A Conversation with Louise Erdrich about Native American Issues

Louise Erdrich is a half-Chippewa novelist who recent won a National Book Award for her crime novel titled:  The Round House.  The following interview is excerpted from Time (14 Jan 2013, p. 60):

How much of the novel is rooted in the reality of what happens on the reservation?  Crimes of sexual violence are absolutely a real problem, as is the difficulty in prosecuting them.

So is the book a crusade?  It’s a suspense novel masking a crusade.  The thing I wanted people to say is, “I couldn’t put the book down.”  And then within that there would be this discussion of jurisdictional issues on reservations, of how tribal courts cannot prosecute a non-Native who commits a crime in Indian country.  The first man [who tried to fix this] was Richard Nixon, who read the treaties and, as a true conservative, realized that certain rights should be inherent.

What are the main misunderstandings that non-Natives still have with Native Americans?  For many people, Native Americans are trapped in 19th century ferocity.  The military loves to invoke that ferocity–like with the Blackhawk and the Apache [helicopters]–and so do sports teams.  One case in point is that the code name for Osama bin Laden was Geronimo.  Native Americans serve in the U.S. military in a rate that far exceeds what one would expect from our [small] population.  It’s a point of pride to serve.  The flag comes out first at every powwow.  So to have Geronimo be associated with the enemy is painful.

Your maternal grandfather was a tribal chairman, and you still visit the reservation a lot.  How has it changed since your childhood?  Tribal community colleges have been enormously beneficial to Native communities.  People don’t have to leave to get higher education.  I see more young people understanding that our survival depends on them becoming lawyers.

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