Tag Archives: Anishnaabe

The Round House Book Club [post #1]

cover of Louise Erdrich's The Round House (2012)

This is the first of a week and a half posts from readers about Louise Erdrich’s The Round House (2012).  The club is an exercise in using digital spaces to communicate across geographic and disciplinary differences, to transcend the busyness that makes it so hard to get people in a room together to think and share in a work context,  and to share this not only with those actively contributing  but with those who might want to just read and quietly think.  If you want to write a post, write one – put it in the comments or send it to me.  Join this discussion.

Why This Book?

Because the book raises two important things: the question of plural legal orders operating in the lives of many Indigenous people on Turtle Island, and the obscene amount of physical violence committed on the bodies of Indigenous women – mainly by white men.[1]

I first read the Round House almost a year ago. I have read a few of Louise Erdrich’s other works.  I’m an omnivorous reader – I’ll read anything but this one hooked me because it had been described as having  “a mystery” in it.  I am a sucker for mysteries.  Quite often my novel reading isn’t connected with my work – it doesn’t need to be, right? But because i am such an omnivorous and frankly indiscriminate reader, I read all the front and back matter too, and there for the first time in my experience I read a fiction author thanking the authors of academic legal work in her acknowledgements.

Those authors were Professor  John Borrows (in particular his book Drawing Out Law, reviewed in the Canadian Journal of Law & Society here) and Hadley Louise Friedland (her LLM thesis, The Wetiko (Windigo) Legal Principles: Responding to Harmful People in Cree, Anishinabek and Saulteaux Societies: Past, Present and Future Uses, with a Focus on Contemporary Violence and Child Victimization Concerns, University of Alberta, excerpt available here).    Prof. Borrows is a tireless advocate, scholar and student of these laws, in theory and practice.  He has written on the particular subject of violence against Indigenous women here: “Aboriginal and Treaty Rights and Violence against Women.” Osgoode Hall Law Journal 50.3 (2013) : 699-736. Friedland works with Dr. Val Napoleon and others from the University of Victoria’s Indigenous Law Research Unit, Indigenous Bar Association, and The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada on the Accessing Justice and Reconciliation Project.  A core piece of this project is “Revitalizing Indigenous Laws”, and a wealth of information about this project and the subject matter is available from their excellent website.  The graphic narrative produced by this project, Mikomosis and the Wetiko (see an earlier IFLS post about it here), is fascinating whether you approach it as a story about law, or as a method of teaching and knowledge dissemination or both. The work of these two and a small but growing group inside the academy has forced more attention to the question of other, Indigenous, legal orders which continue to exist and operate across traditional territories.

The growth of this work in the academy – and the direct connection the novelist notes with this academic work is one reason that this book stayed with me.  The other is that the book takes as a core theme (in my reading, but also in the words of the writer) the question of violence against Indigenous women.   The fact that this is now (again?) hitting mainstream headlines is a product of a complicated set of convergences which has offered heightened visibility to the activism of Indigenous women themselves.  Things can be well known in one place and thoroughly ignored in another – or known one way in one place and as something completely different in another. But the voices of the families of women murdered by serial killer Robert Pickton’s, furious at the way their kin, including many Indigenous women, were treated by the police and the media, the voice of the originators and participants in Idle No More, voices on social media using the hashtags #MMIW and #AmINext, and most recently Rinelle Harper’s voice as she spoke to her people were very widely heard and have, I think, changed this conversation in the mainstream.

What are we doing with this book/club?

Whatever you want – whatever the individual reader wants.  The group of folks I talked to about the book thought we could learn from the book, further our thinking about Anishnaabe law and culture, about colonialism, jurisdiction and violence against Indigenous women. The book does what we struggle to do in law schools, connect a standard vision of Western law to many other ways of knowing.  There are many other questions we could raise from this reading – about what law can learn from literature and what literature draws from law, about scholarship in the academy as part of a search for justice, about the place of local knowledge and uniqueness in broad systems of power.  We can link this work to scholarship, to other works of fiction, to contemporary news, to film, poetry, and other cultural production, to history… to questions about other kinds of experience and knowledge which form part of the tangle of colonial violence that must be named and changed.

We invite everyone to participate.  The blog posts that appear will be the work of their named authors. They maintain control over what they want put up. Properly attributed images and music and other forms of media are possible inclusions, cases, film clips, are all fair game – folks can even record a video if they prefer that to using text. There is no need for formal language and there is no need to engage in any particular way.  Send me your post or just put it in the (moderated) comments.   The idea is to consider what the book made you think, and to try to engage with what other posters have said – no more, no less.   Next Wednesday at Osgoode (see poster here) we will have tea and snacks and a discussion about the book.

Some preliminary thoughts….

A short technical point with a long tail

I have been thinking about this book for a year and there’s so much in it that I doubt what follows will do more than set up a catalogue.  There is one aspect of the story – the technical set up of legal jurisdiction – I can briefly deal with here.  The nature and practice of federally recognized jurisdiction held by Indigenous communities in the US is quite different from the way it is North of the 49th parallel.  The way that jurisdiction is formally carved up based on maps and bodies was one of the problems that Erdrich was looking to address in this story – the way that jurisdictional issues create a maze of injustice, in the words of the title of an Amnesty International Report (see here for her description of the problem, here for an excellent 2011 article in Harper’s magazine which describes the scope of the problem on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, here for an interview with U.S. law professor Sarah Deer (Muscogee/Creek), recipient of a MacArthur Genius award for her successful law reform work on the issue and co-author of that Amnesty Report).

A comparable Anishnaabe community in Ontario or Manitoba would not have any jurisdiction, as per currently decided Canadian law  to define, prosecute or punish a crime – that is my technical point. [2]  Some of the issues are clearly similar – and some are clearly different not just between Canada and the US but inside these zones.  Amnesty International’s 2004 Stolen Sisters report, on Canada,  is quite different from the Maze of Injustice report out of the U.S., though both tell a story of violence disproportionately visited upon Indigenous women.   Even within these nation-state jurisdictions, the differences are profound – when does pan-aboriginal theory assist and when does it obscure and harm the claims of specific nations with specific and unique laws?  But this technical point might not immediately be clear to some reading The Round House.

Speaking of maps, the map above shows where most of the novel takes place (try this link if the embedded map is not showing how  the “Turtle Mountain” formation is elevated compared to the lands around it, and how it is cut by the 49th parallel).  It’s the area of the world where Louise Erdrich, the writer, lived most of her life.  I put it in this post because I always like maps – I like to know where I am supposed to be when I’m reading.  I was mapping out the journey of Cappy, Joe, Angus and Zack, along Highway 5 and beyond  and trying to imagine things I’ve never done and people I’ve never been.   Maps do many other things, since map making is such an intensely political exercise, one very close to the heart of this book.  But I liked seeing “where we are” in this book.  It helps make clear the meaning of Mooshum’s aside about how he could have been a retired Prime Minister if Riel had played things differently.  History seems solid not because it was destined, but because of the ways that outcomes are quickly and brutally shored up once a turn is taken.  Things could have been different, and the other possibilities are often not gone – just buried.

My remaining thoughts are just my thoughts.  I don’t mean these to set the scope of the discussion at all, in fact, I hope they do not.   When I look at the three things I have chosen, I worry that I have not said enough about racialization and colonization, I have not focused enough on naming all the many wrongs which are depicted in the book.  I still feel slightly off.  Am I acting like…a tourist in a graveyard?  My relationship to this story is clear in some ways – I am a settler, and my responsibilities must derive in part from that status. Defining those with specificity in relation to this discussion and the experiences and activism of Indigenous women and communities is more complicated,.  I think my unsettledness is a right place to be, now, but I’m not sure. I look forward to listening to the rest of this conversation, and to hearing your thought, stories and suggestions.

 Three thoughts

My first thought is about the way that the book is firmly rooted in a particular place and cultural context, but describes a kind of violence that is broadly experienced by Indigenous women in settler-colonial societies.  Over the break I watched a film by Ivan Sen. Mystery Road (2013) is set in rural Queensland, Australia. It depicts Detective Jay Swan’s investigation of the murder of a girl named Julie Mason.  Some familiar themes in this story (I don’t want to overplay similarities though)  rest in a very particular local environment – physical, cultural, colonized similarly but differently to the Anishnaabe lands in The Round House.  The challenge of seeing both the similarities and differences is one which loomed large for me, as I found myself (appropriately, I think) concerned about over simplifying narratives about Indigenous women, violence, communities and laws. These challenges seem particularly keen once the question of strategy is approached (strategies for combatting violence, for revitalizing Indigenous laws, for pursuing decolonization).  Time matters as well – the narrator is clearly in the future – he talks about how he eventually goes to law school.  Things keep changing.   He notes that after the 1980’s, during the casino era, more people tried to enroll, rediscovering their ties to Indigenous nations.  Were he writing now, perhaps he would also have noted the environmental and social impact of the oil boom in North Dakota – one built around a new extraction technique called “fracking” (this article is about the Fort Berthold reservation, to the west of Turtle Mountain, this one is about Turtle Mountain’s preemptive attempt to ban fracking on the reservation).

My second thought is about Bazil, Joe’s father, and the way that despite his official role as a Tribal Court judge, he recognizes the existence and perhaps justness of other, older, Anishnaabe legal orders just as he recognizes or understands at some level the inability of the formal legal system, whether “Tribal Jurisdiction” or “American law”, to provide any form of justice or protection. It’s unclear whether the future sovereignty he hopes Congress will grant (or recognize?) is a return to older ways or a new, collectively forged future.  He struggles with but ultimately resists feeding Joe into the maw of the formal Federal criminal law, though he clearly knows the truth of the situation.

I have recently been reading scholarly literature about Indigenous lawyers (meaning Indigenous people who are professionals in the legal system imposed by the colonial power) and the way that people in that position have understood and experienced their roles and relationships in their home and professional communities.[3]  Their stories are revealing about the nature of legal systems and their relationship to people’s actual lives (among other things).   About the law he applies and the decisions he renders in the Tribal Court, Bazil tells Joe:

“We are trying to build a solid base here for our sovereignty. We try to press against the boundaries of what we are allowed, walk a step past the edge. Our records will be scrutinized by Congress one day and decisions on whether to enlarge our jurisdiction will be made. Some day. We want the right to prosecute criminals of all races on all lands within our original boundaries. Which is why I try to run a tight courtroom, Joe. What I am doing now is for the future, though it may seem small, or trivial, or boring, to you.”

That Joe eventually becomes a lawyer, that he, like his father, chooses this route despite the rotten stinking mess of American Indian law, prompts, again, a look at the promise and power of law, the ongoing question about the master’s tools.

Finally, at times I wondered at the peripheral nature of the women in this book.  Geraldine is at the centre in a certain way – she keeps all the secrets and it nearly kills her. But she is silent for most of the book (although I see that it is a powerful silence). In this book we learn much about how violence against women affects men.  This is not a critique.  I think that part of what the book depicts is how deeply gendered violence is in terms of both cause and reception.  How does raced and gendered violence against Indigenous women affect Indigenous men? What does it mean for a community where women are so at risk?  Narratives about female vulnerability may have pernicious effects on autonomy, even when the claim is about “protection”.  This thought then skidded to a parallel track, and I began thinking about narratives covering the vulnerability of racialized men to police and private violence, how this is explained, justified, avoided.  How do various Indigenous legal orders distribute responsibility for anti-violence or violence avoidance (noting here the selection of Mikomosis to respond to the Wetiko in the graphic narrative mentioned above and the way that the mainstream often puts most of that responsibility on women themselves – hence “victim blaming” in many cases)?  What do Indigneous feminisms have to say? Is that responsibility also gendered?  I suppose here I am suggesting that the book is in part “asking the man question”– or rather, here, asking the boy question, and illustrating the ways that all of these gendered phenomena have more than one side.[4]


I hope that this post at least gives you something to react to in your reading of The Round House.  I’m looking forward to future posts and our meeting next Wednesday.  There are so many other things, small gems, I didn’t get to talk about! If I had more time here, I think I would take up the question of membership, nationhood, citizenship and race – as raised by Geraldine’s job, Linda Wishkob’s adoption into the tribe, Mayla Wolfskin’s child, and Mooshum’s gradual giving up of Michif for pure Chippewa, and various discussions of the physical appearance of the cast of characters, their hair, skin, bodies, and how these relate to belonging.  But I’m going to end here – I look forward to hear wait to hear what others pull out of this very rich work and their experience.

[1] See, for instance, in the American context,  http://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/issues/women-s-rights/violence-against-women/maze-of-injustice  (“ According to the US Department of Justice, in at least 86 per cent of the reported cases of rape or sexual assault against American Indian and Alaska Native women, survivors report that the perpetrators are non-Native men.”)

[2] I’m leaving out the critical issue of whether section 35 of the Constitution Act 1982 creates an Aboriginal right of jurisdiction over these matters.  On this, see  Borrows, John. “Aboriginal and Treaty Rights and Violence against Women.” Osgoode Hall Law Journal 50.3 (2013) : 699-736 available at http://digitalcommons.osgoode.yorku.ca/ohlj/vol50/iss3/9 My phrasing also leaves aside how questions of jurisdiction might be dealt with under Indigenous legal orders.

[3] See below under the heading Indigenous Lawyers

[4] Nancy E. Dowd, Asking the Man Question: Masculinities Analysis and Feminist Theory, 33 Harv. J.L. & Gender 415 (2010), available at http://scholarship.law.ufl.edu/facultypub/83


Scholarship on Indigenous Lawyers (a few works – I have a more comprehensive list, ask me if you want it)


Borrows, J. (2005). Creating an Indigenous Legal Community. McGill L.J. 50, 153.

Cruz, C.Z. (2006). Toward a Pedagogy and Ethic of Law: Lawyering for Indigenous Peoples. N.D. L. Rev. 82, 863.

Douglas, H. (1998). This is Not Just about Me: Indigenous Students’ Insights about Law School Study. Adel. L. Rev. 20, 315.

Ferguson, G., and Foo, K. (2000). Addressing Discriminatory Barriers Facing Aboriginal Law Students and Lawyers (Vancouver: Law Society of British Columbia).

Fletcher, M.L.M. (2006). Dibakonigowin: Indian Lawyer as Abductee. Oklahoma City University Law Review 31, 209.

Henderson, J.Y. (2002). Postcolonial Indigenous Legal Consciousness. Indigenous L.J. 1, 1.

Lam, F. (1996). Report on the survey of aboriginal law graduates in British Columbia (Law Society of British Columbia,).

Leeds, S.L., and Gunsaulis, E.M. (2011). Resistance, Resilience, and Reconciliation: Reflections on Native American Women and the Law. T. Jefferson L. Rev. 34, 303.

Lindberg, T. (1997). What Do You Call an Indian Woman with a Law Degree – Nine Aboriginal Women at the University of Saskatchewan College of Law Speak Out. Can. J. Women & L. 9, 301.

Menkel-Meadow, C. (1987). Excluded Voices: New Voices in the Legal Profession Making New Voices in the Law. U. Miami L. Rev. 42, 29.

Monture, P.A. (1990). Now That the Door Is Open: First Nations and the Law School Experience. Queen’s L.J. 15, 179.

Monture-Angus, P. (1998). Locating aboriginal peoples in Canadian law : one aboriginal woman’s journey through case law and the Canadian constitution.

Multicultural Women Attorneys Network, and Federal Bar Association (1998). The burdens of both, the privileges of neither: a report on the experiences of Native American women lawyers. (American Bar Association),.

Sharefi, M. (2007). New History of Colonial Lawyering: Likhovski and Legal Identities in the British Empire, A. Law & Soc. Inquiry 32, 1059.

Valencia-Weber, G. (1995). Law School Training of American Indians as Legal-Warriors. Am. Indian L. Rev. 20, 5.