Public Media Arts Hub

Author David Treuer on rewriting the Native American narrative


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: The narrative of Native American life has taken many shapes, often focusing -- or -- sorry -- rather, with a focus on defeat and tragedy.

But, as Jeffrey Brown tells us, a new work of history urges us to see a more complex and living culture, part of our Canvas series on arts and culture.

Jeffrey Brown: December 29, 1890, U.S. Army soldiers killed more than 150 Lakota Indians, perhaps even twice that many, more than half of them women and children.

The Wounded Knee massacre marked the end of the war against the Plains Indians, and, more broadly, became a symbol of the end of an entire culture.

David Treuer: The number one story, the dominant narrative about American Indian people is that we were once great and we are great no more.

And if there's a history written about us, history is only that we endured, and maybe somehow survived. And nowhere in those accounts does it suggest that we are actors in our own lives.

Jeffrey Brown: David Treuer, an Ojibwe, grew up on the Leech Lake Reservation in Northern Minnesota, his mother a Native who became a lawyer and tribal court judge, his father a Jewish immigrant who'd escape the Holocaust and taught on the reservation.

In college in the 1980s, he read Dee Brown's "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," first published in 1970, a bestselling and hugely influential book on American Indian history.

David Treuer: On one hand, when I read it in college, I was incredibly happy to be noticed in a book. A book was concerned about me, and my life and my tribe, my family, indirectly. And so I felt elevated, and I felt respected on one hand. And on the other hand, I felt completely silenced and gagged.

Jeffrey Brown: Because?

David Treuer: Because, on the very first page of that book, he says something to the effect of, I start in 1860 and I end in 1890 at the Massacre at Wounded Knee -- and now I'm quoting -- "where the culture and civilization of the American Indian was destroyed," full stop.

Jeffrey Brown: Right, the end.

David Treuer: The end.

Jeffrey Brown: Now Treuer, author of five previous books, has written "The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America From 1890 to the Present," telling the story of a changing and living Indian culture.

David Treuer: I think we often get ourselves wrong. Growing up, I kind of bought that story about us, too. I saw the place I was from as a no-place, where nothing happened, nothing good anyway. And I couldn't wait to get to get out. I bought that story, too, for a period of my life.

And this book is about my attempt to try and see my own life differently, to see the life of the people I love differently, and to provide an alternative for us as well. So it's not just for non-Native people. It's for Native people, too.

Jeffrey Brown: Did you know the history yourself? Was it something you had to discover?

David Treuer: Some. I don't start any project knowing everything. I start every project because I know next to nothing. But I knew where to look, and I knew who to talk to.

And I get asked often, surprisingly, questions like, well, what's Native American life like? And my response is, well, what's white life like? You can't answer it. It's an impossible question to answer.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

David Treuer: And my point is, always, there's no such thing as Native American life; there's only Native American lives.

And that's one thing that at least I hope the book communicates, is the radical diversity. We had diversity before Europeans came here. We kept it.

Jeffrey Brown: Astounding diversity, right?

David Treuer: Right. And we kept it during the process of colonization, and we have it today, not just between tribes, but among tribes.

Jeffrey Brown: Treuer tells of reservation life and urban migration, economic change and political movements, aiming for a more nuanced approach, one example, the forced removal of young Natives from their homes to attend boarding schools.

David Treuer: Kids were prevented from speaking their languages. They were punished for practicing their religions. They were forcibly Christianized. Those things were painful.

On the other hand, you took all those Native kids from all these different tribes spread across the country, you shoved them in school together, and these kids formed relationships and friendships, romantic relationships, networks, and then they carried those out into the world when they left school.

So if you told the story of boarding schools as only a tragedy, well, you would miss quite a bit. You would miss a lot. So, yes, I'm not interested in the tragic narrative. I'm not interested in the story of hope. I'm interested in the story of complexity and depth.

Jeffrey Brown: Why is that the narrative? Why does that continue?

David Treuer: I think it's a way of dealing with national guilt.

I think, you know, America always takes her own temperature by looking at what it thinks of as the Native American corpse. But the fact is, we're still alive, and we're doing much more than suffering.

In many ways, Native lives are hard. We suffer from access to health, to education, to capital, to credit, to power. So all those things are real problems, for sure. But, you know, we're more than just a sum of a number of conditions. We're more than just a collection of problems. But people don't really tune into that all that often.

Jeffrey Brown: There are new voices emerging to tell their own Native American stories, including writers Tommy Orange and Mary Kathryn Nagle, recently profiled on the "NewsHour."

Treuer ends his book with a chapter titled "Digital Indians," and with us raised recent political progress, such as the election of the first two Native American women to Congress, including Sharice Davids of Kansas.

David Treuer: Someone asked me recently if Sharice Davids was proof that there was hope for Native people. And I said, OK, sure, it's good for Native people.

I said, but I'm more excited for all the people of Kansas. She, as a Native American woman, understands what it means to be on the pointy end of policy. She knows what structural inequality does to a community and to people, as a Native American woman.

And let's face it, Middle America, many millions of Americans living in what coastal people think of as flyover states, increasingly suffer from the same problems. Who better to lead Middle America than a Native American woman? So I'm not just happy for Native people. I'm happy for Kansans. I think they're lucky to have her.

Jeffrey Brown: OK, "The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee."

David Treuer, thank you very much.

David Treuer: Thank you very much.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.