You turn to us for voices you won't hear anywhere else.

Sign up for Democracy Now!'s Daily Digest to get our latest headlines and stories delivered to your inbox every day.

Ojibwe Author David Treuer on Retelling the History of “Indian Life Rather Than Indian Death”

Web ExclusiveFebruary 22, 2019
Media Options

President Trump is under fire for appearing to joke about the genocide of indigenous people as part of a racist attack on Sen. Elizabeth Warren. After Warren formally entered the 2020 presidential race, Trump tweeted, “Today Elizabeth Warren, sometimes referred to by me as Pocahontas, joined the race for President. Will she run as our first Native American presidential candidate, or has she decided that after 32 years, this is not playing so well anymore? See you on the campaign TRAIL, Liz!” Trump appeared to reference the Trail of Tears, the forced relocation in the 1830s of indigenous people from the Southeast, which killed thousands. We continue our discussion with David Treuer, author of the stunning new book, “The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee,” an examination of Native America from 1890 to the present day. The book takes its name from the 1970 classic by Dee Brown, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” which tells the story of the Wounded Knee massacre. Treuer’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.

Related Story

StoryNov 26, 2020As COVID Devastates Native Communities, Indigenous Voters Played Key Role in Defeating Trump
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. On Saturday, Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts officially announced she’ll run for president in 2020.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: This is the fight of our lives, the fight to build an America where dreams are possible, an America that works for everyone. And that is why I stand here today to declare that I am a candidate for president of the United States of America.

AMY GOODMAN: Hours later, President Trump tweeted, “Today Elizabeth Warren, sometimes referred to by me as Pocahontas, joined the race for President. Will she run as our first Native American presidential candidate, or has she decided that after 32 years, this is not playing so well anymore? See you on the campaign TRAIL, Liz!” with ”TRAIL” in all caps.

Some believe he was referencing the Trail of Tears, Andrew Jackson’s violent relocation of Native Americans from their ancestral lands to reservations during the 1800s. Journalist Ruth Hopkins said, quote, “He’s making fun of genocide.”

Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., reposted the tweet to his Instagram with the caption “Savage!!! Love my President.” The repost also included a reply from a Twitter user who said, “The Native American genocide continues with another murder by the president,” unquote.

President Trump and his supporters have long hurled derogatory slurs at Senator Warren, who’s claimed Native ancestry citing stories her family shared with her when growing up in Oklahoma. Last week, Senator Warren came under renewed attack, from not only Trump supporters but also some of her allies, when a document surfaced showing she claimed Native heritage on a Texas State Bar form more than three decades ago, writing the words “American Indian” when identifying herself.

We turn now to a stunning new book that looks at Native America from 1890 to the present day. The book is titled The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee. In it, author David Treuer intertwines memoir, extensive interviews and storytelling to present decades of indigenous history that have been sidelined by the mainstream. The book 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, Davide 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,” he writes.

Well, for more, we’re joined by David Treuer, Ojibwe from the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota. David Treuer teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California. His remarkable book, again, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present.

David Treuer, welcome to Democracy Now!

DAVID TREUER: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go deeply into your book and your life—


AMY GOODMAN: —and not have it framed by presidential campaigns and what President Trump and how he attacks a senator and what the senator says and the story of her life, but I do want to address this, because it’s the way many Americans are learning about Native American history. Can you talk about Elizabeth Warren, what she has said, what she has claimed? And then we’ll talk about President Trump’s and his son’s attacks on her.

DAVID TREUER: Sure. I mean, Elizabeth Warren has long told stories about how, growing up in Oklahoma, she had heard stories, family stories, that she was Native. And that’s not uncommon in Oklahoma, which was once Indian territories. And many Native tribes both are from there and then were relocated there in the 19th century—many hundreds of thousands of Native people in Oklahoma—so that she would hear stories of Native heritage is not surprising. And she took a DNA test, and it seems to prove that, yeah, she has some heritage. And she put it on a form, as it’s now been discovered, in her Texas State Bar Association application, I believe. And that’s also not surprising.

But, you know, I’m really—I’m really tired of it, to be honest. A lot of people care deeply. A lot of Native people are upset by this. But a lot of people aren’t. And that’s one of the things I actually try to do in the book, is talk about the diversity of thought and opinion in Native America, that we aren’t all of one mind. We don’t all have one position. So, some people care a lot about this, her claims. But I’m not one of them.

And I don’t speak for anyone other than myself when I say that I’m more interested in her economic policies. Because last I checked, most Native American people were poor. And last I checked, she’s the only candidate who is really talking about economic inequality and talking about class in America. And in this age of the wealth gap, that is an issue that affects us all. I think that’s more interesting than either her heritage or her previous claims about it.

But, as you point out, Trump keeps stoking the fire. And he’s so good at that kind of bullying, needling pressure. It’s really, in my opinion, the only thing he really is good at.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, but if you can, for example, talk about Chuck Hoskin Jr., the Cherokee Nation chief, who said, “Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong.” Senator Warren has apologized to him, and she said she’s learned a lot since, you know, talking about her Native American ancestry, saying that she never actually claimed she was part of a tribe. But talk about the significance of this and why it’s so sensitive, this issue of DNA testing.

DAVID TREUER: I mean, he’s right to point out that—particularly for Cherokee. They determine enrollment, who can be officially, legally Cherokee, on the basis of whether or not your ancestors appear on certain treaty rolls. Other tribes do it by blood quantum. No tribes determine membership by DNA testing, because DNA testing can’t tell you what tribe you are, as far as I know. I’m not an expert on DNA testing of any kind. And so he’s right to point that out.

But she never claimed to be Cherokee. She never claimed to be a particular tribe. She said she grew up hearing that she was Native. Her DNA test proved that much. All right, end of story. Let’s talk about the economy. Let’s talk about class. Let’s talk about poverty. Let’s talk about those things.

AMY GOODMAN: And this reference to the ”TRAIL,” “See you on the TRAIL, Liz!” and people deeply concerned with ”TRAIL” in caps, and then Donald Trump Jr. writing the word “Savage!!!” exclamation point several times. We are learning about Native American history in this way, but actually talk about what the Trail of Tears was.

DAVID TREUER: Well, the Trail of Tears was the result of Andrew Jackson’s policies of forced removal of the Five Civilized Tribes in the southeastern United States in the early part of the 19th century. It was one of the first actual—actually, it was one of the first tests of state rights versus the federal government, and it involved the tribes in the Southeast, who didn’t want to go anywhere. Georgia wanted them gone, because it wanted access to gold on tribal lands. The tribes, being civilized, fought their removal in court. It went all the way to the Supreme Court. And Chief Justice John Marshall wrote the majority opinion saying they can stay. No one has the power to remove this—they’re a sovereign nation.

And Andrew Jackson, a famous land speculator, a feckless, cruel, immoral person—it’s no wonder that he’s Trump’s hero, also a real estate speculator, also a person with no moral compass—

AMY GOODMAN: His photo hanging in the Oval Office.

DAVID TREUER: Exactly. And as an aside, I always sort of—when I imagine Trump going about his “executive time,” I imagine his little withered soul sort of nodding in agreement with Andrew Jackson’s little withered soul in the empty hallways of the White House.

Nonetheless, Andrew Jackson said, “Well, that’s his decision,” speaking of Chief Justice John Marshall. “Let’s see him enforce it,” and then removed tribes anyway.

Many, many people died on the forced march from the Southeast to what was then Indian territory, now Oklahoma. It was incredibly painful. It was incredibly traumatic. It was incredibly unjust.

And that Trump Jr. would write “Savage!!!” in agreement with his father’s awful rhetoric also doesn’t surprise me.

And also, another thing that does not surprise me is the fact that, as Native people, we are from grand civilizations, and one of the marks of a civilization is that we are civil. And it just goes to show that Trump and his son and his cronies have a long ways to go to catch up to us, not the other way around.

AMY GOODMAN: In January, Trump tweeted, “If Elizabeth Warren, often referred to by me as Pocahontas, did this commercial from Bighorn or Wounded Knee instead of her kitchen, with her husband dressed in full Indian garb, it would have been a smash!”

DAVID TREUER: He’s such a good bully, I have to say. But what’s really particularly—what’s particularly frustrating about all of this is that Trump has made a brand out of being hollow, out of being an instigator, out of being a bully, out of having no moral center, of having no ethics whatsoever. And the Access Hollywood tapes to comments like this, that’s his brand.

And yet, when Elizabeth Warren tries to do a decent thing, when she tries to speak in a concerned manner to the population that is unsettled by some of her claims, it actually puts her in a worse situation. I would rather that the whole thing just stop. I would rather—you know, if I had Warren’s ear, I’d say, “You’ve done it. You’ve apologized. Move on. Let’s talk about things that actually affect us. Let’s talk about our future, not your past claims.”

AMY GOODMAN: And what did it mean to you, not only as a writer and historian, but as a Native American yourself, Ojibwe, that history was made recently with the new Congress, with the first two Native American women, from Kansas and from New Mexico—

DAVID TREUER: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: –elected to the U.S. Congress?

DAVID TREUER: Oh, I thought that was great. Someone recently asked me how I felt—if I felt that Sharice Davids’ election in Kansas was a beacon of hope for Native people. And I said, “Are you kidding me? It’s a beacon of hope for Kansans.” I said, “Because, let’s face it, she understands very well the legacy and the history of exclusion and of structural inequality and of lack of access to health, education, welfare, capital, all of that stuff. She understands what it’s like to be marginalized. She understands the effects of policy on the most vulnerable citizens. So, who better to lead Kansas into the 21st century?”

Because Midwesterners and Middle Americans are finding themselves in the position that Native people have been in for centuries. As the wealth gap grows, as inequality grows in this country, more and more Americans, of all hues, all cultures and all races, are finding themselves in the situation that Native American people have been in for a long time. For Kansans generally, it’s hard to pay for college. Access to adequate and cheap healthcare is difficult. Access to capital and credit, those things are difficult. So, who better to help them than somebody who understands how that feels, like Sharice Davids? So I think it’s not just good news for Native people; oh, it’s good news for Kansans. So I’m very excited.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about the past and the present in your book, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present. And you say you don’t want to talk about the death of Native Americans, you want to talk about life. But I’m wondering, from—if we could start off by you talking about your own life story, which is so fascinating.

DAVID TREUER: It wasn’t fascinating to me when I was growing up. I wanted a different life, like a lot of teenagers, I suppose.

My father is an Austrian Jewish Holocaust survivor who fled the Holocaust in 1938, made it to the States in 1940, through a series of life adventures. He had a family, three children, my half-brothers, and moved to northern Minnesota, where he taught high school on the reservation, on Leech Lake Reservation. It was there that he met my mother. And then, after his first marriage ended, he and my mother were co-workers at a certain point and started dating and married. And along came my brother and I and my younger brother and sister.

And my father talked about being a refugee and fleeing Germany, or fleeing Austria, then Germany, fleeing Europe and losing everything—his land, his language, his culture, his family—everything. And moving to the reservation, he said, he finally felt understood. And he felt at home. And he felt like it was a place he could dedicate his life to and dedicate his life to helping Native people. And so they made their lives there. And that’s where I was—I wasn’t born there, but that’s where I was raised, and that’s where I made my life.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about your mother.

DAVID TREUER: My mom is an incredible woman. She is fierce. And she grew up in pretty rough circumstances, really, really abject poverty. It was a difficult childhood for her, on the—

AMY GOODMAN: She’s Ojibwe.

DAVID TREUER: She’s Ojibwe from Leech Lake. And—

AMY GOODMAN: And where exactly is Leech Lake?

DAVID TREUER: Leech Lake is in northern Minnesota, halfway between Minneapolis and Winnipeg and halfway between Duluth and Grand Forks. And it’s sort of the headwaters of the Mississippi. It sort of sits at the top of the country, and everything spreads out from there. That’s how I felt growing up. The Mississippi flows through my reservation, small enough that you can walk across it, where I grew up.

And that’s where my mom is from. And she graduated from high school against all odds. She went to nursing school, which was an unheard-of accomplishment in those days. And then, after she married my dad, he said, “If you could do anything, what would you do?” She said, “It’s silly to say.” And he said, “I want you to say it.” And she said, “I’d go to law school, because we don’t get fair treatment.” And he said, “Let’s do it.” And so she did. And she became the first American Indian woman judge in the country. And she’s, in her own way, dedicated her life to Native people, and she’s an incredible inspiration to me. She’s amazing.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, talk about what it meant for you—what the reservation meant to you growing up.


AMY GOODMAN: And take it from there.

DAVID TREUER: I mean, when I was a kid, you know, I was a disaffected, angry teenager. And so, I didn’t like where I was from. I didn’t want to be there. I kind of—and I talk about this in the book—I kind of bought the story about Indian life and about my reservation in particular, that this was a place where nothing happened, we were a people who had a great future behind us, and it was where good ideas went to die. I could only see, because I was trained to only see, the bad things. And I wanted to get out. And I got out.

And as soon as I left, I missed it, and I began to be able to see everything else that I had been encouraged not to see: the creativity and strength and importance of my tribe. And I missed it. I missed my tribe. I missed my community. I missed my reservation. I missed my family. And I vowed that I would find my way back, and I would dedicate myself to trying to make life better, as my father had and as my mother had.

AMY GOODMAN: And one of the ways you’re doing that, this kind of rediscovery, is writing these books, this one remarkable, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee. Why did you choose that title?

DAVID TREUER: Well, Dee Brown’s book, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, is the best-selling book about American Indian history ever written. It was published in 1970. It’s sold over 5 million copies. It’s been translated into 17 different languages. And in it, he kind of captures the prevailing sentiment about Native people, which is the one I already mentioned, that as amazing as we might have once been, we are no more. And he says, in the very first page of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, “I start in 1860, and I go to 1890, and I end at the massacre at Wounded Knee, where the culture and civilization of the American Indian was destroyed.” And he goes on, in the introduction, to say, “And if you happen to travel to a contemporary reservation and see the poverty and hopelessness and squalor, perhaps, by reading this book, you’ll understand why.”

And when I read that when I was in college, I felt contradictory things. I felt lifted up by him, because he’s devoting so much time and attention to talking about our past, and I felt cut down at the same time and silenced, that we were gone, we were dead. And if we were alive, it was only as sufferers. And if Native communities still existed, it was only in a state of perpetual suffering and pain. And I thought to myself, when I read it—and I’m 20, 21—I thought, “Well, no, our lives are more than that. I love my reservation and my community and my tribe, because there are important things happening here, not because of the poverty, not because of the squalor.”

And I wanted to write this book as a follow-up and counternarrative to Dee Brown’s book and as a counternarrative to the prevailing narrative about us, which is Native American life is necessarily a tragedy. It’s a tragedy, as we see in recent news cycles, that Trump is only too happy to make fun of. And I wanted to write a counternarrative. I wanted to point out that our lives are not merely or simply tragic. We’re not simply victims of history, that we have been historical actors in our own right, and we have made our own history, not always with tools of our choosing. And not only that, we have shaped this country as much as it’s been shaped by us.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, talk about that, from 1890 until today.

DAVID TREUER: Well, it’s—just to pick one example, there’s a Native American legal historian, Wilkinson, who points out in one of his books that the Supreme Court, in the 1980s and ’90s—’70s, '80s and ’90s, heard more cases about federal Indian law than any other genre of law, that the court was one way in which, as it tried to puzzle out the relationship between state power and tribal power and federal power, came to understand itself and came to shape America in relation to us. It heard more cases about federal Indian law than finance, than banking, than immigration, than reproductive rights in those years. And so, that's just one small example of the ways in which our continued presence and our continued insistence on our sovereignty and our importance has shaped American life more generally.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, I think just what you said will shock so many people.

DAVID TREUER: Right. And even going further back—it’s not very much pre-1890, but America’s first revolutionary act, when the colonists dumped tea in Boston Harbor, they didn’t just dump tea in Boston Harbor; they dressed up as Mohawk Indians and then dumped tea in Boston Harbor. Not many people remember that. But its first act was done in relation to and done by evoking us in our presence in North America. And since that first act in Boston Harbor, America has come to understand itself in relation to us. And if—I don’t think you can really understand American history unless you think about American Indian history. You can see America at her worst in her relationship with Native people, and you can see America trying to live out its best ideals and trying to sort of stay true to its founding documents and ideals also in relation to us.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you—I don’t know if you can do this, but, from your perspective, talk about the history of the United States, kind of in a nutshell, history from a very different perspective.

DAVID TREUER: I mean, maybe my own family history helps. But I asked my father, shortly before he passed away—I asked him, I said, “How can you stand it?” I was talking about the country. I said, “How can you stand this country? Your country of choice, really. How can you stand it?” And he looked at me like I had missed all of the life lessons he tried to impart to me. And he said, “This country saved my life. No one else wanted to take me. And if America hadn’t taken me, I would have been killed. And so, it’s my job to make her better. She does terrible things, this country, all the time. But she also does amazing things. She saved me. And so I have to try and save her.”

And I carry that in me. So I carry this legacy, right? This country saved my father’s life, and it did its best to destroy my mother’s. And those forces combine in me and shape the fact that I see this country as being a combination of both of those impulses—a destructive and a generative impulse.

AMY GOODMAN: And how does your mother see American history, from her perspective?

DAVID TREUER: I don’t know. You’d have to ask her, and she could tell you much better than I could. But she sees it as a country that it is her job to remind and to force to do the right thing. You know, in the words of Winston Churchill, America always does the right thing, after it’s tried everything else first. And I think maybe she would subscribe to Churchill’s view, that, “OK, but I’m going to make you do the right thing. I’m going to make you behave.” Then, you know, of course, she tried to make me behave, and it didn’t really work, so…

AMY GOODMAN: In the last months, Americans are coming to understand what separation of families is all about, on the border, with thousands of children, it looks like now, separated from their parents. And it may be we will never know how many or how many will never be reunited with their parents. But this is not new in American history. And if you can talk about Native America when it came to ripping children away from their parents?

DAVID TREUER: Right. You’re talking about American Indian residential boarding schools, which were instituted under Grant, I believe, in the late 19th century and lasted until the 1930s. My grandmother went to a boarding school when she was a young girl. And you’re right to point out a relationship between the separation of families at the border, and you’re right to point out that all of this is related to this idea of the American—the United States nation-state and its views of what it means to be a proper citizen. American Indian residential boarding schools were an attempt by the government to destroy tribes, so it could get out of the Indian business, by destroying families. Thousands upon thousands of Native kids were removed from their families, often forcibly, often coerced. And some actually went willingly and were—their parents were happy to send them. So there’s a whole diversity of experience, too, in those boarding schools. At those schools, they were forbidden from speaking their tribal languages. They were forbidden from practicing their tribal religions. They weren’t allowed to dress as they would choose, or wear their hair the way they wanted to. And they were forced to become Christian, often. And it was a deeply traumatic experience.

But this is one of the things I try to explore in the book. It would be easy to focus on the tragedy of that or to only describe that experience as tragic. However, there were unintended consequences of those schools that were a positive in some ways. You took all these Native kids from across the country, from tribes that were unknown to one another or maybe antagonistic toward one another, and they were all in these schools together. And they get to know each, and they suffer the same indignities, and they learn the same things. And so, when they left school and they went back to their tribes, to work in tribal government, to join the Army, to do all sorts of different things, they had a network of other Native people across the country that they knew and that they had a lot in common with. And this was the start of a pan-tribal identity that people drew on as a source of strength to carry Native nations into the middle part of the 20th century. So, it was bad in some ways, but it had these unintended positive side effects, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about a story of Native Americans in those cases where they were taken against their will from their families and put in schools? And where were these schools in the United States?

DAVID TREUER: Scattered all over the place. I mean, I can talk about my grandmother. She was taken from her mother, I believe, when she was 6. And I believe she wasn’t allowed to return home until she was 10. And—

AMY GOODMAN: Where did she live?

DAVID TREUER: At Tomah Indian boarding school in Tomah, Wisconsin. Now, my grandmother doesn’t talk about it as being traumatic, but was it? Maybe. She goes, “Oh, it was OK. We got in a lot of fights with kids, you know, those”—she said Ho-Chunks, Winnebagos. “But other than that, it was fine.” But then again, when she came back, it affected—she didn’t have a relationship, a good relationship, with her mother, a close one, or at least it was troubled, it was complicated. So that created a complicated relationship with my mother, which, of course, is going to be passed down to a complicated relationship, you know, with me and my siblings. And not that these things are—not that my mom is a bad mother by any stretch of the imagination—she’s an amazing mom—but it made it complicated. We still feel the effects of those schools. We do.

AMY GOODMAN: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized to the First Nations of Canada for relocating children, so many thousands of them. I was traveling through Canada a year or two ago, and, you know, people observe a day to remember what actually happened. And this apology is ongoing. Can you talk about the difference between Canada and the United States?

DAVID TREUER: Oh, well, sure. Canada has apologized to First Nations and First Nations people. And it’s not only that. It has established truth and reconciliation processes by which Native kids in Canada who have gone to these schools can delivery testimony, and there are reparations that are being made, financial reparations being made, to Native people in Canada for the residential school system, which was very similar to the one in the States. It lasted longer, in fact, in Canada, up to the ’60s and maybe, I think, into the ’70s.

The United States, there’s been no apology for anything, not for any of the treaties that have been disregarded or abrogated, not for any of the lands that have been taken, not for residential boarding schools, not for any of that stuff. So, the United States has a long way to go, you know, to restore its dignity. And we’re ready for—we’re ready for the country to practice its, you know, best practices, I guess.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to David Treuer, Ojibwe from the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota, his new book The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee. You mentioned the military. You say that a third of Native American men have served in the military. Talk about the significance of this.

DAVID TREUER: Oh, yeah, American Indian people have served in every conflict on America’s—you know, served the United States in every conflict from the Revolutionary War onward, and on both sides of the Civil War, by the way, as Confederates and as Union soldiers. And—

AMY GOODMAN: Even as they were being killed off.

DAVID TREUER: Yeah. And up through World War I and World War II and Korea and the first Gulf War and Vietnam and now. And Native American people have served in disproportionate numbers in the armed forces. And people think of that as a paradox, as a contradiction. But it’s not. My grandfather is a World War II vet. He fought in D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge. And—

AMY GOODMAN: And where did Native Americans fit in when it came to a segregated military?

DAVID TREUER: Oh, they were in integrated units. And that was interesting.

AMY GOODMAN: Without African Americans.


AMY GOODMAN: Before World War II.

DAVID TREUER: Yeah. We were in integrated units in World War I and World War II. And so, we serve in greater numbers. And it’s not a contradiction. You will find, in Native America, a profound love for America herself, which isn’t crazy. And it’s not ill-advised. And as one Navy vet said to me, a good friend of mine—he said, “I love my tribe, and my tribal homelands are in America. And by protecting America, I’m protecting my tribal homelands. And so I’ll serve both.” There’s no contradiction for him, my friend Sean.

And also, for a poor, underserved population, especially men, for whom day labor was really one of the only ways you could make a dollar, being able to join the military and get three meals a day and get a steady paycheck wasn’t a bad idea, either. So there were economic reasons why, of course, the military was an exciting option. There’s still—our military is comprised often of people who are poor, who don’t have many other options, who lack access to capital and education and things like that, of many different ethnicities.

AMY GOODMAN: The importance of language and rediscovering the language of Native America for Native Americans?

DAVID TREUER: Yeah, so, it’s interesting that in the early 1970s, of course, we have American Indian Movement, which is staging all of these extravagant takeovers, trying to draw America’s attention to our continued existence and the need for the country to continue to—or maybe to start—honoring the treaties that it signed with us. And so, the activism of the '70s was very much facing outward. But one notices an inward turn starting in the ’80s and the ’90s and the 2000s, where, as my brother puts it, he says, “The government has spent many hundreds of years trying to take away our lands, to take away our religion and to take away our culture. Why would we look to them to restore those things? We should look to ourselves.” My brother's a great speaker of Ojibwe. And so, there’s been—and he reflects this inward turn where we are going to—our activism has turned inward.

AMY GOODMAN: Hasn’t he established a series of schools?

DAVID TREUER: Well, he hasn’t established schools himself, but other people have. But he has definitely supported efforts to establish schools, yeah. And it’s an interesting turn. We are going to do for ourselves these things. We are going to make a strong community. We are going to attend to our health. We are going to attend to our languages and our cultures and our ceremonies. It’s an interesting moment.

AMY GOODMAN: You have the ongoing battle around natural resources. So, for example, the standoff at Standing Rock, which made a massive difference in terms of everyone’s awareness of what a sustainable future would look like, though they lost the struggle to prevent the Dakota Access pipeline from being built. Can you talk about the significance of this and the pipelines that still massive transnational corporations are trying to build in your area of northern Minnesota and other places, like Enbridge?

DAVID TREUER: Yeah. So, Standing Rock was a really, really amazing moment. And you’re right to point out that that particular pipeline wasn’t successfully stopped, and it seemed very unlikely that that was going to happen. But that protest has had a lasting impact on our awareness, as you point out, of pipelines and sustainable energy and so on.

And that, the standoff, the protest and the conflict at Standing Rock, was framed by the chairman of the Standing Rock Tribe, David Archambault [II], in The New York Times as “cowboys versus Indians again.” And I disagreed with him on that, kind of strongly. I said, “It’s not it.” And if we—and part of the point of this book is that the kinds of stories we tell shape what we think of as possible. I’m too much of a professor to feel otherwise than words shape the world. And how we tell stories shape the realities around them and shape the future, the perceived or the possible future. Words have that kind of power. So, when we avail ourselves of a cowboy-versus-Indian narrative, it’s going to have a certain result—the one we saw.

The real story of Standing Rock, in my opinion, is not cowboys versus Indians; it’s corporate interest versus the common good. That’s the conflict at Standing Rock. And that’s—and then—and what we see are Native American people, once again, trying to remind us of a better path. And I was very proud of them. I was proud of what they did.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about capitalism and Native America. You have a chapter in your book, “Boom City—Tribal Capitalism in the Twenty-first Century.”

DAVID TREUER: Right. That was—writing a big book like this and going out and talking to people is so exciting, and there are so many surprises that one experiences in writing it. So, I went to Tulalip Reservation in Washington state to research a story about tribal cannabis and whether tribes are going to get into that industry. And I spent a couple weeks there, and I left, and I called my editor. I said, “You know, there’s no story about tribal cannabis here, but there’s a better story.” And he said, “Well, what is it?” I said, “We talk about the disappearing middle class, but it’s there at Tulalip. It’s a growing middle class. If we want to talk where to find the middle class, a vibrant, healthy, growing middle class in America, counterintuitively, let’s go to that reservation, because it’s happening there.”

AMY GOODMAN: And explain exactly where that reservation is.

DAVID TREUER: It’s north of Seattle. It’s a small reservation. It’s pretty close to Seattle. I don’t remember exactly how far.

And they have a big casino operation, which provides a kind of social safety net. It’s sort of like social democracy. And that’s producing this entrepreneurial class, because they have healthcare that’s pretty well taken care of, access to education and access to capital. And they have some small per capita payments that the tribal members get. I think—again, I could be wrong, but I think it’s around $15,000 a year, which is a lot of money. You can’t live on that exactly, but it’s enough to give you a comfortable threshold to venture into private enterprise and to take some risks. And you have all of these tribal entrepreneurs at Tulalip doing all these interesting things.

And the tribe itself—one of the officials I talked to, this brilliant man named Les Parks, he said, “You know, if we go into dispensaries or we produce cannabis, that could be one thing. But I want to start a pharmaceutical company.” They have vision to do—he says, “We can fast-track pharmaceutical exploration of cannabis. That would be more—that would be worth our time.” So, it was a fascinating, vibrant, interesting place.

So, you want to see where the middle class is in America? You want to see where it’s growing? Go to Tulalip. That’s where it’s growing. No one believed me. I said, “No, it’s fascinating.” But…

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned AIM, the American Indian Movement, and you write also extensively about this. Talk about that kind of activism and what it meant in the 1970s.

DAVID TREUER: AIM was a really complicated movement. It resulted in many, many good things, but in some bad things, too, to be perfectly honest. And part of what I try to do in the book is, if I’m going to write a different narrative, if I’m going to try to get away from a tragic telling, the opposite of tragedy is not hope, in my opinion. The opposite of tragedy is context, texture, nuance and depth, because tragedy washes everything out. It turns everything into a statistic, or it turns Native American experience into basically a condition. So, to tell the opposite of tragedy is to tell a complex story.

And AIM was a complex movement. It had some lasting, important, profound positive effects. But some of its leadership was violent and engaged in violent rhetoric and tactics and was destructive, in some ways. But after the American Indian Movement, it was impossible to ignore our continued existence. We were front and center at that point. And for that, I’m very grateful.

AMY GOODMAN: So, we have this interesting situation where the way migrants are treated today, like the separation of children on the border, and the way Native Americans are treated, there are tremendous similarities. And yet, in some ways, they’re the opposite. Migrants are coming to this country. And though those who are stopping them are also probably mainly, like President Trump, the descendants of immigrants, Native Americans are the ones, are the people who were here first.

DAVID TREUER: I mean, it would be interesting to think, you know, if only, if only Trump knew how to read without actually sounding out the words, he might be a different human. Hard to say.

But think about this. Native tribes, when Europeans started coming, it was a complicated set of interactions. It wasn’t just one thing, and it wasn’t just destructive. But it was going to happen, and Native people had to accept that European colonists were coming, and we would have to find strategies for dealing with them. There was nothing we could do that would prevent them from coming. They were just going to come. Some tribes fought. Some tribes made alliances. Some tribes negotiated. Some tribes—there were many different reactions, very diverse reactions.

Same thing now. Migration is happening. On unprecedented levels, people around the globe are moving and shifting. And they’re moving and shifting because of radical inequalities that are the result of globalization and corporate power.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the division of Native Americans between urban areas and rural areas?

DAVID TREUER: Well, starting in the—that’s the one thing I point out in the book, is that you can’t understand American Indian history unless you think about it in relation to American history. So, you can’t understand American Indian demographic and cultural shifts in the ’40s and ’50s without thinking about it in relation to, say, the African-American Great Migration from the rural South to the industrial North. Why would you not think about those things together?

But starting in the '30s and up through the 1960s and ’70s, many American Indian people moved from reservations to other communities. The majority of Native Americans do not live in cities. About half of Native American people live on the reservations; half live off. But “off” doesn't just mean in cities. It means in suburbs. It means in rural areas. It means on farms. It means in small towns and villages across the country, as well as cities. That’s important to know. We’re everywhere.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the significance of that for shaping culture and reshaping culture?

DAVID TREUER: Well, it’s important to note, and I point this out in the book, too, that Native American communities and tribes across this country, we are diverse, and we are flexible, and we are creative, and we are adaptive, and we always have been. We continue to be so. We adapted the—adopted the horse and the gun—at least the Lakota did, not my tribe so much—and became the Lakota that we recognize today. And now we have Native people adopting social media and smartphones and Twitter, and changing the discourse and changing themselves and making themselves noticed and felt and heard. And just another—another tool.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s your final chapter, “Digital Indians.”

DAVID TREUER: Yeah, I had fun writing that one. There were so many cool people to talk to.

AMY GOODMAN: So what did you learn?

DAVID TREUER: Well, I heard from somebody that Native American people use social media at some rate—and I couldn’t verify this, so I didn’t put the number in there, but I think he said something like 30 percent more than other populations in the United States. Feels true; I don’t know if it is true. But it makes sense.

And he told me, he says, “Look, many of us are still poor. Many of us don’t have adequate housing, and we’re shifting from people’s couches to their rooms, and we’re moving here, and we’re moving there. And we don’t have laptops. We don’t have desktop computers. All we have are phones, if we’re lucky. And they are how we connect.”

So, of course we use them more than other people. We’re poorer than most people. And it’s connecting—and what a better thing for Native people living in—scattered across the country, with lack of access to education, health and capital and things like that—what better way for us to connect and learn from each other and form community than social media? It’s vibrant. And, you know, it struggles, and it has difficulties, in the ways that all communities struggle with social media, but it’s really positive in a lot of ways, too.

AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up, what most surprised you as you did research for this epic work?

DAVID TREUER: I spent, you know, a number of years being surprised every day by so many things. But the one thing that I felt to be true when I first read Dee Brown’s book and that he didn’t capture continued to feel true and to surprise me throughout, which was that we are not simply victims of history. We are historical actors. We have been actors in our own lives. And we have shaped our lives. We continue to shape them. And we’re not simply silent and eternal sufferers, that we have been living interesting, complex lives. And I was reminded of that and learned that and relearned that at every step of the research for this book.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Up Next

As COVID Devastates Native Communities, Indigenous Voters Played Key Role in Defeating Trump

Non-commercial news needs your support

We rely on contributions from our viewers and listeners to do our work.
Please do your part today.
Make a donation