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.
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 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.” 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.”
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. A 1953 law gave certain states criminal jurisdiction over Indian lands within their borders, contributing to what Joe calls “toothless sovereignty.”
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.
 “Louise Erdrich.” Poetry Foundation. Accessed April 01, 2016. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/louise-erdrich
 Erdrich, Louise. The Round House. New York, NY: Harper, 2012, 73.
 Erdrich, 100.
 Erdrich, 142.
Photo source: https://www.ictj.org/news/maine-truth-commission-tell-story-forced-assimilation-wabanaki-children