Bobby Matthews makes a living from hunting, trapping, and harvesting his way through the year, just as his Ojibwe ancestors did. The American Indian Movement was in part organized by urban Natives who were inspired by the tactics of the Black Panthers. And author David Treuer’s cousin Sam uses mixed martial arts fighting as a way to positively channel the reservation violence that sent him to prison.
These are just a few of the threads in the vibrant tapestry of contemporary Native American history that Treuer weaves in his new book, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America From 1890 to the Present (Riverhead Books, 2018). A hybrid work of historical scholarship, memoir, and reportage, Treuer’s tome might be called a Native-focused cousin to the late historian Howard Zinn’s seminal book from 1980, A People’s History of the United States.
Treuer’s book takes aim at the central idea behind Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, the best-selling Native American history from 1970. Of that book, Treuer writes that its non-Native author, Dee Brown, “relied on — and revived — the same old sad story of the ‘dead Indian,’ ” a narrative that has dominated American views of Native life for more than a century. In his foreword, he explains, “This book is a counternarrative to the story that has been told about us, but it is something more as well: it is an attempt to confront the ways we Indians understand our place in the world.”
Treuer is Ojibwe from the Leech Lake reservation in Minnesota. He has published four novels and two works of nonfiction and teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California. He wrote part of The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee as a 2015-2016 Katrin H. Lamon Resident Scholar at Santa Fe’s School for Advanced Research. Before his return for a book talk at St. John’s College on Thursday, March 14, Pasatiempo asked him a few questions about the story behind this groundbreaking work of Native American history.
Pasatiempo: How did you come to the conclusion that this book needed to be in the world — one that you say aims to explore the opposite thesis of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee?
David Treuer: Dee Brown’s book remains the best-selling book about American Indian history ever published. It’s got millions and millions of copies in print; it’s been published in 17 languages; it’s never been out of print. And he relies on, and in some ways promotes, the dominant narrative that has always been used to describe and to think about Native American lives. And that’s a narrative of death and destruction. And it’s a tragic narrative.
I can’t speak for other Native people in any unofficial or official capacity, but I can’t help but imagine that a lot of people felt as I did. That growing up, and then out and about in my adult life, I keep having the same conversation [with non-Native people] over and over again. The conversation is roughly: “Yes, we still exist.” And then people say, “Well, things are so terrible for you, and life is so terrible,” and you say, “Well, no, it’s not. It’s better than that.” And then other people will say, “Native life is so cool and so interesting,” and then you say, “No, it’s not. It’s hard.”
And so you feel like you’re losing your mind. I always felt that if we could just find a different way to tell our stories — not just different stories — that we could get out of this crazy-making bind.
Pasa: Did you have a sense that a book like this was missing from the canon of Native American history?
Treuer: I felt it was missing. Whenever I’d have these awkward conversations with people who, never really knowing Native people, not really having any sustained contact with any of us, would then just basically whitesplain what Native lives were like. And I’d always want to say, “Well, no, that’s not how it is. Just read this.” But I’d have no “this” to reach for. And so, as Toni Morrison put it, if there’s a book that you want to read and it doesn’t exist, then it’s up to you to write it.
Pasa: In what ways do you think a focus on Native death, disappearance, and suffering has been handed down as the dominant historical narrative of Native Americans?
Treuer: Watch any mainstream movie in which Indians appear. Watch Thunderheart. Watch Wind River. Watch anything. Read any sort of canonical Native book. And I’m not saying that these are bad books. Read Winter in the Blood by James Welch. Read The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie. They all trade in tragedy.
Pasa: How did you position some of the stories you tell — of Native survival, adaptability, and toughness — in The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee as counter-narratives to Dee Brown’s? I was struck by the story you told of your cousin Sam, using his experience as a mixed martial arts cage fighter to jumpstart a broad history of Natives who proudly served in foreign wars throughout the 20th century.
Treuer: I always felt that the opposite to a tragic telling is not a story of hope. Stories of hope … they all sound so facile to me. That’s just the other side of that tragic coin, and we’ve been paid in that currency for centuries. To me, the problem is, tragedy turns our lives into a condition and our history into a set of sad statistics.
To me, the opposite of tragedy is a story with complexity, of layers, of depth, with texture — and maybe it’s because I’m a novelist. A real novel has fully realized characters who are complicated and function in a number of different registers simultaneously, sometimes even unbeknownst to them, what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it.
Take the story I tell of my cousin Sam, for example. ... He’s a smart guy, he’s a good man, and got, for various reasons, wrapped up in all sorts of different kinds of violence that he readily admits were really destructive to him and his family. He got sent to jail, and then found a way of living and expressing himself and accepting his unruly nature by becoming a mixed martial arts fighter. ... [He’s] finding a way to live life by way of terms that he’s created for himself, rather than the terms the state would have him live by. Which would see him in jail. And so he’s maybe not everyone’s idea of an inspiration, but he’s one of mine.
Pasa: In your experience growing up on a reservation, how did you recognize and begin to contend with the trope of vanishing Native culture?
Treuer: It took leaving in order to see the place clearly. It took remembering things I had forgotten. I just thought of myself as a kid until I left, and then in my conversations with outsiders, I was forced into a situation where I had to think of myself as an Indian kid.
My mother was an attorney and a tribal court judge, and growing up, there were always conversations about sovereignty and about citizenship and about tribal government structure. But she also forced me and my siblings to do all this seasonal harvesting. So in the fall, we would harvest wild rice and I hated it. It was itchy and uncomfortable and exhausting. And then we hunted in the late fall. And then in the spring, we’d tap maple trees and make maple syrup, and in the summer, we’d pick berries. And I hated all of it.
I asked my mom, “Why did you make us do that crap when I was a kid? I hated it so much.” And she said, “I was gonna make sure as your parent that you were going to do well in school, and you were gonna go to college, and you would get a good job. But I was also going to make sure that you understood how our people have always lived, and you’d know how to live like that. So worst-case scenario, college doesn’t work out and that job doesn’t work out, you can move back home and feed yourself.”
After I left, I missed those things, and I realized that I had lots of good reasons to love the place I was from. I had a connection not just to the idea of being Indian. I had a connection to my community and to our ceremonies, and to our cultural practices, to our ways that we have always sustained ourselves. I had lots of positive things, lots of interesting, complex things that wed me to my tribal self.
Pasa: You write about the Southwest as a place where one feels “the continued lived presence of Native America to a degree not found in most other homelands in the United States,” and you tell the story of the 1680 Pueblo Revolt movingly and proudly. You point to the vendors at the Palace of the Governors as a reminder that the Pueblo people are still there, while the Spanish crown and government are not. You also wrote a lot of this book while living in Santa Fe as a resident at SAR. What does New Mexico’s history and the visibility of its Indians mean to Native America at large?
Treuer: I can tell you that it meant a great deal to me to imagine this book and to write it in a place that architecturally, culturally, and socially was so Native — so irreducibly Native, so vibrantly so.
People talk about violence as ultimately destructive. And that’s something I think people say who benefit from structural inequality and structural violence — and never have to get their hands dirty. Because what would those Native lives that continued on — in New Mexico and Santa Fe in particular — be like if not for the Pueblo Revolt? Who would the Lakota be if they didn’t adopt the horses that were freed onto the plains — during that revolt, by the way? The Pueblo Revolt made horse culture possible. So who would the Lakota be if they didn’t adopt the horse and then the gun and then expand and then defend their homelands with force of arms?
… If the Pueblo hadn’t revolted violently, and if the Lakota hadn’t fought violently, I don’t know that they’d even be here today. And so all I can say is that I have so much respect and appreciation for the sacrifices of Native people in places like New Mexico. And I admire their insistence on their continued existence. ◀
▼ David Treuer discusses The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America From 1890 to the Present
▼ 5:30 p.m. Thursday, March 14
▼ St. John’s College, Great Hall, 1160 Camino de Cruz Blanca
▼ $10 for SAR non-members; register for tickets at sarweb.org/registration/book-talk-wounded-knee