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.”
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.
 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.