MOORHEAD, Minn. — David Treuer has lived in the Los Angeles area for a decade, but his cellphone number shows where he really considers home.
“I can’t give it up,” he says of the 612 area code. “I’ve got to keep connected to the homeland somehow.”
Actually, the author has very little trouble staying close to his Minnesota roots. Treuer has written seven books, fiction and nonfiction, each of them informed by his upbringing on the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota where he is a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe.
“It’s where my heart is,” he says.
His latest, “The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present,” looks at Indian life around the country over the last century.
As the title suggests, it is a response to Dee Brown’s 1970 book, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” which Treuer read as a freshman at Princeton University. That was in 1990, the 100th anniversary of the massacre of more than 150 Lakota men, women and children.
“I had really conflicted feelings,” Treuer recalls about reading the book.
At the time, he was homesick for Leech Lake, so reading about Native Americans made him feel recognized and empowered. At the same time the words stung as Brown said Wounded Knee signified the end of Indian culture and all that remains are tragic scenes on Indian reservations.
“On one hand I felt ennobled and on the other hand, I felt he shoved me in a rather premature grave. That complicated feeling stayed with me,” says Treuer, who has a Ph.D. in anthropology. “Wounded Knee wasn’t the end of anything. It was a very low point from which Native American communities have been emerging ever since. There was no book that explained what we’d been doing for the past 125 years. Because there was no book that existed, I had to write it.”
'A personal journey'
As opposed to many other historical books, Treuer sprinkles in some of his own accounts and observations gained as he crisscrossed the country collecting interviews. The approach was effective and the book was a finalist for the 2019 National Book Award for nonfiction.
“I knew I was writing about Native American life, not Native American death. That being the case, I knew I had to go out into the world and talk to people and hear what they had to say. I also knew this was a personal journey so I had to put myself in the book, too,” Treuer says of his reporting approach.
The book explores everything from the fallout of the Wounded Knee massacre to the rise of the American Indian Movement (A.I.M.) in the late 1960s to the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act that paved the way for casinos on Indian land.
“History isn’t just a set or past events; history lives through us,” Treuer says. “We haven’t had the chance to make history as we choose, but we’ve been making history as Native people, not always on our own terms, but we’ve been making history nonetheless.”
The book winds down with the recent protests of oil pipelines on Native American lands, including the protests in Standing Rock in western North Dakota and the 2018 elections of Rep. Sharice Davids, D-Kan., and Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., the first Native American women elected to Congress.
Treuer’s travels took him around the country, but regional voices are featured prominently. In the closing section, he talks to Indians who are leading the way establishing or reestablishing Native culture or working to improve quality of life. He talks to Sean Sherman, the Minneapolis-based “Sioux Chef,” Chelsey Luger, a wellness activist based in Phoenix, interviewed in her hometown Grand Forks, and Sarah Agaton Howes, an Anishinaabe artist and community organizer from Fond du Lac Nation in Minnesota.
“Maybe that says something about our region, that there are a lot of people from the tri-state area doing amazing things,” he says. “It’s astounding. We have a renaissance of ceremonial traditions, new artistic traditions, old diets. I don’t think it’s a mistake that it’s centered around a place that’s both dense with Indian history but also living, breathing, vibrant Indian communities alive today.”
Treuer knows this firsthand, not only through his reporting for the book. His family still lives on the Leech Lake Reservation and he estimates he spends about a third of the year there. Once his kids have grown up, he plans to move back.
“It’s kind of everything,” he says. “I guess what Russia was to Tolstoy, Leech Lake and northern Minnesota is to me.”