AUTHOR: Louise Erdrich
BIRTH PLACE: Little Falls, Minnesota
SETTING: North Dakota, 1988.

OCTOBER 24, 2012, 12:09 PM

The Burden of Justice: Louise Erdrich Talks About ‘The Round House’


Louise Erdrich’s 14th novel, “The Round House,” was recently named a finalist for the National Book Award. It’s set on the North Dakota Ojibwe reservation that is so familiar to her readers, and it tells the story of Joe, a 13-year-old who seeks justice after his mother is brutally attacked. In her review, Michiko Kakutani wrote that the novel “opens out to become a detective story and a coming-of-age story, a story about how Joe is initiated into the sadnesses and disillusionments of grown-up life and the somber realities of his people’s history.” In a recent e-mail interview, Ms. Erdrich discussed the difficulty of obtaining justice on reservations, the influence of her father on her fiction and more. Below are edited excerpts from the conversation:


In The New York Times Book Review, Maria Russo said this book represented a departure because your novels “have usually relied on a rotating cast of narrators, a kind of storytelling chorus.” There’s a fairly large cast of characters in the book, so why did you decide to have Joe narrate the whole thing?


In order to write a novel about jurisdictional issues on American Indian reservations — without falling asleep — I decided to try a character-driven suspense narrative. Personally, I always envied and wanted the freedom that boys have. I get a kick out of 13-year-old boys I know. Also, as this is a book of memory, I am able to add the resonance of Joe’s maturity.


It’s hard as a reader not to share Joe’s desire for revenge on the man who attacked his mother. Do you think he’s ultimately wrong to pursue it?


Wrong or right, for many families this is the only option when justice is unobtainable. I wanted the reader to understand what taking on that burden is like. On any state elections map, the reservations are blue places. Native people are most often progressives, Democrats, and by no means gun-toting vigilantes. Being forced into this corner is obviously an agonizing decision.


The novel’s plot partly revolves around the problem of jurisdiction that keeps some brutal crimes on tribal land from being efficiently investigated and tried. Has there been any progress in fixing that problem?


President Obama signed the Tribal Law and Order Act into law in 2010 — it was an important moment of recognition. More recently the Senate Judiciary Committee crafted a helpful piece of legislation. The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2012 would have given tribal nations limited jurisdiction over sexual predators regardless of race. Right now tribal courts can only prosecute tribal members. The problem is that over 80% of the perpetrators of rapes on reservations are non-Native. Most are not prosecuted. The bill went forward only to stall in the House, blocked by Republican votes. Hate to say it, but that one’s on them.


In your “Art of Fiction” interview with The Paris Review, you said, “My father is my biggest literary influence.” Where do you feel his presence most in “The Round House”?


My father is the sort of man who would have spoken a monologue like one that Judge Coutts [Joe’s father] speaks in the novel, which includes a gundog on Dealey Plaza, a flagpole sitter, the Ojibwe clan system, the Orthian chanted by Arion of Methymna before he was cast into the sea, and Metis fiddle playing. He is also famous for a frightful stew like the one that appears in this book. My father created the pot of stew while my mother was in the hospital recovering from the birth of one of my sisters. He kept adding various elements to the stew all week — just heating it up in the same pot. That last sentence is beginning to sound like a book metaphor, so here I’ll stop.


At a panel that was part of The New Yorker Festival a couple of weeks ago, discussing the general lack of strong marriages in fiction, Lorrie Moore said she felt the marital life of Joe’s parents was a central part of “The Round House.” Do you agree that contemporary fiction is lacking portraits of strong marriages? And how central to you was the marriage in this book when you were planning and writing it?


My parents’ marriage is a gift to everyone around them — 60 years of making their kids laugh. How many parents are actually funny? It isn’t easy to write a happy marriage (Tolstoy’s dictum). So of course the only way to write about a happy marriage is to have a malevolent outside force attempt to destroy it.


The North Dakota Ojibwe reservation in your novels has frequently been compared to Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County for its scope and variety of characters. Have you been directly influenced or inspired by Faulkner?


Most writers have been influenced by Faulkner.


How do you keep track of the characters you’ve created in this world? Are there genealogical charts hanging on your walls?


I love this question because I can mention Trent Duffy, the best copy editor in New York. Trent has meticulously cataloged and recorded each character’s family tree as well as all of their habits and the color of their hair, eyes, nail polish, etc. For myself, I have only messy notebooks and bits of hotel notepads jammed up with ideas.


“The Round House” is a sequel of sorts to “Plague of Doves,” which also revolves around a violent crime, and I’ve read that there’s a third related book planned. Will the third book deal with similar themes of violence and justice?


Talking about how I might write the next book is like talking about whether or not to have sex. Any dithering ruins it.

Rape on the Reservation




TWO Republicans running for Congressional seats last year offered opinions on “legitimate rape” or God-approved conceptions during rape, tainting their party with misogyny. Their candidacies tanked. Words matter.

Having lost the votes of many women, Republicans now have the chance to recover some trust. The Senate last week voted resoundingly to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, the 1994 law that recognized crimes like rape, domestic abuse and stalking as matters of human rights.

But House Republicans, who are scheduled to take up the bill today and vote on it Thursday, have objected to provisions that would enhance protections for American Indians, undocumented immigrants and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth, among other vulnerable populations.

Here in Minneapolis, a growing number of Native American women wear red shawls to powwows to honor survivors of sexual violence. The shawls, a traditional symbol of nurturing, flow toward the earth. The women seem cloaked in blood. People hush. Everyone rises, not only in respect, for we are jolted into personal memories and griefs. Men and children hold hands, acknowledging the outward spiral of the violations women suffer.

The Justice Department reports that one in three Native women is raped over her lifetime, while other sources report that many Native women are too demoralized to report rape. Perhaps this is because federal prosecutors decline to prosecute 67 percent of sexual abuse cases, according to the Government Accountability Office. Further tearing at the social fabric of communities, a Native woman battered by her non-Native husband has no recourse for justice in tribal courts, even if both live on reservation ground. More than 80 percent of sex crimes on reservations are committed by non-Indian men, who are immune from prosecution by tribal courts.

The Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center says this gap in the law has attracted non-Indian habitual sexual predators to tribal areas. Alexandra Pierce, author of a 2009 report on sexual violence against Indian women in Minnesota, has found that there rapes on upstate reservations increase during hunting season. A non-Indian can drive up from the cities and be home in five hours. The tribal police can’t arrest him.

To protect Native women, tribal authorities must be able to apprehend, charge and try rapists — regardless of race. Tribal courts had such jurisdiction until 1978, when the Supreme Court ruled that they did not have inherent jurisdiction to try non-Indians without specific authorization from Congress. The Senate bill would restore limited jurisdiction over non-Indians suspected of perpetrating sex crimes, but even this unnerves some officials. “You’ve got to have a jury that is a reflection of society as a whole, and on an Indian reservation, it’s going to be made up of Indians, right?” said Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “So the non-Indian doesn’t get a fair trial.”

Leaving aside the fact that most Native defendants tried in the United States face Indian-free juries, and disregarding the fulsome notion that Native people can’t be impartial jurists, Mr. Grassley got his facts wrong. Most reservations have substantial non-Indian populations, and Native families are often mixed. The Senate version guarantees non-Indians the right to effective counsel and trial by an impartial jury.

Tribal judges know they must make impeccable decisions. They know that they are being watched closely and must defend their hard-won jurisdiction. Our courts and lawyers cherish every tool given by Congress. Nobody wants to blow it by convicting a non-Indian without overwhelming, unshakable evidence.

Since 1990, when Joseph R. Biden Jr., then a senator from Delaware, drafted the original legislation, the Violence Against Women Act has been parsed and pored over. During reauthorizations in 2000 and 2005, language on date rape and orders of protection was added. With each iteration, the act has become more effective, inclusive and powerful. Without it, the idea that some rape is “legitimate” could easily have been shrugged off by the electorate.

Some House Republicans maintain that Congress lacks the authority to subject non-Indians to criminal trials in tribal court, even though a Supreme Court opinion from 2004 suggests otherwise. Their version of the bill, as put forward by the majority leader, Eric Cantor of Virginia, would add further twists to the dead-end maze Native American women walk when confronting sexual violence. John Dossett, general counsel for the National Congress of American Indians, said it would create “more off ramps for defendants by adding multiple levels of removal and appeal, including the right to sue tribes.” A compromise backed by two other Republicans, Darrell Issa of California and Tom Cole of Oklahoma, is vastly preferable to the Cantor version. It would offer a non-Indian defendant the right to request removal of his case to a federal court if his rights were violated.


What seems like dry legislation can leave Native women at the mercy of their predators or provide a slim margin of hope for justice. As a Cheyenne proverb goes, a nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground.



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