The people of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in Dakota have been in the news lately for protesting the construction of a pipeline which they say endangers the source of their water in the Missouri River, as well as sacred burial grounds. They have been attacked by private security workers, and set on by dogs.
Reading these stories made me think of Louise Erdrich's terrific novel Tracks, which is about the ways in which, in the early twentieth century, white business and government interests managed to consolidate their hold on already-scarce Native lands. The Ojibwe characters of the novel are constantly threatened with the loss of their homes, pressured in lean times to sell to government agents forever. Old, protective spirits seem to have become powerless:
It was clear that Indians were not protected by the thing in the lake or by the other Manitous who lived in trees, the bush, or spirits of animals that were hunted so scarce they became discouraged and did not mate. There would have to come a turning, a gathering, another door.
But these problems lurk mostly in the background, as a kind of constant threatening hum. The main story centers around Fleur Pillager, a headstrong Ojibwe girl in the town of Argus, North Dakota. Fleur is beautiful and mysterious, and menacingly independent. She lives way out in the woods, and people speculate about her close relationship with the monster-spirit living at the bottom of the lake.
The novel has two narrators: Nanapush, an old and sly man who rescued Fleur from dying in the snow as a child, and Pauline, an outcast Ojibwe woman who gravitates toward blood-and-doom Catholicism. Nanapush is witty, crass, and full of practical jokes; Pauline is joyless and too severe in her faith, even for the mother of her convent. In them, Erdrich contrasts two ways of responding to the weakening of Native communities: Nanapush refuses to deal with the Agents, consoling himself with black humor; Pauline embraces the grim mythos of the white man's religion.
How can a people respond in the face of near-extinction? I thought Nanapush's response to powerlessness was very profound:
Power dies, power goes under and gutters out, ungraspable. It is momentary, quick of flight and liable to deceive. As soon as you rely on the possession it is gone. Forget that it ever existed, and it returns. I never made the mistake of thinking that I owned my own strength, that was my secret. And so I never was alone in my failures. I was never to blame entirely when all was lost, when my desperate cures had no effect on the suffering of those I loved. For who can blame a man waiting, the doors open, the windows open, food offered, arms stretched wide? Who can blame him if the visitor does not arrive?
What would the Standing Rock Sioux say about that, I wonder? Perhaps they have more power than the Native Americans of the early 20th century did: the federal government just recently declared that they would halt production on the pipeline, at least temporarily. But in many ways Native Americans remain impoverished and marginalized, and will probably remain so for a very long time. That's true in literature, too: how many Native American authors can you name? (Along with Erdrich, I can only think of one: Sherman Alexie.) It's not quite fair to ask Erdrich to shoulder the burden of being the literary representation of Native American life in the United States, but you could do far worse than Tracks, which is funny, accomplished, and frequently beautiful.
Brent read this, too. Maybe he'll write a review about it?