybody, because I think we're supposed to be poor. It's our social function to exist at the outermost limit of the Republic. So, I like it when people are uncomfortable…It's kind of fun.

Doug Hamilton: Well, David Troyer, you are a provocative talker and writer, and this book, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present, is a very interesting book, and thank you for spending some time with us today.

Dr. David Treuer: Thank you.

Main Street transcripts are AI generated and corrected on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of Main Street programming is the audio record.