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“The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee”: David Treuer on Retelling Native American History

StoryJanuary 22, 2019
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We end today’s show with “The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee,” a stunning new book by David Treuer that looks at Native America from 1890 to the present day. The book’s powerful mix of memoir, extensive interview and storytelling presents decades of indigenous history that have been sidelined by the mainstream. David Treuer is Ojibwe from the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota. He teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We end today’s show with The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, a stunning new book by David Treuer that looks at Native America from 1890 to the present day. The book’s powerful mix of memoir, extensive interview and storytelling presents decades of indigenous history that have been sidelined by the mainstream. It takes its name from Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, the 1970 book by Dee Brown that tells the story of the Wounded Knee massacre.

In his book’s prologue, David Treuer writes, quote, “This book tells the story of what Indians in the United States have been up to in the 128 years that have elapsed since the 1890 massacre of at least 150 Lakota Sioux at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota: what we’ve done, what’s happened to us, what our lives have been like. It is adamantly, unashamedly, about Indian life rather than Indian death. That we even have lives—that Indians have been living in, have been shaped by, and in turn have shaped the modern world—is news to most people.”

AMY GOODMAN: David Treuer is Ojibwe from the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota. He teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California. His new book, out today, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present. He joins us here in Los Angeles.

David, welcome to Democracy Now! Before we go into your book, although I think this very much fits in with what you write about, can you respond to what took place this weekend, and if you feel, with the statement of the student Nick Sandmann saying he meant no harm, was trying to defuse the situation, that this changes the image of what we saw on video of the Omaha elder, Nathan Phillips, as he drummed, surrounded by these young high school students from Kentucky?

DAVID TREUER: [inaudible] Nathan’s—I’m sorry, when I heard Sandmann’s statement, that sounded like a statement crafted by a PR firm, didn’t sound like the statement of a high school junior. And after the initial outrage, of course, we hear cries from the other side about the need for context. And there is a need for context. Covington, that school, has been accused of dressing up in blackface during basketball games. And they were—you know, let’s not forget the context that brought them to D.C. in the first place. You had a bunch of high school boys coming to D.C. to tell grown women what they should or shouldn’t do with their bodies, and while wearing MAGA hats. So, yeah, we need more context, and I’m glad we’re getting it now.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, David Treuer, why do think this incident has touched such a nerve across the country?

DAVID TREUER: Well, a couple of reasons, right? That nerve has been jangling for centuries. It’s only now that maybe parts of the country are hearing it. And, of course, you know, that nerve has been further inflamed by the ways in which social media is designed to amplify pain. And that’s certainly happening. But hopefully we can use it to think more carefully and more deeply about what our country is and what we want it to be like.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the title of your book and what you are trying to convey as an indigenous writer, a Native American writer. Your book, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, why you even titled it that?

DAVID TREUER: Well, it’s something that I’ve experienced, growing up at Leech Lake and going to grade school, middle school and high school in a border town, in Bemidji, Minnesota, and it’s something that I think a lot of Native people have experienced, is a really profound and punishing way in which people think of us as being dead.

When my brother went to university, someone asked him, “Well, what are you? Where are you from?” And he said, “Well, I’m Native. I’m Ojibwe from Leech Lake Reservation.” And the woman he was talking to said, “Well, you’re Indian?” He said, “Yeah.” She said, “Well, you can’t be.” And he said, “Why not?” And she said, “Because we killed all of you.” She couldn’t even accept the fact that he was standing there, living and breathing—and excelling and achieving, no less. In her mind, in her imagination, real Indians are dead Indians.

And so, I wanted to write a book that I could use to show people that not only are we still alive, we’re not merely surviving.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, David Treuer—

DAVID TREUER: But the—yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You also seek, through the book, to demolish many of the myths that still prevail about Native Americans. What are some of those myths that you especially try to hone in on?

DAVID TREUER: Well, that was one of them. One of them is that after 1890, in the popular imagination—and we share this. We share this imagination. Native people, I think, we’ve been trained and we’ve learned to see ourselves this way, too. But in the popular imagination, 1890 was the end point. Dee Brown says in his book, “I end my story in 1890 at the massacre at Wounded Knee, where the culture and civilization of the American Indian was finally destroyed.” I remember reading that in college and thinking, “I’m not destroyed. My culture isn’t destroyed. My community isn’t destroyed.” And that’s one of the biggest myths. One of the biggest fantasies about us is that after 1890, even though we might have been alive, all we’ve been doing is living some sort of painful afterlife. And what I wanted to show was, one, that we’ve been doing incredible things. Our strategies for survival have been complex and layered and intelligent. That’s one thing.

And the other thing is that not only have we been sort of shaped by America, but that America has been shaped by us. I mean, and I really believe this to be true, but I don’t think you can get a full measure of what this country is or what it’s about, much less understand its history, without thinking about Native people. I mean, let’s face it. At the Boston Tea Party, it wasn’t just that colonists threw tea in Boston Harbor; they dressed up as Native people, in buckskins and kastowa and face paint, and then they threw tea in the harbor. Since its first revolutionary act, America has understood itself as existing in relation to us, and it has learned from us as much as we’ve learned from it. That’s the other thing I wanted to do in this book.

AMY GOODMAN: Some of the myths, that Native Americans are living in rural areas much more so than urban—you turn that around.

DAVID TREUER: Yeah. I mean, Native people live on reservations, we live in border towns, we live in suburbs, and we live in cities. We are as spread out across the country and as migratory as anyone else.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, David, your—how you want the media to cover Native America—I mean, Native American communities—not just in response to MAGA hats or how President Trump describes Elizabeth Warren?

DAVID TREUER: Well, there’s this tendency to sort of only think about us or to only read stuff about us or listen to our music or to watch us on the news as a kind of liberal act, as almost as a kind of community service. And the way I want to correct the media is sort of the way I want to correct all of us in how we understand our Native communities, which is as vital, alive, interesting and important to the country.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: One of the people that you focus in on in your book is Helen Bryan Johnson, whose refusal to pay $147 taxes on her reservation trailer home led to a landmark Supreme Court decision. Could you talk about her and her importance to the modern Native American life?

DAVID TREUER: Oh, yeah, that’s exactly right. So, in the 1970s, Helen Bryan was living in a trailer on the Leech Lake Reservation, my reservation, and someone rolled up in her yard and started taking pictures of her trailer, and she couldn’t figure out why, and then they left. And then, some months later, she got a tax bill from the county. And she thought to herself, “Why are they assessing a tax on my trailer? This is Indian land, and I’m a Native person, and this doesn’t feel fair. This doesn’t feel right.” The tax bill was for $147, by the way. And Helen was, you know, a mother of, I think, five or six kids at the time. She worked for Head Start. She earned minimum wage. She could barely make ends meet. So, for her, a $147 tax bill was a massive—a big problem for her.

AMY GOODMAN: David, we have 10 seconds.

DAVID TREUER: And she fought it in court, and it went all the way to the Supreme Court. And they ruled in her favor, and that opened the way for Indian gaming.

AMY GOODMAN: But we’re going to do Part 2 of this conversation. This book is too important, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present, by David Treuer.

That does it for our program. This news: The Oscars have been announced. For best documentary: Free Solo; Hale County This Morning, This Evening; Minding the Gap; Of Fathers and Sons; and RBG. Congratulations for all. Those are the Oscar nominees.

And we’ll be doing a live stream this afternoon, 4 p.m. Eastern time. I’ll be interviewing Laverne Cox and Jacqueline Woodson, as well as Ava DuVernay interviewing Stacey Abrams, also David Oyelowo and Eva Longoria will be speaking, in an afternoon of racial reconciliation. I’m Amy Goodman in Los Angeles, Juan González in New York.

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