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Author: The Story Of The American Indian Is Not Just Tragedy

LAUREN GILGER: Dee Brown's 1970 book “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee” documents the history of Native Americans and West during the late 19th century, and it remains today the best-selling book about Native American life and history ever published.

DAVID TREUER: In that book and on the very first page, he says something to the effect of, this book is about the Plains wars, and I start in 1850 and I ended in 1890 at the massacre at Wounded Knee Creek, where the culture and civilization of the American Indian was finally destroyed.

GILGER: But writer and scholar David Treuer grew up on a Native American reservation in Minnesota, and he knows that Native American Life did not, in fact, end at Wounded Knee. In his new book, “The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present,” Treuer argues that Wounded Knee was not a point of no return for Native Americans in this country. And he documents how the American Indian story is not only one of tragedy. He calls this book a “counter narrative” and I spoke with him about it recently.

TREUER: I remember reading Dee Brown's book when I was in college, and I remember feeling on one hand, so excited, so happy, so honored that he would devote a book to our story. And on the other hand, I felt killed all over again because there he was saying that we were dead and gone, our civilizations were destroyed. And I felt that I knew that to be untrue. And yet that's the dominant narrative. That's what most people think, and if they admit or if they can accept that we're physically alive, it's only as ghosts of our former selves, a once-great people who are no longer great, who live in some sort of state of perpetual suffering. And I thought also, that we're up to a lot more than simply suffering. We're doing incredible things, and there was no book that pointed to that. And so I wanted to write it.

GILGER: Wow. So that's quite an undertaking. So you're documenting this history, but this is also a personal story to you, clearly. Tell us a little bit about your own upbringing.

TREUER: Well, I'm Ojibwe from the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota, and I'm mixed. My father is a Holocaust survivor, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, and my mother's native and I grew up on my reservation. And I think I, too, drank some of that Kool-Aid. I think growing up I also saw my tribe and my reservation as places where good ideas go to die and where nothing good ever happens. And it was only after I left, and I missed my home, and I missed my tribe, I missed my family that I began to understand that where I was from, and who I was, was a lot more than I believed and that I knew.

GILGER: So you're countering in this book this idea that Native American life and history, modern history, has been dominated by tragedy. And you document in it like over and over again ways in which that has not been true, in which Native Americans have been, adept and creative, and risen to the challenge, and kind of as the goalposts have shifted. Give us a couple examples of the ones that you thought were the most poignant.

TREUER: There are so many examples. During the boarding-school era, when Native children across the country were ripped from their families and sent to boarding schools, where they were punished for speaking their native language, is punished for practicing their native religion, their hair was cut, they were forced to wear uniforms, things like that. Boarding schools were designed to break tribes by breaking native families. And to some extent that happened. In some ways that was successful. But there were unintended consequences. So for example you took all these native kids from all these different tribes and you put them together in school and these kids from tribes that had never had contact with one another before or might have been sworn enemies in one or two generations removed, they all had the same experience and they suffered and learned together and they formed connections and relationships, marriages. And so during the era of tribal self-determination starting in the 30s, you had a couple generations of Native kids from across the country who knew each other and when they become tribal leaders they knew how to work together, they knew how to network, and they had a shared experience that they brought into and used to inform their efforts to strengthen their tribes. So it had the unintended consequence of strengthening tribes across the country.

GILGER: One of the big things that you document here is the urbanization right of Native Americans in the country. Why was it important do you think to highlight that and to let people know that this is not all people living on reservations?

TREUER: The fact remains that beginning after the First World War, then up through World War II, Native American people, like African-American, people were experiencing a great migration from rural areas and reservation areas to cities, but not just to cities. To suburbs, to border towns, to towns of, you know, 10, 15, 20,000 people. We were spreading out in a lot of different areas in many different ways. And many of us with success. I mean there were so many native people, especially from places like New York, who went to New York City and became steelworkers. And they were the ones who built the Empire State Building, that built the Flat Iron, and they still build skyscrapers up to and including One Freedom Tower, now in New York City. We've been doing all sorts of incredible things. We've been shifting and growing and there's a diaspora of native people in this country which runs counter to the stereotype.

GILGER: Entirely. Do you think that these sorts of stereotypes about the tragedy and the suffering that Native American people are experiencing and have experienced, do you think that those are still perpetuated today? Like I'm thinking about the major stories you hear about Native American activists today, about Standing Rock, about some of the environmental stories that we talk about a lot here on our show. I mean do you think that those narratives are empowering or are they perpetuating this sort of stereotype?

TREUER: Both maybe. The problem is that the only narrative that's ever used to explore native life is the tragic narrative. And tragic narratives produce strong feelings of pity and fear that lead to catharsis, sort of an unburdening. So the point for me or the goal for me was not simply to write a story of hope or a story of possibility. I don't want to color in the other side of the tragic coin with a story of hope. The opposite of tragedy for me is a story of context, and texture, and nuance. Because tragedy flattens us out into types and emotion and statistics. And so for me the goal is always to bring the skills I've learned as a novelist to bear nonfiction and create texture and nuance and layers because those are the things that are exciting to me about Indian life. We're complicated, interesting, intelligent, layered people and we bring all that to bear on the ways we make history. So yes, those stereotypes are alive and well. When Standing Rock went down, it got framed as a cowboys versus Indians and as a white versus native thing. To me the real story, the complex story, is a story about capitalism versus the common interest. And we were there serving not just native values and native needs at Standing Rock, we were there serving the American need to highlight the importance of the communal good and our common interest in the face of corporations which don't give a damn about those things.

GILGER: Alright. David Treuer, the author of “The Heartbeat at Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present.” Thank you so much for joining us.

TREUER: Thank you so much.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.