Author: David Treuer
Links: Indiebound |Goodreads
Summary: An informative, relevant, and enjoyable blend of memoir, first-hand reporting, and history.
This book begins with the observation that Native American history is often presented as though it ended in 1890, with the massacre at Wounded Knee. This book challenges that perspective. The author shows that the view of history as “made by white people and done to Indians” (direct quote) is outdated. Although much of Native American history from 1890 through at least the 1960s was shaped by ill-conceived US government policies, those decades were also a period of impressive ingenuity and adaptation by Native Americans. Simply to survive required the creation of new social structures and forms of government. By the 1960s, Native Americans were also influencing US politics as part of the civil rights movement. As American citizens and members of ‘sovereign dependent nations’, Native Americans form growing, thriving communities and continue to shape politics and culture in the US today.
This was one of three National Book Award nominees that I read before the shortlist was announced and I’m not at all surprised to see that it made the cut. It obviously connects thematically to The Indian World of George Washington, a book on last year’s shortlist. In spirit though, it reminds me of all the books I read off the shortlist last year. It was well written and enjoyable enough that I wanted to fly through it. At the same time, it was information dense enough that I made myself slow down in hopes of remembering some percentage of the wealth of new knowledge it provided.
Anthropologist and author David Treuer is an Ojibwe Indian, whose personal and professional insights are both real strengths of this book. Personal stories from primary sources (including the author), history, and sociology were blended seamlessly to show how the results of overlooked Native American history still shape the world today. Something that made this book unique was the author’s choice to place Native American history in a global context. As people often do when talking about other sovereign nations, he shows how changes in Native American life were connected to international events, as well other events in the US.
His inclusion of primary sources gave Native Americans, past and present, more of a voice than most other histories I’ve read. He also quoted many US laws directly, which made me feel more informed and like I could draw some of my own conclusions. His approach felt very balanced. He, of course, points out the massive flaws in US policies towards Native Americans (some malicious, others simply misguided). He doesn’t, however, ignore when Native American organizations made mistakes, even while highlighting their contributions.
The oldest history at the beginning of the book was presented in a clear and well-organized fashion that made it easy to follow. As we moved forward in time, more interviews and memories of the author’s were merged into the story until at the end, the story was told almost exclusively by contemporary sources. This shift to present day at the end of the book was extremely smooth. The quality of all the types of writing in this book – history, sociology, memoir, and interview – were equally well done. As a result, I felt like I learned a lot reading this and I enjoyed doing it. I can’t believe this material isn’t taught in most American history classes and I’m glad to see a book sharing this fascinating, relevant history make the National Book Award Shortlist.