The stories of three Native American women over the course of four decades form the basis of The Road to Sweetgrass, a novel by Linda LeGarde Grover out in paperback. Set on the fictional Mozhay Point reservation in northern Minnesota, Sweetgrass explores the effects of allotment, termination, and historical trauma on the Anishinaabe people through the intimate perspectives of characters who are coming of age, questioning their identities, and searching for a definition of home. Ojibwe language and lifeways like harvesting wild rice and maple-syruping are interwoven throughout the narrative.
Grover, who is a member of the Bois Forte band of Ojibwe, began writing fiction after completing her doctoral research on federal Indian policies of the late 19th to the early 21st centuries. Her previous publications include a chapbook of poems, The.Indian.At.Indian.School, and the award-winning short-story collection The Dance Boots. She is a professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.
City Pages: Why did you decide to focus on allotment as the central theme of The Road Back to Sweetgrass?
Linda Grover: With my earlier book, The Dance Boots, my focus was on Indian education policy and the boarding schools. As I was taking this chronologically, I got into termination policy, and along with that, a sense of place, of having a physical and tangible place from which you spring from. The allotment policy was the breakup of land within reservation boundaries and essentially the breakup of the reservation, because eventually this land would pass out of Indian hands.
CP: Why did you use a fictional reservation as the setting?
LG: I wasn’t sure exactly where to place this. The reservation is very much like the reservation where I’m enrolled, Bois Forte, but it’s also very much like Fond du Lac. These are places where my family members lived when they were young. It’s where my family’s land allotment assignments were. I wanted to honor that. I wanted to honor the northeastern Minnesota and the Arrowhead Region and the Ojibwe people who live there. I thought it would be best to make this really broad and create a fictional name for a reservation.
CP: What made you want to structure the narrative in a non-chronological way?
LG: I write stories, so I keep them without an intention of any particular order. In some ways, with the old Indian stories, it is impossible really to know the exact timeline and the order. It seems to me that that is not as important as the story itself in the traditional stories. I think that for many Native writers, that is something that influences their writing.
CP: The book begins with a scene about fry bread. Why was that the food you introduced first?
LG: There are people — more often women, sometimes men — who are kind of legendary for their fry bread in their communities. Fry bread is not one of the foods that is indigenous to North America — flour and the idea of cooking bread were brought to this region by Europeans — but it became part of the culture. Although it is certainly not a healthy food, it became something that, to me, was symbolic of survival and adaptation — things that were not necessarily good and healthy for you, but that became part of your existence.
CP: You also incorporate a lot of Ojibwe words and phrases into the story. Sometimes you explain them, sometimes you don’t.
LG: This is the way that some people speak. It’s sprinkled in. I’m not a speaker myself. I just know a tiny bit. I didn’t want to get didactic or tie something down with a lot of explanations. Just as it is with the old-time storytelling, the listener has to be an active listener and look around for the context. I think they’re understandable to different people in different ways. Siskel and Ebert once said, “No two people ever see the same movie.” And I think that no two people ever read the same book. They bring their own experience, life, and consciousness.
CP: What are some of the ways Native people remain connected to their culture even if they don’t live on a reservation?
LG: Knowing that you’re Indian and knowing who your family is. I don’t think a person has to be living on a reservation to be Indian. Probably half of our Minnesota Chippewa tribe lives off-reservation in some way. It is the cultural things, the spiritual beliefs, the language. There’s a basic reverence for life and for existence. It is not a possession of the land; it’s having an understanding of what the Earth means, as a gift.
CP: Your characters seem to be on a search to find, or define, family. Can you speak to that?
LG: Some of the young ladies in the book experienced some of the programs that were put into place under the federal termination policy, which became law in the early 1950s and remained law for quite some time. There’s a character in this book who goes on “relocation.” She is sent away through a federal program to live in a city far from her home and where she’s supposed to be learning a trade and assimilating into larger American society. This was a pretty sweeping program through the 1970s. She had kind of a disastrous experience there and it changed her life.
There’s another character, under those same circumstances, who was adopted outside of Indian country as a brand-new baby and is searching to know where he came from. Where you came from and who you are and being proud of yourself — that’s all part of Anishinaabe ways. There are people searching for this who have experienced in their lives — and also in a collective way as an Ojibwe people and as an Indian people — a great disruption.
CP: It’s a multi-generational novel. What changes have you seen throughout the generations? How does allotment affect young people today?
LG: Allotment happened in the late 1880s through the 1920s, so this is quite a while ago. An even greater disruption was the sweeping assimilation policies that were going across America, from the 1870s through— well, it was supposed to end in the 1930s, but it never did, in my opinion. Assimilating means folding into a larger population and as part of it, giving up and destroying everything that makes you who you are.
You must change and you must adapt to some things in order to survive, but our effort goes into maintaining the heart of Indianness and Anishinaabe ways and the living of the good life. Our lives parallel and intersect regularly with larger America, but we maintain our identity with our tribes and with our families and our tribal governments.
CP: Given all of the historical trauma, how does one begin to heal — on an individual level, a cultural level, or as a country?
LG: I don’t think there is a healing here. I think there is an understanding and acceptance of what is real and keeping that as something that is a part of your history and continuing to survive and thrive.
Sometimes I feel like the burden is put on the person who’s been hurt by saying, “It’s time to heal.” I’ve gone to readings and book clubs, and once in a while, there will be somebody who will want to tell me that they want to apologize to the Indians on behalf of America and I don’t even know what to say. It is so much bigger than that. Then I think: Why are you apologizing? You feel really bad? Am I supposed to say, “That’s all right. You’re forgiven.”? It’s not my place to do that.
At the same time, I think, there is a strength in this. As my dad used to say: “Make it your own.” Hold on to it. Learn from it. Use it. Make a better life and do something good for other people.
IF YOU GO:
Linda LeGarde Grover, The Road Back to Sweetgrass
Magers & Quinn
7 p.m. Thursday, May 26