Book Review: Unburied
By Debra Cash
David Treuer’s expansive new history of native America from 1890 to the present looks with skeptical, Indian eyes from inside simplistic American symbols and narratives.
The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present by David Treuer Riverhead Books, 528 pages, $28.
I’m old enough to remember 1989, when the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority bowed to the demands of a bunch of second graders in western Massachusetts to change the logo of the Mass Pike so it no longer portrayed an “Indian” arrow shot through a “Pilgrim” hat.
1989 was almost exactly 100 years after the Wounded Knee Massacre, where hundreds of unarmed Lakota were killed in South Dakota by the United States army, and also 100 years after the American frontier was officially closed. We’re still arguing over whether — and how — the Massachusetts seal should be updated: the original version, granted in King Charles’ 1629 charter, portrayed a native man with the words “Come over and help us,” (!) and was revised in 1885. Many residents of the Commonwealth are also wondering whether Columbus Day and Thanksgiving should be marked as public days of mourning rather than days of celebration. We who are more recent, voluntary immigrants to North, Central, and South America are still struggling with the need to reckon with the history of conquest.
David Treuer’s expansive new history of native America from 1890 to the present looks with skeptical, Indian eyes from inside simplistic American symbols and narratives. Treuer and his brother Anton are Ojibwe from the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota, sons of a Jewish Holocaust refugee from Vienna and an Ojibwe nurse-turned-lawyer. Both went to Princeton; both have written books on native history at different levels of detail. Both stress that the story of this land’s indigenous people is a story not merely of tragedy but of resistance and survival.
The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee reads as two different, if intertwining books. The first is chock full of references to the vast variety of tribal communities on the continent, and their internal territorial policies and conflict as “[t]ribes allied with other tribes against yet other tribes; colonial powers made alliances with certain tribes against other tribes and against other colonial powers.” During these passages in his recounting, Treuer is eager to do more than lay out the languages of broken treaties and unfortunate alliances: he turns them inside out, to expose the steps it took to get there and, in many cases, what kinds and degrees of self-sovereignty native peoples were trying to establish through those agreements. Reservations, he writes, were and are not entirely dysfunctional places Indians went to suffer and die; they often were homes for the reinforcement and renewal of precious tribal identities.
Treuer doesn’t have much patience for survivalist, off-the-grid fantasies of Indianness; while indigenous knowledge, especially about accessing the gifts of the natural world to sustain the life of communities, was vast and is still underappreciated, native peoples after European contact took advantage of new opportunities, particularly the replacement of bone knives with metal axes, the remunerative role of intermediaries in the French fur trade, and the adoption of horses brought by the Spanish. This does not make conquest a good thing of course: instead, it speaks to survival through creative adaptation.
Similarly, the heartbreaking, enraging testimonies of native children pressed into boarding schools, where they were denied the right to speak their own languages and often were not reunited with their parents for years in an attempt to “kill the Indian…and save the man,” had an unforeseen consequence. Tribal groups that may have been enemies, or simply never intersected across scattered geographies in the past, found themselves sharing close quarters as well as shared experiences of abuse. Treuer argues convincingly that some recent pan-tribal activism, in particular the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline and the trespassing against sacred native sites led by the Standing Rocks Sioux beginning in 2016, were made possible by intertribal solidarity with roots in the boarding school experience.
When Treuer leaves the eras he can only know through the historic record and enters the period his immediate family lived through, he names names: self-promoting militants, sell-out Bureau of Indian Affairs bureaucrats and tribal leaders, casino and legal marijuana proponents, and tribal capitalists who suddenly, with money to divide up, have to determine afresh who counts as a tribal member. (Treuer was born in 1970, around the same time American Indian Movement activists occupied Alcatraz, an event that may be fresh in your mind if you have read Cheyenne and Arapaho author Tommy Orange’s amazing debut novel There There.)
Yet the second part of the book, rich in interviews and participant observation (he does have doctorate in anthropology, after all), probably should have been lopped off and folded into a separate volume. That other volume could have been an Ojibwe-centric travelogue that would challenge as well as bring up to date Peter Matthiessen‘s documentary of travels in Indian country, the way the present volume seeks to dispute the focus on tragedy in Dee Brown’s classic Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. I don’t know about you, but reading this book, I learned way more about the leeching and bait industries than I ever needed to know. Many of the people — colorful in dress and syntax — seem to be profiled just because Treuer likes them.
Yet as he begins to sketch the communication strategies of “digital Indians” — those for whom the territory of the internet offers new alliances and opportunities for self-expression — Treuer hints at another inspiring story beginning to emerge. In 1900 only 200,000 Native people were identified on the U.S. census. By 2010, that number was more than 2 million, with another 3 million people identifying themselves as “Native and something else.” In 2018 — after this book went to the printer — Deb Haaland, a Laguna Pueblo from New Mexico, and Sharice Davids, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation from Kansas, became the first two indigenous women elected to the House of Representatives. While suppression of Native votes by tactics like North Dakota’s voter ID law were real, that these women are serving the very government that disenfranchised their people for so many generations is an indication that the voices of indigenous Americans are at the table — and will demand to be heard. “We have the same kind of spiritual calling, a sense of a collective mission beyond worldly things, not only to ennoble ourselves through protest,” Treuer writes, “but also to ennoble the democratic republic that seeks to diminish us.”
For these long-overdue changes, we can celebrate a true thanksgiving.
Debra Cash, a founding contributor to the Arts Fuse now serving on its Board, is Executive Director of Boston Dance Alliance.