Goodbye, Columbus

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

From these ashes, the novel weds documented history with word-of-mouth tales in a long middle passage, opening in 1960 in Los Angeles (where LaDuke, whose father was Anishinabe and mother Jewish, grew up) and dropping anchor in 1994 after the armed take-over of White Earth's tribal offices by the Protect Our Land coalition. The weeks-long occupation serves as a catalyst for the entire book, a swift turn of the tide during which two National Guardsmen are taken hostage, a dissident is gunned down, and the FBI--with its signature aplomb--botches a dawn raid and crawls to the negotiating table.

In these later chapters, it becomes clear that Last Standing Woman is also LaDuke's roman à clef--a chronicle of the last couple turbulent decades on White Earth and the author's direct-action role in putting the quash on tribal nepotism (in the role of one Alanis Nordstrom, savvy newspaper reporter). It's played to the end by a cast of real personages so thinly disguised that one can almost imagine the gallons of red ink spilled at the libel lawyer's vetting session.

One may come to wonder, somewhere in the thick of the siege, why LaDuke chose to hybridize the actual history of the reservation with such (occasionally silly) stabs at fiction. As a result, the project switches more than once from a Who's Who at White Earth into a Who's Who on the page; my rough head count came up with a character list as long as Wadena & Co.'s rap sheet. It's as if LaDuke, out of fear for getting the history wrong, didn't comprehend her novelist's right to leave any real people out. The mistake, though, may not be in the sheer throng of names on the page; Isabel Allende carries this trick off in her Eva Luna tales, which I suspect LaDuke took as her book's model. Rather, it's that all but a few characters here remain as strangers, named but not fully rendered, and hard to respond to as a result.

There are other weaknesses in the book. One of LaDuke's sorest habits is portraying every female as good, even--dare I say it?--noble. We know better. Fiction or non-, this is not a convincing practice and makes for questionable politics besides. Another is to lapse into a kind of schoolyard sarcasm when describing non-Indian characters--a tic that, again, seems to shut down possibilities for character; it's too easy to knock down an opponent made of nothing but bitter wind.

That said, what LaDuke does best here is short, dramatic vignettes. Each chapter, some of them only a couple pages long, is a stand-alone story--a complete sketch, freeze-framed in the larger documentary. Several of these chapters near the end are quite stunning: Claire St. Clair's fancy dance with Lady Luck; the return of scavenged ancestral "specimens" from the Smithsonian; and a freak twister that sucks the Christian Retreat Camp right off the rez.

By this method, Last Standing Woman manages to formally memorialize the countless Anishinabeg lives lost over the decades to colonialism and its devastating legacy, and to pay tribute to those who are now engaged in the project of recovery.

Much like White Earth, the Fond du Lac reservation saw its original treaty lands shrink from 100,000 acres in 1854 to about 22,000 at last count. In The Rez Road Follies: Canoes, Casinos, Computers, and Birch Bark Baskets(Kodansha International), Jim Northrup, a member of that reservation, offers a series of free-ranging dispatches from ground zero, taking in the cycles of traditional rez life in northern Minnesota--autumn ricing, winter hibernation, spring sugar bush, the summer powwow trail.

Picking up where Walking the Rez Road (Voyageur Press, 1993) left off, this collection of eight essays folds in groundwork material from his syndicated monthly column, "The Fond du Lac Follies." Northrup is among the most entertaining, provocative voices in Indian Country right now, a man whose good humor about all things Anishinabe is matched only by his gravity about them. At the risk of killing a punch line (he's got plenty), here's one from a "Shinnob" writer who sprinkles his prose with the most bittersweet of jokes: Q: Why is the white man in such a hurry to get to Mars? A: They think we have land there.

Northrup is a democratic writer, though, when it comes to the greed and folly behind the pressing political issues of the day. In "Racism," Northrup takes on everything from bigots at boat landings to rent-a-shamans to mascots sporting tomahawks and feathers in their hair. (At one point, his sidekick cousin, Rathide, suggests going to a Saints or Padres game dressed as Catholics.) In "Politics," Northrup reserves a special vitriol for the Reservation Business Committee, which wields extraordinary influence over tribal economics, courts, and casino dealings in "what passes for democracy" on the rez; it's no skin off this Skin to hang his elected officials' dirty laundry out on the line.

The more poignant moments here come when Northrup draws his bead on the effects of the Fond du Lac's high-stakes casinos--the worst of which, to his mind, is the creation of a class-based society on the rez. And then there are the more standard complaints the author names: the travesty of native "relics" being dug up and put on display at museums; the federal government's standard practice, earlier this century, of forced sterilization for Native women; and, in especially intimate terms, the sorry aftermath of the Vietnam war. Northrup himself was a grunt in Vietnam and saw combat "at the bayonet end of America's foreign policy" there. In the late '70s, he came home to Fond du Lac and, like a lot of shell-shocked vets, went in search of a quiet mind in the woods, holing up in a tipi for six years.

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