Category Archives: What we’re thinking/reading/doing (IFLS blog)

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IFLS Book Club Post #16 [Leah Gardener]


A fuzzy, rotting casserole in the back of the fridge, no matter how you dress it up, or add to it—even with the most well-intentioned ingredients—is still a fuzzy, rotting casserole.  Erdrich’s metaphor for Aboriginal law is apt in many ways. The leading cases in the field are long and often contain odd reasoning and conspicuous silences. One explanation for this is that Aboriginal law is a complex and developing field of law. Another reason is that these contemporary cases are an awkward attempt to build legitimate case law from a base that is essentially corrupt and fragile. Where does the rot come from exactly? Although many Aboriginal law practitioners and judges are interested in the field as a way to chip away at Canadian colonialism, the case law has been largely silent on Canada’s colonial past and present. We are left with awkward silences and big questions: How did British sovereignty occur? How is it legitimate? Why did Aboriginal people “live in organized societies” before European contact, but were not sovereigns nations themselves? Without directly addressing questions like these,  Canadian law remains detached from reality and largely illegitimate.

Throughout the book, Erdrich juxtaposes Canadian law with Aboriginal legal traditions, demonstrating the need for law to be an extension of the social, cultural, natural and spiritual world. The one great tragedy of the story occurs because of a jurisdictional mess, stemming from out-of-touch Canadian law: Joe’s mother’s rape cannot be prosecuted because she does not know where it occurred on the reservation and thus which legal system the crime falls under. Another great tragedy occurs as a result of Joe’s failure to listen to his own people’s legal tradition, which appears to be more connected to the world around it, leading to more just results. When Joe pays heed to the stories of the round house’s history, and listens to guidance from natural and spiritual forces, he uncovers information – like the gas can—that can lead to justice for his mother. However, when he ignores these stories and spirits—like Bugger’s dream—, he makes the fateful decision to murder his mother’s assailant, which leads to the death of his best friend and causes him great pain for the rest of his life.

Erdrich appears to be advocating, not necessarily for a return to traditional law, but the development of a body of law that is simply in touch with reality and thus legitimate. For Canadian law to move in that direction, it needs to transform dramatically. Confronting colonialism head on, and making more space for aboriginal legal traditions and autonomy, is a good place to start.



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


IFLS Book Club Post #15 [Liane Langstaff]

The Round House is a powerful and incredibly engaging novel. In this blog post, I will discuss two aspects that particularly resonated with me: the importance of small steps towards indigenous sovereignty and the existence of light amid the darkness.

Importance of small steps towards sovereignty

A consistent theme throughout the book was the importance of taking steps, however small, towards indigenous sovereignty. After the rapist, Linden is let go due to overlapping jurisdictional issues, Joe lashes out at his father, Bazil, lamenting his father’s limitations as a tribal judge (and the corresponding impotence of tribal law). Bazil responds by illustrating the inherent problems of the current legal system with a rotten casserole with knives carefully balanced on top.

The rotten casserole itself was the basis of American native rights in cases like Johnson v McIntosh which striped away Aboriginal title to lands through the doctrine of discovery. The knives represented decisions made by tribal judges. As Joe’s father explains

everything we [tribal judges] do, no matter how trivial, must be crafted keenly. We are trying to build a solid base here for our sovereignty. Our records will be scrutinized by Congress one day and decisions on whether to enlarge our jurisdiction will be made.[2]

Therefore, the decisions of tribal judges, although constrained and of sometimes trivial scope, are still of the utmost importance to help establish a strong basis of sovereignty, despite a rotten precedential foundation.

Light amid the darkness

The Round House is such an intriguing novel because Louise Erdrich captured the light that can exist even in the darkest parts of our lives. Many people are surprised when I tell them I loved this book. They are often puzzled, “you actually enjoyed a book which revolves around violence against women?”. However, as much as the book opens up the readers’ eyes to the very worst of humankind’s prejudice, violent tendencies and capacity for evil; Erdrich equally infuses the book with the tenderness of Joe’s loving family, the strong bonds of friendship between Joe and Cappy and the light-heartedness of boys horsing around during the summer.

In this way, Erdrich sends a hopeful message both for our lives and for the future of Aboriginal law. Even though North American legal systems do not currently allow a significant role for indigenous law, the light of indigenous legal traditions can and will continue in the future, just as the old buffalo explained to Nanapush:

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…and it must be respected the same way.[3]

The Round House is a transformational work of literature. I look forward to discussing it with you on January 14th.

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

[2] Erdrich, ibid at 229.

[3] Erdrich, ibid at 214.

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


IFLS Book Club Post #14 [Margaux Malkina]

After reading The Round House, I found myself unable to express my feelings about the book. I could not say I liked or enjoyed, yet I was unable to explain why I did not find it a bad read: the book simply perplexed me. It was not the sad story, nor the transparent injustice depicted in the novel, that shocked me. Rather, it was a realization of one thing that I managed to forget during my years at law school: reality. The reality of human suffering, the reality of untold consequences, the reality of emotions, all of these are among many things that lawyers may not regard as legallty relevant, but yet these things affect the lives of people in many ways and sometimes even more that the legally significant facts. I believe that it was not the crime per se that had formed the lives of the characters in this novel. The crime was described briefly, but sufficient to give us enough information to imagine the actus reus. Also, we were given a mens rea – one of the characters speculated the motive of the main villain, the rapist Lark. Yet, that was not the main point of the book, at least not for me. The reality was not the crime, the crime that is so common on Indian reserves, but rather it was how each characters had dealt with it and how it had affected their lives. A crime impacts more people than just a victim – there are silence victims whose stories we will not read in a case. And maybe the injustice lies not only in some technically that would set an accused free, maybe the real crime is that we fail to see the reality by and that we fail to act.

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


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.