On Dec. 29, 1890, US soldiers massacred more than 150 Lakota people at Wounded Knee, in South Dakota. In a view that has since become standard, Native American resistance to subjugation effectively ended that day, and the story of indigenous tribes was stamped a tragedy. Yet, as David Treuer points out in “The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present,” this master narrative erases a rich history of survival. Tribal descendants who cannot get past it risk a defeated future. Non-Natives forfeit a guide to resilience, along with valuable models for building communities and shaping a responsive government.
Books by and about Native Americans have proliferated for decades. Treuer’s account, an ambitious patchwork of history, reportage, and personal reflection, joins them as a surpassing compendium on where things stand today. The early years — a shameful chronicle of broken treaties, dispossession, and maltreatment — are well-trodden ground. Treuer crosses it smoothly to arrive at his real subject: the wild swings that marked federal policy in the 20th century, and the outlook for the future.
At its height, the Native American population is believed to have numbered more than 20 million. By 1890, Census estimates placed it at fewer than 200,000. For decades, policies carried out by a succession of federal agencies confined the survivors to reservations, and separated families in the name of assimilation. Their overseers specialized in greed and fraud.
As early as 1918, however, the Indian population was resurging. The tribes had begun to formally organize themselves in what would become a protracted battle against federal control. The Wisconsin-based Menominees were among the first to succeed, turning to Congress and the courts to maintain tribal logging rights. Increasingly, land rights would prove essential to the growing recognition of tribal sovereignty.
Meanwhile, from the government’s point of view, the “Indian problem” seemed unsolvable. Then, in the 1950s, the answer revealed itself as fiendishly simple: Declare the whole thing over. No longer would Indians be wards of the state, because, as Treuer puts it, they would no longer be Indians. The reservation system would be dismantled, tribal affiliations dissolved and Indians packed off to cities. Thus was the policy of termination born.
Termination soon proved disastrous, and was itself gradually terminated by presidents Johnson and Nixon. In the meantime though, large numbers of Native Americans had been uprooted. By 1970, half lived in urban areas. Energized by the Red Power and other activist movements, they found ways to reconnect.
The story since then has been one of reclaimed identity and recovered sovereignty. Today, 500 tribes are federally recognized. Some have built wealth through casinos and other commercial ventures. A growing Native American middle class has focused on reviving its cultural heritage.
The son of an Ojibwe mother and Jewish Holocaust survivor, Treuer grew up on the Leech Lake Reservation, in Minnesota. For him, figuring out how to be both Indian and American is now the crux of the matter.
For many Native women, however, identity issues present a different dilemma. In numerous Native American communities, decades of poverty gave rise to family dysfunction, including domestic violence and sexual abuse. For writers such as Joy Harjo, currently the US poet laureate, bringing these matters to light has pitted self-preservation against fears of betraying the tribe.
As recounted in her harrowing coming-of-age memoir “Crazy Brave,” Harjo endured a violent father, a brutal stepfather, teenage pregnancy and an abusive husband on her road to survival. A member of the Oklahoma-based Muscogee Creek Nation, she uses tribal stories and visions to integrate these experiences, infusing the bleak particulars of her life with a quiet dignity. At the same time, she evinces compassion for Native men who may have been scarred by the legacy of defeat.
Harjo’s story finds echoes in Terese Marie Mailhot’s memoir “Heart Berries.” A child of the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in the Pacific Northwest, Mailhot delivers a raw account of her own psychological disintegration. For readers, her entanglement with a wounding lover and quest to overcome mental illness will resonate well beyond her Native identity.
The emergence of such voices may signal a new chapter in the old story. “Shapes of Native Nonfiction,” edited by Elissa Washuta and Theresa Warburton, pulls together 27 primarily lyric essays, by women and men, all of whom seem eager to escape the narrative of doomed struggle.
In “Letters to a Just-Starting-Out Indian Writer — and Maybe to Myself,” Stephen Graham Jones urges Native writers to sneak across fixed literary boundaries, and “leave the whole bookcase red.” Insist, foremost, on your work as art, he urges — not as mere ethnography. And once in a while, let Indians be the bad guys. For in the seemingly intractable “trauma drama” David Treuer and others so strenuously resist, heroic Native Americans too often become victims.
M.J. Andersen is an author and journalist who writes frequently on the arts.