The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee

Native America from 1890 to the Present

By David Treuer

Riverhead. 512 pp. $28

Reviewed by Paul Andrew Hutton

“This book,” David Treuer writes, “is adamantly, unashamedly, about Indian life rather than Indian death.”

Treuer — a talented novelist and essayist with a doctorate in anthropology who is also a literature professor at the University of Southern California — was raised on the Ojibwe reservation at Leech Lake in Minnesota, the son of a Jewish father and an Ojibwe mother. In Heartbeat, which he brings to the Free Library on Thursday, March 7, he seeks to revise the long-prevalent image of the Indian as the Vanishing American, a race so compromised by disease, war, and intermarriage that it is destined to disappear. His perspective is one of Native American resilience and survival.

The U.S. government, Treuer correctly points out, did everything in its power to make the original Americans vanish through unrelenting violence, physical removal, and forced assimilation. All three methods failed. What the government (and most of the people it represented) could never fully comprehend was that Indians never wished to be assimilated. Indians continue to claim a special status that allows them to remain separate and somewhat more than equal.

That embrace of American life, along with a demand for special status, has always placed Indian people in an awkward position. This is particularly visible in the intense pride and patriotism of Indian veterans. Tribal members have fought in every American conflict, including as scouts in the Indian Wars, and have had to deal with the irony of fighting for freedoms denied them at home. Indians were not granted citizenship until 1924 and then were often denied voting rights in Western states. Indian people are obviously proud to be Americans — because they are the first Americans — but this pride is constantly challenged by a nation of new immigrants determined to treat them as some sort of rarified and exotic “other.”

In his search for identity — a primary thread of the book — Treuer embodies the contradictions of being Native American. He is educated and successful and moves easily in the world of white America. But he has no wish to relinquish his Ojibwe identity. Native people have continuously “fought to remain Indian just as much as they fought for and in order to be Americans, but Americans on their own terms,” he asserts.

Indians suffered through Orwellian boarding schools meant to erase any vestiges of native culture or loyalty in their children, and the allotment of Indian land through the Dawes Act with a promise of eventual citizenship if the tribe was abandoned (with surplus land sold to whites). Later came the “gift” of citizenship in 1924 and the Indian New Deal in 1934 that reaffirmed tribal rule. Next was the contradictory effort to terminate all reservations in the 1950s and to integrate their inhabitants into the greater U.S. population, which in turn led to the rise of the violent and, according to Treuer, counterproductive American Indian Movement in the late 1960s. Through all this, American Indians survived, held tenaciously to their cultural beliefs and tribal loyalties, and rebounded in population to number more than 2 million today.

The game-changer was gambling. In 1988, Congress passed and President Ronald Reagan signed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which established levels of gambling and set up compacts between states and the tribes. Indian gambling revenue climbed from $100 million in 1988 to more than $26 billion by 2009. This new wealth (for a few tribes, at least) allowed some tribes to employ high-powered law firms to protect their interests and sue for the return of lost land and abrogated treaty rights. This rise of Indian sovereignty has gone hand in hand with increasing gaming revenue, as has the growing influence of tribes in political contests in several Western states. (Two Indian women, from New Mexico and Kansas, just took seats in the House of Representatives.) It is all, as Treuer wryly notes, so very American.

“Indians lived on, as more than ghosts, as more than the relics of a once happy people,” Treuer concludes. “We lived on increasingly invested in and changed by — and in turn doing our best to change — the American character.”

Treuer is an easy companion: thoughtful, provocative, and challenging. He tells a disturbing yet heroic story that may very well be seen as a definition of “American exceptionalism.”

Paul Andrew Hutton is distinguished professor of history at the University of New Mexico. His latest book is “The Apache Wars.” He wrote this review for the Washington Post.