- "The Unkillable Mother"Sovereignty and Survivance in Louise Erdrich's The Round House
Rape is more than a metaphor for colonization—it is part and parcel of colonization. … Sexual assault mimics the worst traits of colonization in its attack on the body, invasion of physical boundaries, and disregard for humanity. … The perpetrators of sexual assault and colonization thrive on power and control over their victims. The U.S. government, as a perpetrator of colonization, has attempted to assert long-lasting control over land and people—usurping governments, spirituality, and identity.Sarah Deer, "Decolonizing Rape Law"
In her afterword to The Round House, Louise Erdrich explains that she based the novel's events on "different cases, reports, and stories" involving the mind-boggling number of Native American women victimized by rape (321). She cites an Amnesty International report that found that "1 in 3 Native women will be raped in her lifetime (and that figure is certainly higher as Native women often do not report rape); 86 percent of rapes and sexual assaults upon Native women are perpetrated by non-Native men; few are prosecuted" (319).1 Accepting the 2012 National Book Award for The Round House, Erdrich praised "the grace and endurance of Native women" and described her novel as "a book about a huge case of injustice ongoing on reservations." She added, "Thank you for giving it a wider audience" (qtd. in Chilton). The Round House explicitly positions a fictional rape as representative of "most Indian rape cases," which never go "to trial for one reason or another" (41). Less explicitly, but no less forcefully, Erdrich also constructs an intricate, layered web of associations around women and motherhood that aligns the implications of the 1988 rape of Geraldine Coutts and the events that follow with Ojibwe [End Page 94] history and with possibilities for tribal futures. As narrated by Geraldine's son Joe, the rape and its aftermath become emblematic of the state and status of Ojibwe culture.
The off-stage attack on Geraldine Coutts sets The Round House's plot in motion, and the novel's predominant themes circulate around mother figures. Geraldine's attempt to protect another mother and her infant daughter leads to her violent confrontation with Linden Lark, the bigoted and quite possibly sociopathic white man who rapes and beats her; she narrowly escapes being burned alive and requires surgery to repair her injuries. The other mother, Mayla Wolfskin, seems to have been the victim of statutory rape. Lark kidnaps, brutalizes, and murders Mayla (also off-stage) and attempts to profit from her death by engineering her daughter's adoption by her powerful white father. None of these crimes are prosecuted.
As the title of the novel implies, it is significant that Linden Lark's crimes against Native women take place in and around the round house, an aged community gathering place and "symbol of communal love and justice" (Matchie 354) located on the fictional North Dakota reservation on which many of Erdrich's novels are set. Once the site of sacred Ojibwe ceremonies, the round house stands as the crux, the meeting place, of the novel's symbolic associations. A womb-like "log hexagon," the round house represents and embodies a cultural mother figure, Buffalo Woman, the "old grandmother buffalo" who saved tribal healer/trickster Nanapush, his mother, and his community by giving herself for food in the starving time that came with the establishment of the reservation (Erdrich, Round House 59, 187).2 Later, "the spirit of the old female buffalo" planted a vision of the round house in Nanapush's mind and articulated its significance:
Your people were brought together by us buffalo once. You knew how to hunt and use us. Your clans gave you laws. You had many rules by which you operated. Rules that respected us and forced you to work together. Now we are gone, but as you have once sheltered in my body, so now you understand. The round house will be my body, the poles my ribs, the fire my heart. It will be the body of your mother and it must be respected the same way. As the mother is intent...