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Limits of sovereignty

Chris Carlson
Carlson Chronicles

Louise Erdrich’s latest novel, The Round House, in early November was chosen by the National Book Award as the year’s best work of fiction. It is a worthy recipient, but in telling a compelling story of a Native American woman’s violent rape (Told by her 13-year-old son), the art of fiction transcends boundaries and presents an all too believable “true” story.

At one level it is a tale of injustice. At another it is one of vengeance as well as the coming to terms with tragedy full of ambiguities by two precocious 13 year old boys trying to make sense of their world while still full of teen-age angst driven by their own developing sex drive.

With skill and selective humor the author captures the complexities of reservation life and of Native Americans still trying to find their identity in a world that very much looks down on their culture and them. Now living in Minnesota, Ms. Erdrich grew up in North Dakota near the Chippewa Reservation and is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain band. Her eye for the revealing detail is incredible while still employing a bare, fast moving writing style that quickly engages a reader.

In a powerful and emotional appeal Erdrich is making the case for a change in jurisdiction law in a more effective way than did Walter Echo-hawk in his scholarly book reviewed in this column earlier this year entitled In the Court of the Conquerors. Echo-hawk outlines the ten most outrageous cases upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court over the years that systematically denied America’s native peoples rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

Each author, though, in their own thoughtful way makes the case for tribes to be allowed by Congress and the Courts to administer justice to native and non-native alike for crimes committed on their reservation. Non-native folks in counties containing or adjacent to Native American reservations immediately protest saying that since they can’t vote for tribal officials and judges they should not be placed under tribal jurisdiction. (Try using that argument if arrested in Turkey for drugs)

If the US Supreme Court starts recognizing tribes as having full sovereignty on their reservations (as opposed to the apparent interpretation that tribes only have “quasi-sovereignty”) then it is inevitable that the day will come when non-natives will be prosecuted in tribal courts for crimes like murder and rape.

In Erdrich’s novel it is just this issue of jurisdiction that lies at the heart of the story. The rapist is allowed to walk because neither the authorities nor the victim can say for sure where the rape physically took place. Sure, it was near the novel’s namesake “Round House,” but there are multiple ownerships in and around this particular site.

In the Afterword, Erdrich cites stunning statistics from an Amnesty International report which says one out of every three Native American women will be raped during their lifetime and 86% of their attackers will be non-Native men. For Erdrich this is as much an issue of safety for Native American women as it an issue of justice.

A minor yet central character in the story’s plot is a “fictional” South Dakota governor, Curtis W. Yeltow. In the book he fathers a daughter by a 17-year-old Native American intern working in his office and then pays her $40,000 to keep quiet and disappear. She disappears alright by way of murder.

Yeltow is a thinly disguised version of South Dakota’s longest serving (16 years) governor, Bill Janklow, who while serving as a young legal services attorney on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, at the age of 28 was accused by his 15-year-old Native baby-sitter, for whom he was the listed guardian, of rape. Since the alleged rape took place on the reservation, at that time Janklow could have been tried by a native court.

His case, however, was immediately removed by the local Bureau of Indian Affairs legal office from the tribal court and transferred to an off reservation court. No formal charges were ever brought, and three subsequent Senate investigations also concluded there was insufficient information to bring charges. Part of the problem has always been that the accuser, Jacinta Deer Eagle, while reporting the rape to her high school principal in 1967, did not go public until 1974 with her allegations.

Many Native Americans, as well as more than a few folks who knew Janklow, believe the charges to be true. One of those hail, hearty types, Janklow, who died of brain cancer this past January, had a penchant for acting like the law was for others. His habit of speeding, for which he was ticketed numerous times, finally caught up with him after he ran a stop sign at 65 mph and was struck by a motorcycle with the right of way crossing through.

The motorcyclist was killed instantly. Janklow was convicted of manslaughter and had to resign in 2004 after only one year in office his seat in the U.S. House.

Making the rape charge even more mysterious was the accuser’s death in 1975. Ms. Deer Eagle was struck and killed in a hit and run accident in Nebraska. Her “cause” (Holding Janklow accountable) was taken over by her step-mother, who, nine months later was murdered. The killer or killers has never been found.

Read Erdrich’s fine novel and you too will conclude truth is stranger than fiction.

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