'Heartbeat Of Wounded Knee' Demystifies The Modern Native Experience
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Many people in America, and around the world for that matter, view Native American life as a kind of museum diorama that hasn't changed much since the 1890 Massacre at Wounded Knee. They see loss and historic injustice, bleak reservations and, these days, maybe a few gaudy casinos.
David Treuer, a Ph.D. in anthropology, who teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California and is a member of the Ojibwe nation, tries to revitalize that view in a new book, "The Heart Beat Of Wounded Knee: Native America From 1890 To The Present." David Treuer joins us from Los Angeles. Thanks so much for being with us.
DAVID TREUER: Thanks for having me.
SIMON: Chapter after chapter, it's like one shattered myth after another. And I say that with great respect.
SIMON: Let let's begin with this one. Many, if not most, Native American communities today are urban, not tribal. How has that changed?
TREUER: Oh, my gosh, yes. So one thing that I was trying to tackle in the book was this idea - and it's a pernicious idea - that Indians are in America but not of America, that Native communities are predominantly reservation-based and, like, little islands in the American sea. And one thing that I've known to be true, and that many other Native people have always known to be true, is that we are as much a part of the country as the country has been shaped by us, too. And as such, we've been a part of all the biggest moments and migrations in American history. We joined the armed forces in World War I in great numbers and again in World War II. After World War II, like a lot of populations, we moved from rural areas to urban areas. But the fact is (laughter) we've been living Indian and American lives for decades previous.
SIMON: I've got to get you to talk about your background - your family background. It's fascinating.
TREUER: Well, it wasn't fascinating to me when I was a kid (laughter). I couldn't wait to leave it all behind when I was a disaffected and morose teenager. And as soon as I left for college, I couldn't wait to get back. I wanted what I thought of as a normal family. I wanted a kind of a stern, sort of emotionally unavailable father (laughter). I wanted...
SIMON: I saw that show. Yeah, OK.
TREUER: ...I wanted a mother who made me cookies. And what I had instead was this fierce and brilliant American Indian mother, Margaret Seelye Treuer, my mother, who survived lots of neglect and abject poverty in our village on the Leech Lake Reservation in Minnesota and went on to nursing school and from there to law school and became eventually the first American Indian woman judge in the country. My father, on the other hand, wasn't a stern and emotionally distant Scandinavian father like the ones I knew growing up. He was this wildly emotional, intense Jewish Holocaust survivor. And in his life, he suffered so many hardships. He lost his country. He lost his language. He lost his customs. He lost his culture. He lost his family. And yet, he was ever hopeful.
I asked him once shortly before he died - I was asking him about America generally and I asked him, well, how can you stand the things that this country does? And he looked at me like I was an idiot. He said, this country saved my life. I found refuge here from Europe. And without this country, I wouldn't exist. I'd be dead. He said, so I love America. And I love her so much that I spend every day thinking how I can help her be better. And I really thought about that as I started writing this book. I miss him. I miss him a lot.
SIMON: There can't be that many Ojibwe Jewish kids
TREUER: More than you think (laughter).
SIMON: Well, I need to learn that then.
TREUER: A friend of mine in college, who was mixed African-American and Greek and called himself Afro Grecian, he said, I - you know what? But that's what I call myself, but what should I call you? He says, you're half Jewish, you're half Indian. He says, I got it. I know what I'll call you. I said, please, don't because he's a funny guy (laughter). I said, Simone (ph), please, don't say it. He says, I'm going to call you Running Bernstein (ph).
SIMON: Oh, wait, should I laugh?
TREUER: Oh, yeah - for sure.
SIMON: It's pretty funny, Yeah.
TREUER: He was a funny guy. He was a funny guy.
SIMON: It's pretty funny. Well, that - I mean, and that's very much in line with what you suggest in this book, that Native American identity hasn't been frozen at some kind of historical plateau but that American Indians - a word, by the way, that you use, pointing out that it has gone in and out of fashion - in and out of usage - that American Indians have grown and changed and become more diverse, along with everything else in this country.
TREUER: There's so much diversity in our communities. There always has been. There are hundreds of tribes existent today. There were hundreds and thousands existent in the past. And there are so many diverse ways in which Native communities have managed not just to survive but to thrive into the 21st century. And it's so often overlooked.
SIMON: Your book, obviously, begins by invoking the memories of this great historic crime, yet, by the end, you're excited for the future.
TREUER: I am. Maybe I'm a bit like my father, who believes that part of my job here is to make America better. And part of me is much like my mother, who believes that my job is to make Native America better. I really believe that the manner of telling shapes the tale, that the narratives we use shape the stories we understand, that words shape the world. And if we continue to only see the Native American story as a necessarily diminishing line, if that's the story we tell, then that's the future we will have.
Wounded Knee was an awful loss for the people who were there at the massacre in 1890. We could focus on that. We could look just at that. But we should also remember that more people survived the massacre than died. And they went on afterwards to make life for themselves. They're why we are here. And I want to remember them. We need to remember them alongside those that we lost. Otherwise, we won't have any future at all.
SIMON: David Treuer in Los Angeles - his book, "The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America From 1890 To The Present" - thanks so much for being with us.
TREUER: Thank you so very much.
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