Marci to Sonia for reaching out and encouraging me to participate in the book club for The Round House. Although I’ve always enjoyed fiction, it’s taken a backseat since I began to take “education” seriously. Thanks to a generous gift card from some friends, I’ve added The Orenda, Monkey Beach, and The Back of the Turtle to my bookshelf, and have had some progress on The Orenda and Monkey Beach since November. I worry that the thick, green tomes embossed with gold-foil lettering might be abandoned soon. I hear they have cases.
I am very grateful to be reintroduced to Erdrich’s writing through such a welcoming book club. I want to explore the question, for whom is The Round House written? I’d like to address a few themes as well, mostly in response to conversations started by Sonia and Hadley.
But before these thoughts, I want to provide a brief, partial history of the more recent activities surrounding missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada and the Federal government’s response thus far. I think that this history is more practical than whatever thoughts I might have about The Round House. It’s not a precise or complete history in any sense. It Starts With Us has written an excellent history of the databases for missing and murdered Indigenous women. Maryanne Pearce’s PhD dissertation also provides a comprehensive history. However, I hope that my brief timeline brings attention to some of the activities being undertaken by Indigenous communities. I also hope it highlights the faulty “radar” of political leaders who continue to ignore the issue.
Not on Canada’s Radar: Characterising violence towards Aboriginal women as internal to reserves
As Hadley notes, this crisis is often characterised as internal to Aboriginal communities. This characterisation limits a discussion about intergenerational trauma resulting from the 60’s scoop and residential schools, and inaccurately suggests that Aboriginal men are wholly responsible for violence against Aboriginal women. A myopic focus on the Indian Act and reserves also ignores the fact that this crisis is a truly national one.
In response to calls for an inquiry by Rinelle Harper and Aboriginal leaders in Winnipeg, Minister of Aboriginal Affairs Bernard Valcourt bluntly stated in an interview, “Obviously there is a lack of respect for Aboriginal women on reserve, obviously.” Valcourt forgets that inquiries intend to go beyond the obvious. But his language is straightforward: “you know, if the [Aboriginal] guys grow up believing that women have no rights, that’s how they’re treated.” The argument is causal: provisions of the Indian Act create the structures that engender a “lack of respect” among Aboriginal men towards Aboriginal women, which is the cause of violence against Aboriginal women. On this logic a ‘lack of respect’ towards Aboriginal women would be endemic on every single reserve; we know – obviously – that this is not the case. As Betty Anne Lavallée points out in response to Valcourt’s statement, “more than 60 per cent of the missing persons cases and 70 per cent of the murders of Aboriginal women take place in urban centres.” And such a simplistic answer does not tell us anything about how violence against Aboriginal women relates to the racialization of Aboriginal women, the impacts of colonialism and intergenerational trauma on Aboriginal communities, the mass incarceration of Aboriginal men, the connection between violence against Aboriginal women and violence against the land, and the role of non-Aboriginal communities and men in this violence.
Over a decade ago, Amnesty International (AI) identified the high rates of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada as a national human rights crisis. AI’s Stolen Sisters (2004) report found that violence against Indigenous women occurs in the context of deep-rooted racism and discrimination at all levels of society, including within police forces. In its report No More Stolen Sisters (2009), AI continued to urge for a coordinated and comprehensive national response, but did not recommend a public inquiry. In October, 2014, AI stated that a public inquiry is necessary to “break the government inertia preventing substantive and comprehensive reform and action.”
Databases on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women: From Sisters in Spirit to It Starts with Us
From 2005 to 2010, the Native Women’s Association of Canada [NWAC] operated a campaign called Sisters in Spirit. Although initially funded by the Liberal government in 2005, its funding continued under the Conservative government until 2010. On May 16th 2007, Conservative MP Joy Smith stated that the Conservative government would commit to funding NWAC’s Sisters in Spirit campaign at $1 million annually until 2010-11. It was one of the first major research and documentation projects to compile information on the approximately 600 murdered and missing Indigenous women. It was an innovative project, which fulfilled community, memorialization, and catalyzing purposes.
In 2010, the Conservative government reasoned that existing policing and RCMP services were sufficient, and that the funding would be better allocated to those generic services, rather than to organizations such as NWAC. However, due to delays in funding, the RCMP was unable to effectively coordinate its responses and create a database that incorporated the files of missing and murdered Aboriginal women. Some suggested that the Conservative government did not want the creation of a database that specifically drew attention to these cases, especially one which could not be controlled or kept confidential.
Aboriginal community-based activism has become more visible in mainstream news. Idle No More played a part in this. But this doesn’t mean that community efforts are recent. Here, I would like to draw attention to some of the recent community activities related to violence against Aboriginal women. On February 14th, 2015 10th annual Strawberry Ceremony will take place at 12:30pm at Police Headquarters, 40 College Street at Bay, Toronto. This is the tenth year that the vigil and ceremony has been organized by No More Silence, in solidarity with similar vigils and marches across Canada.
No More Silence manages a community database called It Starts with Us. The database operates in collaboration with the Families of Sisters in Spirit, and the Native Youth Sexual Health Network. Audrey Huntley has discussed the work of No More Silence and the broader context of violence against Indigenous women in an interview. The database builds on the work of Audrey Huntley, and the late Amber O’Hara. Two other notable researchers are Maryanne Pearce, and the late Loretta Saunders. Maryanne Pearce’s PhD dissertation from the University of Ottawa is essential reading, and has contributed significantly to community databases. Unfortunately, Loretta Saunders, an Indigenous Inuk woman herself, never had the opportunity to complete her her thesis on missing and murdered Indigenous women. Loretta’s sister Delilah operates a blog on homicide survivor grief and trauma, with plans to launch a website.
Creative works on violence against Indigenous women
The Round House is just one of many creative works touching on the issue of violence against Aboriginal women. Joseph Boyden, author of Through Black Spruce, has recently edited an anthology called Kwe: Standing with Our Sisters, which includes contributions from over 50 contributors including Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Gord Downie, Thomas King, Lee Maracle, and Yann Martel. Walking With Our Sisters is a collaborative art project that commemorates the number of missing and murdered Indigenous women through the display of moccasin vamps. Jamie Black’s Red Dress installation has been exhibited at several Canadian universities, which consists of 130 empty, red dresses hanging in common areas. The documentaries Stolen Sisters, Highway of Tears, Finding Dawn, and Building a Highway of Hope provide accessible and compelling narratives for a variety of audiences. Naomi Klein delivered a speech about the death of Bella Laboucan-Mclean on December 18, 2014 at The Opera House in Toronto, at a special production of the Basement Revue to to raise funds for No More Silence. Blogger Kwe Today’s response provides an important counterpoint to Klein’s speech.
Thoughts on The Round House
For whom is The Round House written? I was struck by the absence of settler worldviews in The Round House. The settler and colonial characters – Linden Lark, Father Travis Wozniak, Soren Bjerke, Sonja – have no control over the perspective crafted by Erdrich. Instead, the narrative is driven by the novel’s Ojibwe characters – Joe Coutts, his father Bazil and mother Geraldine, Whitey, Mooshum, Clemence, Randall, Grandma Thunder, Cappy, Zack, Angus and Linda Wishkob – and their relationships with each other on the reservation.
I connected with The Round House first as a Métis reader – noting how the author describes the exodus of Métis travelling South to Montana and Minnesota during the Reign of Terror after the fall of Batoche and the hanging of Louis Riel, the Ojibwe welcoming of the Métis and their aptitude for farming, and the later settler-mentality of some Métis towards their Ojibwe hosts and family. As I read this, I thought of the internalization of colonialism and colonial violence within Indigenous communities. I thought about how this story – that of the Métis – related to the story of Nanapush and the Old Buffalo Woman, the near-extinction of the plains buffalo, the establishment of reservations and allotments, the piece-meal cutting up of Indian lands by ravenous land speculators and an all-consuming Federal government. I thought of violence and hunger. I thought of gardening – whether the root you pull will crack your foundation, whether careful patience in planting will ensure a harvest. The Round House is like a patch-work blanket of interconnected stories, of human characters making decisions about how they relate to the world around them and to others, and of the long-term impact of such decisions.
The Tribal Court judge Bazil Coutts arranges a decaying casserole to illustrate the body of colonial Indian Law, balancing the sharp knives of tribal court precedent on top in the hope of grounding future tribal sovereignty. Bazil Coutts explains this to his son Joe, and Joe relates it to the story of Nanapush surviving in the remains of Old Buffalo Woman. What happens to an Indigenous lawyer who survives in the remains of a colonial state? What is the relationship between the Indigenous lawyer and his or her Indigenous laws and those of the colonial state? Is the Indigenous lawyer compromised in his or her engagement with Indigenous laws? What happens when Indigenous laws are incorporated into colonial law? Bazil Coutts nearly tests this question when he suggests that successfully arguing Wetiko laws in tribal court could ground future claims for tribal sovereignty (at 227-230). But what happens after you’ve built your foundation on hungry, invasive saplings? Can you tear them out? Or is the careful, patient, infinite pruning essential to the integrity of the foundation – in this way acknowledging the relationship between the saplings and the foundation through conscious activity. Perhaps that’s the point. Not to forget that there will be saplings in the foundation.
I certainly do not have any answers to these questions. I’ve been asking myself these things for over five years, when I first made the decision to consider attending law school and I will likely continue to do so. And this made me think about how important it was for me to be able to work out some of these questions for myself in the narrative of The Round House.
Scott is a second year law student at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto. He is co-president of the Osgoode Indigenous Students Association, a senior editor with the Osgoode Hall Law Journal, and a student member of the Indigenous Bar Association. Scott has contributed to public legal education projects related to human rights and specific claims, and worked for the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General as a summer law student. Scott’s vision is to foster reciprocity between Indigenous and Canadian laws, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students, and within traditional Canadian legal education. He is on twitter: @sjfranks