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  • Erdrich’s CrusadeSexual Violence in The Round House
  • Julie Tharp (bio)

After it was announced that she had won the National Book Award for The Round House, Ojibwe novelist Louise Erdrich commented that the book is a “suspense novel masking a crusade” (Luscombe 60). Surely this is a surprising twist on the highly lyrical prose of Erdrich’s fictional works. It suggests that Erdrich’s crusade against rape—the novel’s central focus—is compelling enough for her to part ways from her usual style, to use her considerable power and talent to try to shape the course of political events. In February 2013 Erdrich published a direct attack on the topic in the New York Times, entitled “Rape on the Reservation,” bringing attention to the deplorable circumstances often endured by Native American women. There are at least three pieces to the crusade contained within The Round House: the historical background on tribal law and order that have contributed to the crisis in sexual violence on reservations, Erdrich’s fictional illustration and strategic telling of the effects of sexual violence, and the response that Erdrich has urged and that the federal legislation, the Violence Against Women Act, may assist. The Round House essentially makes a witness of the reader, inviting a consideration of the legal complications, social history, and far-reaching effects of violence that have made justice on the reservation a rare and dearly purchased commodity.

In The Shapes of Silence: Writing by Women of Colour and the Politics of Testimony, Proma Tagore includes Erdrich’s Tracks (1988) as one example of literature as historical testimony. She writes: “Tracks endeavours to account for the losses and deaths of colonial history, including personal and collective traumas of the past and the present. The novel thus tells the story of different generations of witnesses, who find themselves haunted by histories of colonial violence and erasure” (70). She [End Page 25] points out that a major character, Fleur, is only known through the witness testimony of Pauline Puyat and Nanapush. Fleur never actually figures in the novel’s action. Significantly, Fleur is a victim of rape, and like Fleur, Geraldine Coutts, a rape victim and a central character in The Round House, is silent through most of the novel and must rely upon others to piece her story together as best they can. Geraldine’s son, Joe, is the point of entry for the reader, a relatively innocent boy who must comprehend not only the crime but also the tribe’s inability to seek justice for his mother. Tagore notes that in Tracks “[t]he multiple voices of this book reach across the traumas of colonial violence—at once personal, collective, and generational—so that otherwise silenced stories may be heard” (71). The Round House also provides personal, collective, and generational analysis through Joe with the focus on both the trauma of sexual violence and the trauma of being denied justice. The beginning point for that analysis is in the history of tribal disenfranchisement.

The Round House testifies to the loss of tribal jurisdiction, which has directly affected the ability to protect Native women from sexual and domestic violence. Indeed the legislation makes it difficult to protect all Native people from crimes committed against them by non-Indians, but the complications arising from combined sexism and racism make it even less likely that crimes against Native women will be tried. Jasmine Owens, attorney and former managing editor of the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, goes into detailed background on the jurisdiction issues referenced in The Round House in her article “‘Historic’ in a Bad Way: How the Tribal Law and Order Act Continues the American Tradition of Providing Inadequate Protection to American Indian and Alaska Native Rape Victims.” There are essentially four legal decisions over the course of the past 130 years that have tied the system of justice into knots.

First, the Major Crimes Act of 1885 grants jurisdiction of major crimes on tribal land to federal courts, but courts disagree over whether tribes have concurrent jurisdiction in Indian Country. Any given crime must go through a jurisdictional maze based on location, severity of crime, state status, and race...


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pp. 25-40
Launched on MUSE
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