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IFLS Book Club Post #13 [Serena Dykstra]

Two issues that most resonated with me while reading Louise Erdrich’s The Round House are those of violence against Indigenous women and parallel legal systems.

Erdrich writes from the perspective of Joe, a 13-year-old boy whose mother, Geraldine, has been brutally raped. We not only see how Geraldine is affected, reduced to a shadow of her former self, but also how Geraldine’s family, Joe and his father Bazil, struggle to maintain an existence like the one they had before the attack.

Unfortunately, Joe and Bazil feel quite alone in their quest to avenge and support Geraldine. Even people in the community walk on egg shells, trying to avoid conversation about the attack or not knowing what to say. The entire community is at a loss on how to respond to this crime. Bazil does what he knows best, and researches cases in an attempt to find the culprit. But most of the time he, too, is lost – he no longer knows how to interact Geraldine, as when he frightens her by hugging her from behind.

Joe’s development is also impacted by the attack. He matures quickly after Geraldine takes to her bedroom. Although his mother is alive, her spirit is dying. She can no longer function as a mother for Joe while she lays in her bed. Joe becomes the reluctant caretaker, ensuring that she eats and reading stories to her. But he, too, does not know how to respond when Geraldine accidentally strikes him for frightening her. He tries to understand that she comes from a new reality, but is also hurt by this event. Geraldine is a stranger now, even to those who know and love her the most.

This book continues a painful but necessary dialect on raising awareness of the alarmingly high rate of violence perpetuated against Indigenous women in North America. As First Nations and non-First Nations people alike, we all suffer directly and indirectly from this violence. We all have a role to play in preventing and responding to such violence.

The second issue I wish to discuss is that of parallel legal systems. Although this book is written about a community in the United States, it reminded me of the Two Row Wampum, a treaty agreement between the Dutch and the Haudenosaunee.

“The belt consisted of two rows of purple wampum beads on a white background. … The two purple rows symbolize two paths or two vessels travelling down the same river. One row symbolizes the Haudensosaunee with their laws and customs, while the other row symbolizes European laws and customs. As nations move together side-by-side on the River of Life, they are to avoid overlapping or interfering with one another.”[1]

Both Indigenous people and Europeans were supposed to be on collaborative yet distinct paths, which included paths to justice. However, Indigenous communities in Canada do not have control over prosecution of offenders; and the community described in The Round House is caught in a tangle of jurisdictional issues, which leaves them in a similar place as these Canadian Indigenous communities.

Erdrich provides a narrative for what can happen when no justice is unobtainable: Joe takes matters into his own hands, in order to protect his family. He is frustrated by his father’s fruitless attempts to involve some kind of authority, which all have failed to offer an appropriate solution.

Like the issue of violence against women, self-determination of Indigenous people, including on matters of criminal justice, are issues yet to be resolved in an adequate manner. Although it seems like we have a long way to go in the search for true justice, The Round House contributes a story to the ongoing narrative; these stories are necessary to keep these issues alive, and may one day provide a platform on which to find a solution.

[1] John Borrows, Canada’s Indigenous Constitution, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press Incorporated, 2010) at 76.

Serena is a student in Osgoode’s  Intensive Program in Aboriginal Lands, Resources & Government.


IFLS Book Club Post #12 [Theresa McGee]

Sexuality, Spirituality, and Colonial Violence in The Round House

In her novel, Louise Erdrich draws together the strands of colonial violence and its expression in female sexuality and spirituality. The confluence of these concepts surface and resurface throughout the book. In the old reservation cemetery, “filled with its complications,” the sound of Old Testament prophecy reverberates with the plain truth of the short, vanishing lives of Joe’s ancestors: “and the white man appeared and drove them down into the earth” (100). The Catholicism of Joe’s Mètis ancestors permeates the narrative of reservation life, though Joe’s Mooshum himself had gone on in life to “cast off his Michif ways” (201). The spiritual beliefs and practices of women in the novel embody the contradictions and complications of colonial history: “But the round house. Symbol of the old pagan ways. The Metis women. Setting it all on fire together- the temptation and the crime all burned up as in a fire offering…” (77). Women’s bodies are sites where temptation and crime are inscribed in flesh: by colonial domination, religious conversion, and sexual coercion. It is in Sonja’s seething testimony, “See this?… Open your frickin’ eyes./ I looked. A thin white scar ran up the side and around the nipple of her left breast./ My manager did that with a razor, Joe” (222). The scars of dispossession, of land theft, and cultural decimation taint the sexual and spiritual purity proclaimed by colonial institutions. And women’s embodied experiences speak to these deep-running contradictions. Sonja’s mother, a church-going Catholic who worked the boats, went with men, to survive. And Geraldine Coutts, doused in gasoline as if to be made into a burnt offering, was brutally raped at the site of the round house, the place where jurisdictional boundaries converged and where her assailant knew he could escape prosecution for his crime. “He had attacked her here. The old ceremonial place had told me- cried out to me in my mother’s anguished voice,” says Joe (60). The voices of women, and their anguish, fill the Round House with an emotional quality that vividly communicates the toll of colonial violence. This is something that narrative, uniquely, offers to our understanding of this tormented history, and of its currents that continue to course through colonial relationships today.


Theresa McGee is a student in Osgoode’s  Intensive Program in Aboriginal Lands, Resources & Government.

IFLS Book Club Post #11 [Holly Langille]

Patience and Faith

Two  themes that struck a chord with me in the book were those of faith & patience. I found that many of the characters moved with a speed that bespoke patience. Certainly Joe is angry and impatient with regards to his mother; this is the reason he takes matters into his own hands. Yet he is also patient. The book is full of scenes that show characters exercising patience in the most dire of instances. Joe and Basil, for example, leaving dinner for his mother outside her bedroom door, waiting for her to come back to them as a family, and wishing she would lie about the location wherein the rape took place. Never, however, did they pressure her to lie.

Since the land surrounding The Round House encompasses multiple jurisdictions, it would be useful to know where exactly the incident happens. At one point, when Joe and his father are home examining jurisdictional maps of the area, Joe asks his father “Why can’t she make up a place?” Basil responds with “I can’t ask her to do that” (The Round House p 196). I say the topic of faith and patience, because such patience, to my mind, requires faith in time, rather than antagonizing pressure, to heal the situation. In another scene on the drive home from visiting his father in the hospital, Joe asks his mother why she didn’t just lie about the location of the rape. He doesn’t make her feel bad for not lying nor does he tell her what she should do. He does not berate her decision to tell the truth. To me this element of patience with people and perspectives operates so very differently from the adversarial system.

I remember learned about consensus as a method of deciding matters at my old office; I was scared about how things would get dome without the totalitarianism of democracy. Then I watched it work, beginning with the notion that two people would meet at the point they agreed upon inside the circle. Once there, they keep talking back and forth until consensus is reached. To me it highlighted such great respect for different viewpoints, and a grace to accept them with patience and humility. In the book, this theme of patience with the decisions of others resonated strongly for me. It made me think about humility. I see the characters ‘being with’ a situation rather than looking at it with an eye (and the requisite corresponding arrogance) to ‘fix it’. It means moving forward without patience and imposing your methods upon the world. I remain in admiration of the people who taught me to work on consensus, as well as the characters in the book who remind me of my teachings on humility and the patience that must accommodate it.

Holly Langille is a student in Osgoode’s  Intensive Program in Aboriginal Lands, Resources & Government.


IFLS Book Club Post #10 [Emily Meuser]

I was somewhat surprised when Joe’s father suggested to him that the party responsible for killing Linden Lark might be able to claim “his killing fulfilled the requirements of a very old law” (page 306) since “it could be argued that Lark met the definition of a wiindigoo” (page 306).

While this possibility had been extensively foreshadowed in a literary sense throughout the book, the legal requirements for arguing such a defense had been laid out previously in the story about Nanapush. In my opinion, Joe did not come close to meeting these requirements. First, I think there is some question as to whether Lark meets the definition of a wiindigoo: “people who lost all human compunctions in hungry times and craved the flesh of others” (pages 213-14). What comprises a ‘hungry time’? What does it mean to ‘crave the flesh of others’? Fitting Lark into this category would require a broad conceptualization of this definition.

Second, just as in the case with Nanapush’s mother, no one had tried to cure Lark with “large quantities of hot soup,” (page 214) and neither had the young boys who had agreed that Lark must die “consulted with the old and wise” (page 214). Third, an important requirement of a wiindigoo killing is that “the only person who could kill a wiindigoo was someone in the blood family” (page 180) so that the family of the killed person would not take revenge. This means that Linda, for example, may have been in a position to kill her twin, but Joe was not a properly placed person to fulfill this role. Moreover, Joe himself had not conceived of the killing as acting in accordance with traditional laws.

I can understand that parents wanting to protect their child would look for any way to do so, especially when the legal and jurisdictional complexities inherent in the rape and assault of Joe’s mother had left little other means of obtaining justice.  However, trying to defend Joe on the basis of the traditional laws for dealing with wiindigoos seems inconsistent with the careful and considered way that Justice Coutts had attempted to build a solid foundation for applying traditional laws on reserve lands. Bad facts make bad law, and attempting to apply traditional law where it seems only weakly supported by the facts may serve only to undermine the perception of legitimacy of future such claims, compromising the larger project of increasing recognition of Indigenous laws on Indigenous lands.

Emily Meuser is a student in Osgoode’s  Intensive Program in Aboriginal Lands, Resources & Government.


IFLS Book Club Post #9 [Lindsay Bec: No clear jurisdiction]

The concept of jurisdiction and boundary crossing permeates every aspect of Louise Erdrich’s novel The Round House.[1] Erdrich expresses the theme through the tracing of Joe’s coming of age from child to adult, the round house as a culminating point of tribal trust, state, and fee land,[2] the boundaries between the living and the dead, the knowledge of who is an “Indian” with the “complicated branching and interbranching tangle of each bloodline,”[3] and the thin line between the games that Cappy and Joe play and the realness of their lived experience.[4]


Borders and boundaries are constantly challenged, traversed and merged, until they become difficult, if not impossible to distinguish, leaving those who are forced to rely and abide by them with “nowhere to stand. No clear jurisdiction.”[5] Nowhere in the novel is this more apparent than in relation to the theme of justice and its tension with the law.


The reality for Joe and his community is that when the Western law and its procedures are followed, they are always disadvantaged, as demonstrated in the appalling amount of rape cases taken to trial,[6] and the hanging of the ancestors, where “none of the killers ever went on trial.”[7]


However, there is also the fear that if the law isn’t followed it will also result in something unjust and prejudicial. This is why Joe’s father works so hard to craft judgments that push against the boundaries imposed on them and will result in just outcomes that cannot be questioned as counter to the law.[8]


Because of this tension, many of the characters are left to grapple with the following question: What is the correct course when the proper process and protocols that constitute the “law” are designed and utilized in such a way that they are never in your favor and never lead to justice in its true sense?


While there is a need and requirement to follow the rules, for this community, there is a danger in doing so as well.


It seems fitting that Joe, as the meeting point between western law, through the legal teachings from his father and the books and cases he has shared with him, and traditional law, through the stories shared by a sleeping Mooshum, is the one who is forced to navigate this space.


In the end, I think it is still unclear whether the murder of Linden Lark was the correct course. It was not justice through the law as we know it, but perhaps it was as Joe’s father describes, an “ideal justice.”[9] At the very least, the book leaves an enigma with its readers, and those of us studying the law in particular, that will hopefully lead to greater scrutiny and reflection on the law as it has and continues to be applied.

[1] Louise Erdrich, The Round House (New York: HarperCollins, 2012).

[2] Ibid at 160.

[3] Ibid at 30.

[4] Ibid at 111.

[5] Ibid at 196.

[6] Ibid at 41.

[7] Ibid at 140.

[8] Ibid at 228.

[9] Ibid at 306.

Lindsay Bec is a student in Osgoode’s  Intensive Program in Aboriginal Lands, Resources & Government.