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A story of self determination

In 1973, after a protest, members of the Oglala Sioux tribe march to the cemetery where their ancestors were buried

Ned Blackhawk | NYT 


Native America From 1890 to the Present

David Treuer

Riverhead Books

512 pages; $28

Over the past 12 months, Native American politicians, artists and academics have made uncommon gains. Indeed, Native American women helped to make 2018 the Year of the Woman. In November, New Mexican and Kansan voters elected Debra Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) and Sharice Davids (Ho-Chunk) to Congress, while voters in Minnesota elected Peggy Flanagan (Ojibwe) their lieutenant governor. In October, the sociologist Rebecca Sandefur (Chickasaw) and the poet Natalie Diaz (Mojave) won MacArthur Foundation Awards, while throughout the spring and summer, the playwrights Mary Kathryn Nagle (Cherokee), Larissa FastHorse (Lakota) and DeLanna Studi (Cherokee) had historic openings at Arena Stage in Washington, DC, Artists Repertory Theater in Portland, Oregon, and Portland Center Stage, respectively.

Such achievements represent more than added texture to the mosaic of modern America. They underscore the rising power of American Indians over the past two generations. During an era known as “Self-Determination,” Indian tribes and their citizens have changed not only their particular nations but also the larger nation around them.

The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, by (Ojibwe), examines these recent generations of American Indian history. Through memoir, interviews and extensive reading, Treuer counters the familiar narratives of invisibility that have so readily frozen America’s indigenous peoples.

A noted novelist, Treuer takes his title from the celebrated work Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown. Published in 1970 at the height of the activist movements, Brown’s reassessment of the 19th-century wars between Indians and the federal government resonated with a generation of Americans. Achieving its narrative crescendo with the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, when the Seventh Cavalry was said to have exacted revenge for Custer’s defeat at the Little Big Horn, Brown’s text fuelled growing outrage against injustices perpetuated by the federal government.

To many, Brown’s history inverted accounts of the American West. It substituted Euro-American quests for frontier freedom with those of American Indians “who already had it.” The problem was that in place of Indian vilification Brown offered victimisation. Twentieth-century “poverty, hopelessness and squalor,” he wrote, were the outcomes for peoples who had lost and who remained lost.



Treuer adeptly synthesises these recent studies and fashions them with personal, familial and biographic vignettes. Readers will find familiar analyses of the unrelenting, violent cupidity of European explorers and, at times, subtle suggestions about the equally relentless capacity of Indian communities adapting within the maelstrom of early America.

Through the book’s second half, recounting developments since World War II, Treuer’s counternarrative to Brown takes its fullest form. In particular, his detailed assessments of what he calls “becoming Indian” highlight the resiliency and dynamism of contemporary tribal communities. Interrelated processes rooted in family and culture, he suggests, undergird the continuing sovereignty of modern Indian tribes. Such processes, he shows, are in fact ubiquitous. They are also deeply personal. For instance, as he concludes about his mother’s adjuration to maintain his family’s methods of ricing, hunting, sugaring and berry harvesting, “sovereignty isn’t only a legal attitude or a political reality.” Sovereignty is lived. It is inhabited, performed and enacted, often on a daily basis.

Family, relationships and place-based sovereignty are a major feature of contemporary Native America, whose collective “heartbeat” has grown stronger throughout the Self-Determination Era. The legacies of conquest, however, continue, and Indian communities still endure beleaguering disparities. They also continue to confront legal and political challenges, as well as threats of violence. Treuer writes that in recent years the United States Supreme Court has been “shaped by the questions of community and obligation between the government and several Indian nations.”

Increasingly, colonial battles have moved from Wounded Knee to Congress, where Native communities have, at times, been victorious. “In 2013, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA),” Treuer writes, “was reauthorised and significantly revised. Among the new provisions was the empowerment of tribal courts to charge and prosecute non-Natives who raped or assaulted Native women on Native land.”

Such statutory reforms offer tribal communities opportunities to reform misguided court rulings, and political advocacy has become an effective mechanism for protecting community members, enforcing environmental regulations and further institutionalising sovereign authority within tribal communities. Indeed, working with Congress has become a common feature of contemporary American Indian politics. Treuer speaks of “a slew of laws” passed in the 1990s and 2000s that have empowered Native peoples.

Threats to tribal sovereignty, however, loom. Shortly after the VAWA reauthorisation, Dollar General Corporation took a case to the Supreme Court contesting tribal authority over civil affairs. In 2016 it nearly won with a court that divided 4 to 4. Legal challenges like this one have become among the 21st century’s primary landscapes of confrontation.

Ultimately, Treuer’s powerful book suggests the need for soul-searching about the meanings of American history and the stories we tell ourselves about this nation’s past. There is an urgency to fashion new national narratives. Treuer’s suggestion, for example, that Indian peoples have been infected by colonialism with a disease “of powerlessness … more potent than most people imagine” could be extended to include the subordination experienced by other gendered, racialised and historically disempowered communities. This disease also has the potential to spread even further, because it cannot simply be up to America’s indigenous people to ward it off. As Treuer explains, “This disease is the story told about us and the one we so often tell about ourselves.”

© 2019 The New York Times News Service

First Published: Mon, January 28 2019. 01:43 IST