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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Round House and Coincidences

They lived and died too quickly in those years that surrounded the making of the reservation, died before they could be recorded and in such painful numbers that it was hard to remember them all without uttering, as my father did sometimes as he read local history, and the white man appeared and drove them down into the earth, which sounded like an Old Testament prophecy but was just an observation of the truth. And so to be afraid of entering the cemetery by night was to fear not the loving ancestors who lay buried, but the gut kick of our history, which I was bracing to absorb. The old cemetery was filled with its complications. - Louise Erdrich, The Round House
Life is full of some weird stuff. There's a part of me that wanted to use the S word in that first sentence because it's reminiscent of the way a lot of people talk and write and it felt right, but part of me also wonders if writing something because it "feels right," is really just writing something you've heard so many times that it actually has no meaning. Like when people still quote Austin Powers, or tell me that I'm a valuable member of the human race who deserves to occupy space.

Take this set of circumstances, for example: one day at the local library they were having a promotion where they hid book jackets wrapped around a placeholder box. You'd search the library for one of these ersatz tomes and if you found one, you got the book for free. I found LaRose, by Louise Erdrich. I was very pleased by this because if you remember, I loved the last book of hers that I'd read. Just couldn't get enough of it.

Now, there are pretty much only two ways you can trick me into never reading a book. The first is to put a dragon on the cover. Second and only slightly less effective is to place said book in my ownership. See, my nightstand always has at least four full-sized library books in a stack, and those books cry out to me like so many kitties on a Saturday morning when their owners have the temerity to sleep in even an extra five minutes JUST FOR ONE LOUSY MORNING. Each book comes equipped with a burning fuse, like the bomb that is always awaiting Inspector Gadget as he finally, finally turns around Dr. Claw's chair, each marking the passing moments of my life in which their particular date becomes due.

When I return library books, it's with the relief of a man who just made his final payment to the loan shark with the tall collector and the short collector. The short one is quiet, too quiet, but moves with the precision of a leopard. The tall one jokes around and smiles a lot, but you can see that his knuckles are always swollen -- the skin broken so many times as to become an abstract portrait of pain -- and the smile never quite makes it to his eyes. Not today, tall one and short one, I say as the books are consumed by the conveyor belt that always eats but is never satiated. Not ever.

Books I own inspire no such anxiety. They are content only to know that I am nearby. They wait for me like Blue the Dog and Mr. Salt and Mrs. Pepper and their baby Paprika and Side Table Drawer and The Mailbox wait for Steve to return, though we all know Steve is dead. Yea, that man is dead as S word.

The upshot is I hadn't read it yet. Good thing, actually!

Picture it: it's last week, and I've got this trip coming up, one in which I would be traveling by aeroplane to the distant and exotic riverbanks of Bend, Oregon. I already have a library book on hand, but I need a back up. Space is at a premium and I don't want to haul around two books, so I look through the library's digital offerings. Nothing on my to-read list is available, but I do see a little number called The Round House by one Louise Erdrich. Excelsior, I say audibly, not knowing what that means. And then I go through the roughly 18-step process required to check it out.

I won't belabor this any further (only because that would be impossible), but it turns out that all three of the books that I've mentioned make up a loose trilogy. I had no idea! I was maybe 30 pages into The Round House when they mention a lynching in which a 13-year-old Ojibwe (Chippewa) boy was hung. Wait a second, that's totally what The Plague of Doves was about! And so it was. Here we meet another 13-year-old boy, but now it's some 20 years later, and the boy is Joe.

Like The Plague of Doves, The Round House starts with a horrible tragedy. And like that tragedy, the roots of it can be traced back generations. Some of it can be traced back to the very beginning of what is now called the United States of America.
Land speculation is the stock market of the times. Everybody’s in on it. George Washington. Thomas Jefferson. As well as Chief Justice John Marshall, who wrote the decision for this case and made his family’s fortune. The land madness is unmanageable by the nascent government. Speculators are acquiring rights on treaty-held Indian land and on land still owned and occupied by Indians—white people are literally betting on smallpox.
Joe's mother is brutally attacked, and their family's stable and loving life is shattered. His father, Bazil, is a judge in the town, and understands the complexity of the law. The attack happened near the round house, an old place where Ojibwe secretly worshiped when worshiping in their way was against the law.
During the old days when Indians could not practice their religion—well, actually not such old days: pre-1978—the round house had been used for ceremonies. People pretended it was a social dance hall or brought their Bibles for gatherings. In those days the headlights of the priest’s car coming down the long road glared in the southern window. By the time the priest or the BIA superintendent arrived, the water drums and eagle feathers and the medicine bags and birchbark scrolls and sacred pipes were in a couple of motorboats halfway across the lake. The Bible was out and people were reading aloud from Ecclesiastes. Why that part of the Bible? I’d once asked Mooshum. Chapter 1, verse 4, he said. One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh, but the earth abideth forever.
The round house, it turns out, is a mess of land ownership. Some owned by the reservation, some by the state, some Federal. Each piece carries with it its own complications. See, up until 2015, tribes could not prosecute non-members of the tribe in cases of rape and domestic abuse. That might sound like some weird loophole that probably doesn't apply in many cases, but no.
There are epidemic levels of domestic violence on tribal lands. Three out of five Native women have been assaulted in their lifetimes, and 34 percent will be raped, according to the National Congress of American Indians. Getting to the heart of the VAWA provision, 59 percent of assaults against Native women take place at or near a private residence, and, as of 2010, 59 percent of Native women were married to non-Native men. 
On some reservations, Native women are murdered at a rate more than 10 times the national average.
So let's review. The majority of rape and domestic violence cases against Native women are perpetrated by non-Native men. But tribal police have no jurisdiction over non-Native anybody, even if the crime was committed on tribal land. What happens then? Well, the case gets handed to Federal officers. Except according to a Government Accountability Report, U.S. attorneys declined 67% of sexual assault cases over a period of five years.

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was passed in 1994, and has been passed easily every year since except for two occasions: the first was in 2011, when Republicans let it expire because of language protecting undocumented immigrants, LGBT, and Native Americans. Again, in 2013, Joe Biden tried to get the Native American loophole closed, and again Republicans fought the measure, specifically because of the Native jurisdiction issue. It only passed in 2015 when Democrats had a majority. Now, of course, the act is facing defunding, because it doesn't have a gun attached to it.
We starved while the cows of settlers lived fat off the fenced grass of our old hunting grounds. In those first years our white father with the big belly ate ten ducks for dinner and didn’t even send us the feet.
Put yourself back in 1988 now, and you're the son of two very well educated parents. You live in a nice house and there is always food on the table. Your dad is the frickin' judge. And your mom will not leave her room for fear of being re-victimized. Everyone knows who did it, but he walks free because we have a legal system based on centuries of racist precedent. You can run into the man at the grocery store and he'll grin at you.

If you're Joe you want your mom back. And so Joe decides to do something about it.
This so gnawed at him on some nights that he lay awake wondering just how many unknown and similarly inconsequential accidents and bits of happenstance were at this moment occurring or failing to occur in order to ensure he took his next breath, and the next. It gave him the sensation that he was tottering on the tip of a flagpole. He was poised on circumstance.
But this is a book by Louise Erdrich, and so like a Coen brothers movie, there will not be a single wasted character. Joe's friend Cappy, charismatic and loyal. The town priest, and ex-marine not afraid to run down a kid in town straight out of the confessional if he's mad enough. Mooshum, Joe's ancient grandfather who tells legends in his sleep. And Linda, famous for her banana bread, abandoned by her white mother as a twin when it was revealed that she'd probably be mentally disabled. Secretly nursed to health by a Native nurse and then adopted.
While their moral standards for the rest of the world were rigid, they were always able to find excuses for their own shortcomings. It is these people really, said my father, small-time hypocrites, who may in special cases be capable of monstrous acts if given the chance.
Nobody does this like Erdrich does. She weaves together these families and these generations deftly. Nothing happens without the seeds of that thing being planted centuries before. Dreams come true. That visions are real and ghosts exist is taken for granted. Not even a game of Bionic Commando is without deep meaning.
For years our people have struggled to resist an unstoppable array of greedy and unstable beings. Our army has been reduced to a few desperate warriors and we are all but weaponless and starving. We taste the nearness of defeat. But deep in the bowels of our community our scientists have perfected an unprecedented fighting weapon. Our bionic arm reaches, crushes, flexes, feints, folds. It pierces armor and its heat-seeking sensors can detect the most well-defended foe. The bionic arm combines the power of an entire army in itself and must be operated by one and only one soldier who can meet the test. I am that soldier. Or Cappy is that soldier. The Bionic Commando.
 This just in, Bionic Commando references get you an extra star. Six stars, this book.


So says Nathan "Rad" Spencer, so says us all