Fact through Fiction: legal and social history in “The Round House”

It is easy to forget the direct impact that the nation’s history and political legacy has upon our lives—the decades of legal battles that formed the network of laws guiding (and restricting) our lives. Many take rights and legal protections for granted. Louise Erdrich’s novel “The Round House” shows a Native American family that was denied protection and justice due to a legal technicality centuries in the making.

The novel begins on a fictional North Dakota Indian reservation in 1988. Joe Coutts, the thirteen-year-old narrator, is in many ways an ordinary teenager, obsessed with Star Trek and breasts. But his home and his heritage have weighed him down—he is only two generations removed from starvation and lynching. Joe’s life is complicated by this extra element, which carries anger and powerlessness as well as strength and pride.


Although fictional, The Round House is rooted in legal realities. Joe pores through his judge father’s copy of “Handbook of Federal Indian Law.” His father, a judge mired in small-time criminal cases, explains that his work lays the foundation for future legislation. He studies legal history to fight for autonomy and self-determination.

This activist, community-oriented mindset is responsible for improvements in Federal treatment of Native Americans over the past century. Particularly in the 1960s and 70s, Native activists fought hard to reclaim their identity and rights. Activists had the additional burden of counteracting the false myth of “the vanishing Indian,” which may acknowledge the horrific and systematic abuse of Native Americans by European Americans, but does not acknowledge that many people survived these abuses and continue to keep their cultures alive.

Louise Erdich herself is a part of the ongoing movement for Native rights and recognition. She is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, a band of the Anishinaabe (also known as Objibwe and Chippewa) and grew up in North Dakota, where her parents taught at a Bureau of Indian Affairs school.[1]

Her novels and poetry take an unflinching look at contemporary issues facing Native American and mixed heritage Americans. She incorporates her heritage, language, and storytelling traditions into her works. By using fiction to actively educate and advocate, Erdich provides a powerful model for positive change through the humanities.

Throughout American history, laws have actively targeted Native people to the point of cultural genocide. Even some of the measures designed with supposedly good intentions—such as the boarding school system and the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act—often resulted in great harm. They attempted to help Native children by assimilating them into the dominant white culture: “kill the Indian, save the child.” Children were taken from their families, their hair was cut, and they were punished for using their languages or participating in religious ceremonies.

Foster homes often lacked oversight, and some children were submitted to physical and psychological torture and rape. There have been efforts to account for what these children suffered—such as the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The commission collected testimonies from over 160 individuals—foster children, parents, state workers, and more—in a massive oral history undertaking that is now available in the Bowdoin College archives. The commission’s report is an effort toward healing intended to prevent future tragedies, but in too many cases the damage is deep and lasting.

The five commissioners of the Maine Truth and Reconciliation Commission. (Hannah Dunphy/ICTJ)

The characters of The Round House are a product of this world. Although by 1988 the U.S. government had embraced a policy of self-determination for tribes and reversed many of its assimilationist policies, their destructive legacy remains in the alcohol abuse, loss of language, domestic abuse, crime, and general poverty. Even when not explicitly stated in the novel, a constant undercurrent of historical cause and effect takes its toll on the people around Joe. Grandma Thunder is a warm and caring woman by nature, but her eyes are cold: “she had survived many deaths and other losses and had no sentiment left.”[1] When he enters a cemetery, Joe says that he fears “not the loving ancestors who lay buried, but the gut kick of history, which I was bracing to absorb.”[2]

The central plot of The Round House is centered on Joe’s mother’s violent rape and attempted murder by a white man. This would be damaging enough on its own, but a technicality of unclear jurisdiction over tribal vs. state land means that the perpetrator walks free, even goes to the same grocery store as Joe’s family. The Major Crimes Act of 1885 formed the basis for this, giving the government power to intervene on Indian decisions on restitution and punishment.[1] A 1953 law gave certain states criminal jurisdiction over Indian lands within their borders, contributing to what Joe calls “toothless sovereignty.”[2]

It is common knowledge in Joe’s community and the surrounding area that rapes of Native women are rarely brought to trial. This knowledge makes the perpetrator reckless; he boasts that he won’t be punished, that there will be no repercussions. He’s almost right. If the family wants justice, they must seek it themselves.

[1] “Louise Erdrich.” Poetry Foundation. Accessed April 01, 2016. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/louise-erdrich

[2] Erdrich, Louise. The Round House. New York, NY: Harper, 2012, 73.

[3] Erdrich, 100.

[4] Erdrich, 142.

[5] Ibid.


Photo source: https://www.ictj.org/news/maine-truth-commission-tell-story-forced-assimilation-wabanaki-children


16 thoughts on “Fact through Fiction: legal and social history in “The Round House”

  1. Kate, is the oral history project you speak of in your blog the one you worked for/with? Round House is truly a story of cause and effect, something you highlight in your blog. I wonder how museums can work with Native Americans to help support/mend the damage done in the past and that continues to happen today.

    1. I had a little involvement for a month near the end of the project–I edited transcripts that volunteers typed up from the interviews. It involved a lot of careful listening to a lot of stories, which clearly had a great impact on everyone connected to the project–interviewees, interviewers, and volunteers. There was really rough stuff in there, but also very tough people who had seen the worst but still wanted to help others live better lives. The community spirit (with its ups and downs, abuses and support) that I saw in “The Round House” was definitely present in a lot of the stories I heard.

  2. Kate, great post as always. I was wondering, do other groups/tribes/agencies do similar work like the Maine Truth and Reconciliation Commission? This seems like a profoundly powerful way to utilize oral histories and to connect with a community to foster healing from these tragedies. As we read from The Round House and hear from this program, survivors and victims are still dealing with these issues today.

    1. I believe this is the first project of its kind among American Indian groups–at least it’s unique in the willing cooperation of both tribes and the state government. It had some strong models though, particularly the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, which dealt with the effects of apartheid.

    2. I, too, am very interested in the Maine Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It reminds me, in some ways of the “consciousness raising” we discussed several classes back which originated with the feminist movement. To an extent, sharing the stories of these people is reiterating the idea that “the personal is political.” I’m interested in some of the methods of this as well. It must have been painful for many to discuss this part of their past. Were the people collecting the oral histories trained and prepared for this?

  3. I think Erdich’s fictionalized story of “legal realities,” is a powerful way of educating and beginning dialogue about the current issues that are still facing Native American groups/tribes/nations. I, too, wonder how museums can help promote healing among these groups. I think collecting oral histories not only helps the healing process, but it also allows people to be heard, which is important when you have been silenced/ignored for so long.

  4. Kate, I liked the points that you highlighted here. The injustices done to Native peoples can be quite hard to stomach, but is something that we all must be aware of. The Round House was a very authentic-feeling way of communicating the legacy of legal and social issues that plague Native communities. The particular focus on domestic violence and sexual abuse was, to me, very powerful. It is such a… quieted problem, even among white communities, and for a population that we sometimes forget to represent as even existing anymore, I can’t imagine the struggle for justice in these circumstances. I found this article about Native American law, United States law, and domestic & sexual abuse very interesting. (http://cojmc.unl.edu/nativedaughters/law-givers/native-are-women-fighting-for-their-rights-and-their-lives)

  5. I love the connection you made between history and the legal system, something you’re right in pointing out that we don’t often think about. You make clear, however, that for many Native American’s not thinking about these things would be impossible because it has played such a large role in their personal and cultural narrative. In today’s society, where we are increasingly talking about injustices committed against people of color, women, and members of the LGBTQ community it seems that the history of Native American’s is still not receiving the attention the attention it deserves. I hope that more projects like the one you discuss are created to help bring attention to this very important issue.

  6. It is truly heartbreaking how the perpetrator of the rape uses the system in his favor. As you mentioned he knew that he would get away with it, even though Geraldine, the victim, managed to escape. Learning about all of the legal issues facing the Native American population is eye opening because of all the injustices the members still face. While this is a work of fiction, rooted in fact, I like how you brought in current resources to learn about the testimonies these men and women faced.

  7. Great points. It’s important to highlight how even after the laws have been repealed, there are still repercussions passed down. It seems like the majority opinion in the US is that once a law is passed or a court case won, equality just happens. Stories like The Round House are a good lens to see that these cases are just steps on the path to equality, and a lot of work still needs to be done.

  8. Wonderful post Kate! This was a very interesting read in our discussion of activism for class. Bazil tries to be an activist through the convoluted legal systems of not one but two nations (United States and Ojibwe). Your post really shows how difficult it is to navigate through not one but two legal systems (one of which puts Native Americans at a disadvantage)

  9. First of all, love your title. I also really like how you gave a little context on the author of The Roundhouse. Like you say, the inclusion of heritage, language and storytelling traditions in her novel are a result of her upbringing and also really contribute to the power of the book. I like that you pull such specific historical elements from the book and point out how they were reflected. Erdrich does such a wonderful job using a narrative to bring attention to important issues, and you have taken it one step further by bringing my attention to specific policy.

  10. Amazing blog post Kate. It is heartbreaking to hear that the few Native American tribes (and people in general) are still being subjected to horrible repercussions, whether directly or indirectly from the laws that were meant to “help.” I found the book to be heart wrenching from the very first chapter and this is certainly not a unique or abnormal case for many Native Americans. It is good to hear that someone is trying to help them. The Maine Truth and Reconciliation Commission seems to be an organization that is striving to and is making a difference. What can we as museum professionals do? Increase awareness? Increase representation? Partner with local and other organizations?

  11. Though this book focuses on the legal issues the community faced I like that it does focus on community and how important of a role they play in the law. I thought this book was really interesting and I wish I had read it sooner.

  12. Amazing post Kate! By highlighting the relationship between the history and legal system, we start to see a pattern of injustice done to the Native America communities. The repercussion that many face from lack of justice has tremendous negative impact from laws that an outside system thought it was doing for the best. I like how you mention organizations seeking to end this strife and making a difference as a way for museums to start changing the conversation and increasing their voices.

  13. Absolutely fascinating post Kate, particularly your deft treatment of the destructive legacies of these past laws and U.S./Native American policy in general, both in terms of legal consequences (as was the centerpiece of this novel) and the larger extent of social problems that plague many reservations. The relevance of projects such as the Maine Truth and Reconciliation Commission to better understand the dynamic between how this legal context has shaped this history, and of the many lives whose stories and the crimes against them would otherwise be silent, is profoundly relevant and profoundly needed. The extent to which the story of Native Americans is not acknowledged is sobering, and I find myself troubled I have not considered it. For this legacy, this history, is an essential part of our lives today. As you said, there is an undercurrent of history that pervades the novel, but it is also an undercurrent that informs our collective legal past. And to the extent it continues to reverberate and affect, Native Americans and all other groups, it needs to be an evident consideration.

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