Recently, I read two books about the native people who originally inhabited what became the United States of America. The first was The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich. She is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, a federally recognized tribe of the Anishinaabe (also known as Ojibwe and Chippewa). She was born in Little Falls, Minnesota.
Her latest book tells the story of her grandfather’s recognition of a proposed law in the U. S. Senate which would eventually “terminate” all treaties with Indian nations, and immediately terminate five tribes, including the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. He gathered others from the tribe and alerted them to the real meaning of the text. The tribe had already been dispossessed of the better land in their area, and had poor education, health, and employment opportunities. Some left for Minneapolis and other cities in desperation, and others moved to another reservation near the Great Lakes. This termination would remove them from their land and disperse them as refugees. Erdrich combines her grandfather’s work with a fictional story of an Indian family, and especially about one of the daughters. For me, the two stories had different tones and intentions, and made the story fragmented to the point of losing direction completely sometimes. She tied them together with a vision of the old man’s, linking them spiritually. The Night Watchman gives the reader an authentic look at Indian life in more modern times than normally found in literature. It is a searing indictment of American disregard for the value of Native peoples’ lives, and for the ability of her grandfather and his tribe to understand what was happening in that proposed legislation. He could see in the night, and he was a fine watchman. The Night Watchman was just awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
The second book, Red and White, by Kenneth Weene, weaves together the nuanced story of Lonely Cricket, a young member of the Ho-Chunk nation, with a sweeping epic of American history after the Civil War. He gives us the details of the boy’s life, his Native parents’ lives, and those of the White settlers who live nearby. He tells the story through the events and behaviors of particular people, while connecting them to the bigger picture. The locations are well-described, and the characters seem to be authentic and historically accurate. The crux of the novel is the identification of people with one group or another, which is exemplified in Lonely Cricket. He lives in a time of change as European Americans move west. Native people are killed, families separated, and tribes are broken up and removed from their traditional lands. Lonely Cricket is swept up in this turmoil. He holds to his identity, drawing strength from the stories of his father, Lame Bear, and the love he has for his sister, Happy Turtle.
The novel is interspersed with teaching stories, ostensibly those of the Ho-Chunk. Whether these are accurate I am not able to say. They appear to be respectfully given. The stories are building blocks of a moral and ethical life or tell the particular story of a people.
Weene I think avoids the pitfalls of a White author writing about Native Americans. Instead, he explores the intersection of different cultures and histories. The clashes and convergences create a range of perspectives which he handles well. At the same time, the main character’s experience remains the center of the novel. The boy discovers his true birth parents, and that changes everything. Or does it?
To tell the complex story of American history we need more of these kinds of books. They provide great insight into the bad faith and ideals, tragic failures and resilience, of our country.