Our number one Josephy Library volunteer, Elnora Cameron, just returned from a trip across the North, and into the Midwest. She spent a few hours in Louise Erdrich’s Minneapolis bookstore, Birchbark Books (https://birchbarkbooks.com), and came back with a very interesting box of books by and about American Indians.
In the past year I have read and loved Osage writer John Joseph Mathews’ Sundown, a strong fictional account of the journey of the Osage through treaty, assimilation, and oil wealth. I found Canadian Ojibwe writer John Wagamese, and thought Indian Horse a chilling novel of boarding schools and brilliant sports writing. Beth Piatote’s Domestic Subjects: Gender, Citizenship, and Law in Native American Literature, introduced me to D’Arcy MacNickle, Native anthropologist, activist, and novelist. I read Runner in the Sun, dipping my toe into Southwestern Indian story. Phil Deloria told me about Indians in Unexpected Places—in the movies, classical music, sports, and advertising—from the turn of the last century to the Great Depression.
I remember having Sherman Alexie at Fishtrap, before he was a Famous Native Writer, and how he claimed that times were changing, that for years we could only have one or two Indian writers du jour—e.g., Momaday, Silko—and how now (1997), America could support a handful. Alexie shared the nineties Indian stage with Erdrich, her then husband, Michael Dorris, and Momaday and Silko in their late careers.
If Sherman was right then in describing a widening circle of American Indian writers, Erdrich’s store and Elnora’s box of books announces a current flood! I keep my ear to the ground, but I’d never heard of Rebecca Roanhorse, Cherie Dimaline, Charles Red Corn, or Drew Hayden Taylor.
I didn’t know where to start, until I read the writer’s bio of Marcie Rendon. Rendon is an enrolled member of the White Earth Reservation in Northern Minnesota. She calls herself Anishinaabe; we white people call her Chippewa or Ojibwe. White Earth was a stone’s throw from Fosston, Minnesota, where I was born, in 1942, and started growing up.
I remember driving through the White Earth on the way to North Dakota on gravel roads, peaking out of our cars at the humble houses and brown faces as we traveled on roads we called “washboard” (I knew washboard, because my mom still had the rippled board she used for handwashing). We didn’t know any actual Indians. They didn’t go to our school; we didn’t know about boarding schools. We knew from a young age that Indians couldn’t legally buy alcohol, and that “firewater” was poison to them. And we knew their roads were washboards.
We knew—I knew then, in the 1940s—wheat, potato, and sugar beet fields, and knew that the Red River flooded. My uncle Orv and Aunt Mata lived in Morehead, Minnesota, across the Red River from Fargo, North Dakota. He was a WW II vet back from Europe when he married my dad’s sister and left the wedding reception, at our house, in their old Plymouth for grain fields in North Dakota. I know they went on to Montana; I can’t remember how far south they went—seems all the way to Texas—or how many years they were migrant farm workers before they settled in Morehead. It had never occurred to me before reading Marcie Rendon’s novel, Murder on the Red River, that we had migrant farm workers in our family.
The wheat chaff and Red Wing boots, Marlboros and Budweiser and Hamm’s, and a young dark-haired woman who claims the White Earth and makes her way driving grain truck in Rendon’s thriller are taking me back to a time and place in my life I’d lost track of. The mysterious Indian woman, the protagonist in the novel, might have lived in one of the shacks on the White Earth that we drove by on the way to Morehead. Her name is Cash, because that’s what she drives truck for. But “there wasn’t a name Cash hadn’t been called: sq–w, whore, stupid, heathen.” Words and names about Indians I’d certainly heard in my growing up.
The book is set in 1968, a year that I spent in Washington D.C., after college and the Peace Corps, a year of assassinations and riots, a year as tumultuous as any in my now long life, and long after my Minnesota beginnings. Cash and her sometime protector, the white county sheriff, work together to solve a murder in Minnesota, somewhere near Fargo, of a Red Lake Indian—and to explore old tropes about Indians, foster homes, and Swedish farmers.
Louise Erdrich and Marcie Rendon remind us that Indians were in Minnesota when I came into the world in 1942; were there when I left the state and Erdrich’s grandfather was fighting Termination in 1952; were there in 1968, when I was being whipsawed by daily events in Washington D.C.; and are there and here today.
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