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.
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.
The Round House is a transformational work of literature. I look forward to discussing it with you on January 14th.
 Louise Erdrich, The Round House (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2012) [Erdrich].
 Erdrich, ibid at 229.
 Erdrich, ibid at 214.
Liane is a student in Osgoode’s Intensive Program in Aboriginal Lands, Resources & Government.