David Treuer — a talented novelist and essayist with a doctorate in anthropology who is also a literature professor at the University of Sourthern California — writes in a fashion as unconventional as his own life’s journey. Treuer was raised on the Ojibwe reservation at Leech Lake in Minnesota, the son of a Jewish father and an Ojibwe mother, and his vision of America derived from his upbringing informs every page of his new book, “The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America From 1890 to the Present.” His is a fascinating personal vision and in its own way uniquely American. Readers in search of conventional history may be disappointed, for although somewhat chronological the book’s structure is hardly linear, and the historical content, while sound, is minimal. As in his previous book, “Rez Life: An Indian’s Journey Through Reservation Life,” Treuer relies on extended interviews and personal memoir to tell his tale.
Treuer wishes to revise the image of the Indian long prevalent in American literature and historiography as the Vanishing American, a race so compromised by disease, war and intermarraige that it is destined to disappear. His perspective is one of Native American resiliency and survival. “This book,” Treuer writes, “is adamantly, unashamedly, about Indian life rather than Indian death.”
The popular image of Native American death and destruction took shape as far back as James Fenimore Cooper’s novel “The Last of the Mohicans,” published in 1826. In 1881, Helen Hunt Jackson put a historical perspective on the mistreatment, removal and massacre of Native Americans in her pathbreaking classic, “A Century of Dishonor.” In 1970 Dee Brown popularized perceptions of Indian victimization with “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.”
While Treuer appreciates the importance of the contributions of previous historians, he believes that since the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890, Native Americans have overcome despair and destruction through their resilence, carving out a unique place in this country. The U.S. government, Treuer correctly points out, did everything in its power to make the original Americans vanish through unrelenting violence, physical removal and finally forced assimilation. All three methods failed. What the government (and most of the people it represented) could never fully comprehend was that Indians never wished to be assimilated. They would not easily vanish into the famed melting pot. Indians continue to claim a special status that allows them to remain separate and somewhat more than equal.
Treuer’s impassioned book is more the literary child of Vine Deloria’s 1969 “Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto” than Brown’s “Wounded Knee.” Deloria argued that native peoples had retained their tribal identity while adapting to modern American society and struggling for their treaty rights and human rights. The embrace of American life along with a demand for special status has always placed Indian people in an awkward position. This is particularly visible in the intense pride and patriotism of Indian veterans; tribal members have fought in every American conflict, including as scouts in the Indian Wars, and have had to deal with the irony of fighting for freedoms denied to them at home. Indians were not granted citizenship until 1924 and then were often denied voting rights in Western states. Indian people are obviously proud to be Americans — because they are the first Americans — but this pride is constantly challenged by a nation of new immigrants determined to treat them as some sort of rarified and exotic “other.”
In his search for identity — a primary thread of the book — Treuer is seen to embody the contradictions of being Native American. He is educated and successful and moves easily in the world of white America. But he has no wish to relinquish his Ojibwe identity. Native people have continuously “fought to remain Indian just as much as they fought for and in order to be Americans, but Americans on their own terms,” he asserts.
Treuer briefly charts Native America from prehistory to the Wounded Knee massacre, then outlines the perils of federal “benevolence” exerted through sometimes well-meaning but continually misguided policies and the horrors of tribal dependency. Indians suffered through Orwellian boarding schools meant to erase any vestiges of native culture or loyalty in their children, and the allotment of Indian land through the Dawes Act with a promise of eventual citizenship if the tribe was abandoned (with surplus land sold to whites). Later came the “gift” of citizenship in 1924 and the Indian New Deal in 1934 that reaffirmed tribal rule. Next was the contradictory effort to terminate all reservations in the 1950s and to integrate their inhabitants into the greater U.S. population, which in turn led to the rise of the violent and, according to Treuer, counterproductive American Indian Movement in the late 1960s. Through all this American Indians survived, held tenaciously to their cultural beliefs and tribal loyalties, and rebounded in population to number more than 2 million today.
For Native Americans the game changer was gambling. An obscure Minnesota property tax case led to a 1976 Supreme Court ruling that denied the right of states to tax or regulate Indian reservations. Tribal leaders across the country quickly seized on this ruling to start selling tax-free tobacco products and running bingo parlors, and later they upgraded to casinos. Additional court rulings led to a massive expansion of Indian gaming. The states responded by increasing legal gambling for all citizens (thus the current lottery mania). In 1988 Congress passed and President Ronald Reagan signed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which established levels of gambling and set up compacts between states and the tribes.
Indian gambling revenue climbed from $100 million in 1988 to more than $26 billion by 2009. Despite the increased disparity between wealthy gaming tribes (with casinos in good locations) and most other tribes, many Americans came to believe that all Indians were now rich. This new wealth allowed some tribes to employ high-powered law firms to protect their interests and sue for the return of lost land and abrogated treaty rights. This rise of Indian sovereignty has gone hand in hand with increasing gaming revenue, as has the growing influence of tribes in political contests in several Western states. (Two Indian women, from New Mexico and Kansas, just took seats in the House of Representatives.) It is all, as Treuer wryly notes, so very American.
“Indians lived on, as more than ghosts, as more than the relics of a once happy people,” Treuer concludes. “We lived on increasingly invested in and changed by — and in turn doing our best to change — the American character.”
Treuer is an easy companion: thoughtful, provocative and challenging. He tells a disturbing yet heroic story that may very well be seen as a definition of “American exceptionalism.”
Paul Andrew Hutton is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of New Mexico. His latest book is “The Apache Wars.”