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David Treuer’s Monumental History of Native American Life in the 20th Century

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Nephelopsis obscura, the common ribbon leech, is black and slimy, segmented, and like the earthworm, hermaphroditic. In the shallow waters of the Great Lakes region, it spends the day buried in mud and then, when darkness falls, emerges to feed on animal remains. Bobby Matthews is an Ojibwe who traps these leeches on the aptly named Leech Lake Indian Reservation in Minnesota. “As soon as the ice goes out in April I start looking around,” he says. At dusk, he sets his traps—perforated containers suspended from a Styrofoam float—and removes them at dawn. A sturdy overnight haul, sold to convenience stores and bait shops, can net him $1,000. Though Matthews makes a decent living as a leech trapper, he is also a man of countless other seasonal trades: a collector of pine cones, a harvester of wild rice, a hunter, and a cutter of cranberry bark. “When the zombie apocalypse comes, I am certain that I want to be with Bobby,” David Treuer writes in his manifold new history of Native America, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee. His is “an Indian kind” of labor: “a patchwork of opportunities that are exploited aggressively and together add up to a living. A good one.”

Matthews is one of many memorable characters in Treuer’s book, which combines social and political history with personal memoir and reportage. It’s a familiar mix for Treuer, a professor of English at the University of Southern California and the author of two previous books of nonfiction and four novels, all with Native American themes. Treuer grew up in a world of leeching and ricing, on the Leech Lake reservation, where his Ojibwe mother worked as an attorney and his Jewish father, a survivor of the Holocaust, taught high school and worked for the tribe. In Treuer’s youth, he, like many young people, badly wanted to flee—and he did, earning an undergraduate degree at Princeton and a graduate degree in anthropology at the University of Michigan. But his childhood community and the land where he spent his early years have been central to his work. In Rez Life, he weaves reported portraits from Indian Country into a history of federal regulation; in his novel The Hiawatha, he traces three generations of an Ojibwe family in Minneapolis.

Treuer’s latest book is more than an addition to his previous literary and historical projects; it is also a response to Dee Brown’s best-selling stylized history, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970). Brown, a librarian and prolific moonlighting writer, intended to render an appropriately bloody, deromanticized account of American Manifest Destiny from 1860 to the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890. Treuer does not dispute the basic facts of Brown’s account—yet as his title suggests, he takes issue with its conclusions. For Brown, indigenous civilization reached its metaphorical end in 1890, when the few surviving members of the hundreds of North American tribes were consigned to “the poverty, the hopelessness, and the squalor of a modern Indian reservation.” But where Brown sees only ashes, Treuer sees a spark: Native life continued to flourish, defiantly, throughout the 20th century. His book begins with a chapter dedicated to the impossible aim of “Narrating the Apocalypse: 10,000 BCE–1890.” It then offers broadly thematic chronological slices of the 20th and 21st centuries, from “Purgatory: 1891–1934” to “Digital Indians: 1990–2018.” “We are, in a sense, the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those hundreds who survived Wounded Knee,” Treuer writes, “and who did what was necessary to survive, at first, and then—bit by bit—to thrive.”

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Thanks !

Thanks for sharing this, you are awesome !