GRAND FORKS - Louise Erdrich does not gloss over the violence that plagues many American Indian reservations, including violence against native women and children.
It is, in fact, a recurring theme in her novels, including her latest, "The Round House," set on a North Dakota reservation in 1988, for which the North Dakota native and enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians received a prestigious National Book Award last week.
"But when you grapple with the complexity of the present in native communities, you are also facing a largely unknown history of trauma," she said last week in a telephone interview from her home in Minneapolis.
That "historical trauma" is "coming down through generations of people who have been stripped of their culture, forced into boarding schools around the turn of the last century, mired in poverty, and breaking out of that is very, very hard to do."
"The Round House," the second part of a planned trilogy set on the North Dakota reservation (the first, "The Plague of Doves," was published to critical acclaim in 2008), is the story of a 13-year-old boy who seeks justice for his mother after she is brutally attacked.
"But the book also is about the ongoing celebration of culture" in Indian Country, Erdrich said.
"People only seem to get interested in native communities when something horrific happens," she said, "and the beauty, spirit and vitality of the culture, the toughness of mind it takes native people to survive - that is something that should be celebrated."
Spirit Lake issues
Erdrich, 58, said she is aware of recent developments at the Spirit Lake Sioux reservation, where federal officials, tribal members and others have alleged widespread abuse of children and a tribal child protection system that is broken.
"I really can't address Spirit Lake because I don't have all the information," she said. "But this book is about an issue that is part of that situation, a slow-burning conflagration of the spiritual laws that have governed native societies until the indigenous culture was stripped away."
"We are grappling with how to restore the place and imbue ourselves with all that has been lost."
In accepting her National Book Award on Wednesday night in New York, Erdrich said the novel "is a book about a huge case of injustice ongoing on reservations." She delivered her remarks in both Ojibwe and English and said she wanted to honor "the grace and endurance of native women."
Speaking to reporters Thursday in Minneapolis, she said the prize "is an award for stories that are grounded here, about us. It belongs to the native community, to North Dakotans and Minnesotans."
On Friday, she said she is still "very happy" about the award, and she hopes the honor will give it a wider audience.
She said she wrote the story "as suspense, in a way as a page-turning book, because I wanted to talk about problems that are very fraught with emotion and involve very complex legal issues. The book is about the difficulty in obtaining justice for victims of crime of sexual violence on reservations. The answers aren't easy.
"It's set in 1988 but truer than ever today. Crimes of sexual violence against women are at epidemic proportions on reservations."
Hope, not despair
The Tribal Law and Order Act adopted by Congress in 2010, which boosted law enforcement capabilities on reservations, "was a huge help" in countering violence stemming from poverty, drugs and alcohol, unemployment and hopelessness, Erdrich said.
Another piece of federal legislation, which would have allowed tribal courts to prosecute non-native sex offenders, was stalled in the House of Representatives.
"That piece of sovereignty should be restored to tribes," Erdrich said. "Tribal courts should be able to prosecute non-native sex predators. When they can't, that adds a layer of instability and insecurity to the entire system."
She warns against generalizations about Indian Country and a focus only on what's wrong, and she is "absolutely" more
hopeful than despairing for the future.
Every tribe in the country "has a unique culture, different trials and triumphs," she said. On her home reservation, "the tribal college system has been a fantastic success. The Turtle Mountain Community College is a tremendous center of learning," Erdrich said.
"I am constantly humbled by the people I know who are working their hearts out in Indian Country," including her siblings, she said. "My own family... they save lives. They've given their lives to Indian education and Indian health."
Erdrich was raised in Wahpeton, N.D., and her parents and several siblings live there. She said she will take her new award there "so we can all celebrate." She also plans to take the award, a bronze statue, to the Turtle Mountain reservation.
Through her novels and other literary work, she addresses the problems and challenges facing Indian people through stories of individual women, men and children. People in Washington, D.C., who weigh decisions on such issues as funding for reservation law enforcement, health and education "need to see it comes down to the suffering of a child in North Dakota," she said.
"If we don't look at it in terms of human suffering and just look at it coldly through costs... you need to ask, 'What does it cost when someone becomes a purveyor of violence?' " she said. "It's cost-effective over the long haul, if that's the way you need to look at it."
Chuck Haga writes for the
Grand Forks Herald