Goodbye, Columbus

In two new titles, Winona LaDuke and Jim Northrup weigh tribal rights and wrongs.

We'd almost made it back to earth when the pilot's voice crackled over the cabin speaker. Night fog. Crash conditions. It was the Saturday night after Thanksgiving and our flight into the Twin Cities airport was already hours late. The plane circled several times--spending fuel, waiting for the weather to break--then finally gave up. We broke orbit and headed northwest for Fargo, across that stretch of flyover land that from the air, once the fog cleared, looked more like the sky than the sky did--constellations of rural towns, the Mississippi like a Milky Way, and the lone star of a farm here and there.

It was past midnight then. Babies were throwing up all over the plane. The suit behind me was muttering something about a hijack. Between the fluorescent lights, the stale air, and snack nausea, the whole scene started to slide into the surreal. Just before we touched down, I caught sight of what looked to be the White Earth reservation below, nearly invisible except for the few sparse lights marking its perimeter in the dark.

And in my lap, on page 244 of Winona LaDuke's debut novel, Last Standing Woman (Voyageur Press), Claire St. Clair--an Ojibwe woman born on White Earth while the Depression was making even the dirt dirt-poor--was down on her knees before the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes. A short while later, St. Clair hit the $14 million jackpot in the Minnesota state lottery, and our Flight from Hell touched down in Fargo.

Coincidence? Sure. Still, it seemed a fitting thing to be reading about while flying over a reservation that, like so many others, was once close to being erased from the map. And so from the air, I saw the lights of the present, while LaDuke's history filled the dark cabin, drawing the borders that were officially set 130 years ago by a treaty between the Ojibwe (also known as the Anishinabe or Chippewa) with the federal government.

Today, we learn from LaDuke's epic--spanning several eras from 1800 to 2001--that over 90 percent of those original 837,000 acres are owned by non-Indians, transferred over the years by fraud, tax foreclosure, and plain old theft. In truth, the White Earth Land Recovery Project, founded by LaDuke in the early '90s, has already bought back 1,000 acres and set sights on thousands more. In the novelized version, Claire St. Clair performs her own bit of poetic justice by financing the buy-back with her lottery booty, right after she treats herself to a Supremesian beehive and heels.

If the name Winona LaDuke rings a bell, it might be because she was Ralph Nader's running mate on the preternaturally quiet '96 Green Party ticket. Or because she hosted the Indigo Girls' "Honor the Earth" tour in 1995, the same year Time named her one of "50 [leaders] for the Future." Anyway, LaDuke's been high profile as an Anishinabe activist and environmentalist for the better part of her 38 years, helping raise the Cain that stopped clear-cutting on White Earth and put corrupt tribal chair Chip Wadena and his cronies behind bars. It's no surprise, then, that Last Standing Women is a novel with a fairly neat aim: to educate readers about life on the rez, its (at times revisionist) history and immediate prospects, in a framework that allows for elaboration, antics, and whim.

Yet, I frankly didn't expect to like Last Standing Woman so much. Fiction in the service of an obvious political agenda is risky stuff, prone to the pitfalls of crude characters who stand in for principles, and plots that mire in a didactic muck. This is a genre whose titles generally preach from the bully pulpit and box their own shadows. But LaDuke is smart. It shows not only in her prose, which is mostly strong with occasional gusts of brilliance, but also in her ability to hold a comprehensive vision across two centuries while marshalling a slew of characters across the pages.

Along the way, Last Standing Woman tells dozens of family and tribal legends passed down the generations, beginning with the earliest migration of a scattered Anishinabe diaspora to White Earth. It's a sort of prelapsarian paradise, pending the inevitable fall from grace into despair. In this telling, of course, it's not God but God's posse--white priests, speculators, farmers, politicians with the paper law on their side--who take it upon themselves to wipe White Earth off the map. Anthropologists flock to the killing grounds with their calipers and shovels, digging up burial grounds, stealing sacred objects, and shipping family bones off to museums back east. Indian agents outlaw traditional ceremonies and stump for the Church by withholding rations (perhaps the first instance of food-as-a-weapon sanctions). Logging companies raze to pulp the area's old-growth timber until the land's a denuded patch.

By the 1930s, hundreds of Ojibwe have succumbed to tuberculosis in the "Indian wing" of the state sanitarium or been shipped into exile at government-run boarding schools. The coup de grâce of the novel's opening section comes when Father Gilfillian enlists two young boys to help haul 16 Ojibwe headstones from their resting ground at Spirit Lake and plant them in the Episcopal cemetery--a sort of absurd posthumous conversion, minus the body and soul.

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