David Treuer’s Monumental History of Native American Life in the 20th Century

David Treuer’s Monumental History of Native American Life in the 20th Century

We’re Still Here

Native America after Wounded Knee.


Nephelopsis obscura, the common ribbon leech, is black and slimy, segmented, and like the earthworm, hermaphroditic. In the shallow waters of the Great Lakes region, it spends the day buried in mud and then, when darkness falls, emerges to feed on animal remains. Bobby Matthews is an Ojibwe who traps these leeches on the aptly named Leech Lake Indian Reservation in Minnesota. “As soon as the ice goes out in April I start looking around,” he says. At dusk, he sets his traps—perforated containers suspended from a Styrofoam float—and removes them at dawn. A sturdy overnight haul, sold to convenience stores and bait shops, can net him $1,000. Though Matthews makes a decent living as a leech trapper, he is also a man of countless other seasonal trades: a collector of pine cones, a harvester of wild rice, a hunter, and a cutter of cranberry bark. “When the zombie apocalypse comes, I am certain that I want to be with Bobby,” David Treuer writes in his manifold new history of Native America, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee. His is “an Indian kind” of labor: “a patchwork of opportunities that are exploited aggressively and together add up to a living. A good one.”

Matthews is one of many memorable characters in Treuer’s book, which combines social and political history with personal memoir and reportage. It’s a familiar mix for Treuer, a professor of English at the University of Southern California and the author of two previous books of nonfiction and four novels, all with Native American themes. Treuer grew up in a world of leeching and ricing, on the Leech Lake reservation, where his Ojibwe mother worked as an attorney and his Jewish father, a survivor of the Holocaust, taught high school and worked for the tribe. In Treuer’s youth, he, like many young people, badly wanted to flee—and he did, earning an undergraduate degree at Princeton and a graduate degree in anthropology at the University of Michigan. But his childhood community and the land where he spent his early years have been central to his work. In Rez Life, he weaves reported portraits from Indian Country into a history of federal regulation; in his novel The Hiawatha, he traces three generations of an Ojibwe family in Minneapolis.

Treuer’s latest book is more than an addition to his previous literary and historical projects; it is also a response to Dee Brown’s best-selling stylized history, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970). Brown, a librarian and prolific moonlighting writer, intended to render an appropriately bloody, deromanticized account of American Manifest Destiny from 1860 to the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890. Treuer does not dispute the basic facts of Brown’s account—yet as his title suggests, he takes issue with its conclusions. For Brown, indigenous civilization reached its metaphorical end in 1890, when the few surviving members of the hundreds of North American tribes were consigned to “the poverty, the hopelessness, and the squalor of a modern Indian reservation.” But where Brown sees only ashes, Treuer sees a spark: Native life continued to flourish, defiantly, throughout the 20th century. His book begins with a chapter dedicated to the impossible aim of “Narrating the Apocalypse: 10,000 BCE–1890.” It then offers broadly thematic chronological slices of the 20th and 21st centuries, from “Purgatory: 1891–1934” to “Digital Indians: 1990–2018.” “We are, in a sense, the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those hundreds who survived Wounded Knee,” Treuer writes, “and who did what was necessary to survive, at first, and then—bit by bit—to thrive.”

For Treuer, Wounded Knee is at once a monument and a still-living space, a pivot in the history of Native Americans. To recall the grim events: In December 1890, police officers on the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota shot and killed Sitting Bull, a leader of the Hunkpapa Lakota tribe. A chief named Spotted Elk, eager to avoid the same fate, decided to leave Standing Rock with 350 followers and seek the safety of the Pine Ridge Reservation about 250 miles to the south. But a few days into their journey, the caravan was stopped and led by the Seventh Cavalry to a frigid campground at Wounded Knee Creek. A fight erupted, and the soldiers began to shoot. They killed at least 150 Native people, more than half of them women and children. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee ends with these images of death and a quote from the Oglala Lakota leader Black Elk: “I did not know then how much was ended…. A people’s dream died there…. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.”

The legal prelude to this massacre came three years earlier, when the Dawes Act broke up tribal lands into individual tracts in order to divide and uproot Native communities—a strategy that would continue for decades. Treuer writes that between 1890 and 1934, “the assaults on Indians and Indian homelands were perhaps at their most creative, if not their bloodiest…. The government’s weapons were cupidity and fraud.” Yet the Indians resisted: In the early 1900s, the so-called Five Civilized Tribes of Oklahoma took advantage of homesteading laws to migrate north and west; in 1918, Minnesota’s Red Lake Chippewa established an executive patterned after its traditional system of hereditary chiefs; and in the 1930s and ’40s, Native Americans laid claim to the social and financial resources vouchsafed by the New Deal and the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, nicknamed the Indian New Deal.

In the mid–20th century, many Native Americans followed a path not dissimilar to that of African Americans: winning recognition through their service in the two world wars, migrating to the cities and experiencing the incomplete uplift that came with industrial jobs and federal programs. And just as the civil-rights movement had groups like the Black Panthers and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the struggle for Native rights had Red Power and the American Indian Movement.

AIM was primarily urban and “lacked a solid base of support on the reservations,” Treuer notes, but it cemented its revolutionary reputation on the tribal land of Wounded Knee. In 1973, members of AIM, already in South Dakota to protest the murder of an Indian man, flocked to Pine Ridge to attend the impeachment proceedings against Dick Wilson, the corrupt chairman of the reservation and a member of the Oglala, the same tribe as AIM leader Russell Means. After the impeachment effort failed and Means was beaten by Wilson’s private security force, AIM militants took hasty action in the village of Wounded Knee. They seized a trading post and church and exchanged fire with state and federal agents. For the next 71 days, Treuer writes, there were “demands, meetings, breakdown, violence, repeat.” Although a deal was finally reached—the Oglalas would be given a meeting with the Nixon White House, and the Justice Department would investigate the crimes occurring on Pine Ridge—Wounded Knee again marked an Indian defeat: The occupiers killed one of their own, and logistical chaos left many in the militants’ camp hungry and cold. The lasting impression was one of disillusionment and anger.

While the events at Wounded Knee marked the end of AIM’s radical push, the movement persisted as a philosophy, reinforcing the notion that, as Treuer writes, “Indians need not accept their position of disenfranchisement.” After centuries of forced disavowal, “simply ‘being Indian’—choosing to be Indian—constituted a social good.”

This revolution in identity, of which AIM was only one notable manifestation, enabled the building of institutions and laws, both on and off the reservation, that reshaped Native American life over the next quarter-century. Native advocates opened schools and housing complexes, and non-Native public servants (including Treuer’s father), funded by President Johnson’s War on Poverty, lent their assistance. New federal statutes—the Indian Education Act (1972), the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (1978), the Indian Child Welfare Act (1978), and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990)—not only recognized the civil rights of Native Americans but also the sovereignty of their tribes. A series of momentous court decisions gave further weight to tribal authority: The United States v. Washington (1974), which entitled tribes with treaty fishing rights to half the state’s annual catch; Joint Tribal Council of the Passamaquoddy Tribe v. Morton (1975), which awarded significant acreage and financial compensation to two Indian nations in Maine; and California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians (1987), which affirmed the tribal right to gaming and, as Treuer writes, “flung wide open [the] door to economic development.”

For the most part, though, the American legal system has not been a force for good in Native lives. It was, and still is, contingent and acutely political and thus unreliable as a vehicle for change. But tribes have occasionally put court decisions and legislative acts to transformative use. In this way, indigenous nationhood has proved at least conceptually ineluctable, a fact that the federal government has been unable to ignore.

A theme that reveals itself at first slowly, and then sharply, in Treuer’s volume is that colonizers do not always know where their policies will lead. In the late 1800s, a group closely allied with the Office of Indian Affairs (now the Bureau of Indian Affairs) sought to impose “civilization through citizenship, free enterprise, and private ownership of land,” beginning with the establishment of Indian boarding schools. Across the country, Native families lost their children to institutions that substituted forced assimilation for education; Treuer’s own grandmother was sent to an industrial school in Tomah, Wisconsin, at the age of 4 “and did not return home until she was ten.” Yet what resulted from putting together all these children from different tribes was the formation of a new pan-Indian identity. They “brought their experiences of their tribes to school,” Treuer observes, “mingled with and met other tribal people, and if they returned to their tribes, they brought all of that with them, along with the academic and practical skills that would be invaluable in the conflicts ahead.”

The divvying up of Indian lands in the 19th and 20th centuries likewise proved to have unintended effects. The Dawes Act of 1887 split reservations into small, individual tracts in an effort to extinguish “the tribe as a social unit, encourage private enterprise and farming, reduce the cost of Indian administration, fund the emerging boarding school system (with the sale of ‘surplus land’) and provide a land base for white settlement.” But the Native peoples of Oklahoma, many of whom had been settled there under an 1830 removal order, responded by crafting a work-around. In the absence of unifying reservations, Treuer writes, “they essentially borrowed American civic structures to preserve their tribes and their tribal selves.” They levied taxes, ran Native candidates for mayor, “and engaged in a frenzy of institution building.” To the frustration of white regulators, the children in Chickasaw neighborhood schools studied in their mother tongue. Other Indians, stripped of their homeland, traveled west and did as diasporas do: They mixed and redefined themselves while integrating “their culture and their understandings of themselves.” Through this syncretic process, “Indians were figuring out how to be Indian and American simultaneously.”

In Treuer’s narratives of Indian becoming and unbecoming, the US military emerges as a critical locus. “There has never been anything like consensus between tribes as they puzzled out how and to what extent they would work with (or against) the American government,” Treuer writes in a chapter titled “Fighting Life: 1914–1945.” In World War I, Indian boarding schools became a “rich source” of volunteer soldiers, and thousands of boys were shipped off to combat. A debate arose between policy-makers and generals as to whether Indians should serve alongside whites (what Treuer calls the assimilationist camp) or in segregated units (the preservationist camp). The military preferred integration, and during the war “tales of Indian heroism abounded and fed the stereotype of the ‘Indian brave.’”

In World War II, Native soldiers likewise distinguished themselves in high-profile ways: the Navajo “code talkers,” the Meskwaki warriors in North Africa, and in the case of Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian, helping raise the flag at Iwo Jima. “By 1944, more than a third of the Indian adult male population had served in the war,” Treuer writes. The result was “transformative—it raised Indians’ visibility in the American landscape” and, by 1948, produced universal suffrage for tribal citizens.

Even so, Treuer argues, this growing visibility often came at a high personal cost. In the military, as in boarding schools, Native youths “did pick up skills. They became literate and learned trades.” But they also suffered disproportionately from the traumas of war and often kept these traumas secret, to terrible effect. After Hayes left Japan, for example, he was arrested more than 50 times and died in 1955 of exposure and alcohol poisoning, a symbol “for many Americans of the ‘plight’ of modern Indians.”

In discussing this part of Native history, Treuer relays a story from his own family. In 1998, after a trip to France to promote his first novel, he ran into his maternal grandfather, with whom he was never close, back home on Leech Lake. Treuer happened to mention Saint-Malo, a city in Brittany, and shook loose his grandfather’s memory “as if someone had cast a spell of volubility” over him. His grandfather explained that he’d been hit with shrapnel and refused to become a sniper because “he was too scared to be tied into a tree.” Never before had Treuer heard of these experiences.

The conversation opened up a hidden history of pain, if only briefly. His grandfather fatally shot himself just after his 83rd birthday. Treuer cleaned up the room where his grandfather died and, years later, requested his personnel records in order to find more of “the answers I thought I needed” about his grandfather’s past. But the file was less than revealing: “Paper lies. So do people,” Treuer writes. What remained was a quality of depletion, “the feeling of powerlessness that takes hold of even the most powerful Indian men.”

Treuer, whose other books have attended to what he calls “the tiny, fretful, intricate details” of the Native experience, brings the same sensibility to The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee. This is particularly true in his telling of family narratives, including that of his father, Robert Treuer, an Austrian by birth, who drew an instinctive line between the persecution he’d suffered as a European Jew and what he saw around him on Leech Lake. One summer, when David Treuer was back on the reservation as a young adult, he learned from his girlfriend’s aunt what a formidable role his father had played in the community:

On Saturday afternoons back in the 1950s, my father would drive to the small village where she lived and pick up all the Indian kids hanging out there and drop them off in Bemidji, where there was more for them to do, then pick them up later when he was done in town and drive them home. He was the only white man who even thought about us, and went out of his way to give us something to do, something to look forward to, the aunt said.

These anecdotal and personal pauses make Treuer’s book feel unhurried, despite its vast scope; they also give it a tender pitch. Treuer makes stops for his father and grandfather, for Bobby Matthews and his leeches, and for Kevin Washburn, a Chickasaw who served as assistant secretary for Indian affairs in the Obama administration and is now a law professor at the University of New Mexico. In North Dakota, we meet Chelsey Luger, a journalist and health advocate of Ojibwe and Lakota ancestry. And in Washington State, at the bustling Tulalip Casino, we’re introduced to Eddy Pablo, a fisherman and entrepreneur who wants his tribe to get into the legalized marijuana industry, from seed to sale.

At times, these stories meander, and not always in an illuminating way. Treuer acknowledges the difficulty of weaving individual stories into such a wide-ranging history: “It’s hard, sometimes, to understand a life, to narrate it, when it doesn’t have a through line.” One wishes that he had cut short some of his anecdotal asides to refine his arguments or explore other moments and figures in Native American history. Toward the end of his book, Treuer notes that in 2018, “not only did record numbers of Indians run for public office, record numbers of them were women.” But The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee pays insufficient attention to the history of Native women leaders, especially in recent years, as so many have attained welcome visibility.

We might have learned, for example, about Krystal Two Bulls, the Oglala Lakota and Northern Cheyenne environmental activist who helped lead the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline; Adrienne Keene, the Brown University professor whose Native Appropriations blog and podcast have become an indispensable source of cultural criticism; or Sharice Davids (Ho-Chunk) and Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo), who became the first Native women to serve in Congress.

The words of another American Indian woman, the Oglala poet Layli Long Soldier, serve as an elegant companion to Treuer’s book. In the poem “Diction,” she writes:

Plains Indi-
til 1890, when a

Wounded Knee. By
left in the continen-
on at the time the
By way of contrast,
were still coming. By
Knee, the population of
0, there would be only
reservations in the west.

Pushing up against “By / Knee, the population of / 0” is the phrase “were still coming,” a distillation of a theme in Treuer’s history: We’re still here. In 1890, the US census counted fewer than 200,000 Indians; today, more than 5 million people identify as American Indian or Alaska Native, and an additional 1.2 million as Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. We’re still here, Treuer reminds us, is not only about the past. It testifies to “something much more, much greater and grander, than a catalog of pain.”

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