Wherever else it may be, Indian country often lies between the covers of books. On the page--and in reality--it's still a frontier.
These are among the impressions that emerged from a conversation among three writers--winners of the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes--who have dealt with the American Indian in history or in the present, in fiction or in fact.
Whether they spoke of the present or the past, all three--Evan Connell, Louise Erdrich and Janet Lewis--made it clear that Indian country at all times has been a place seen dimly. Americans, the ones who came after Columbus, often see mirages or other false landmarks when they consider the first Americans, they said.
The three authors, plus Erdrich's husband and co-worker, sat down together last Saturday at the New Otani Hotel, the morning after they were presented their awards. While they talked--hesitantly at first--in the 18th-floor room, a police helicopter was visible through the windows, circling an unknown incident on the streets below.
In a wide-ranging discussion, the argument was made repeatedly that romantic notions, outright prejudice and misguided good intentions continue to blur the landscape that red men and white men have fought over or shared so uneasily.
Erdrich, a soft-spoken and sometimes self-effacing woman who is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and who won for her novel about reservation life today ("Love Medicine," Holt, Rinehart & Winston), set the tone by declaring that vague preconceptions about Indians are treacherous.
"Each tribal situation is completely different, historically and at present," she said. "You have to look tribe by tribe, I think, in order to be able to say anything and even then you are still generalizing."
Wary of Sweeping Statements
Despite her wariness of sweeping statements and her doubts about being "competent to be a spokesperson," Erdrich did venture a broad brush treatment of contemporary Indians.
"One of the amazing stories about American Indian people is the tenacity and survival of a people who have been systematically deprived in all sorts of ways that I think have been talked about and people know about and bear repeating," she said. "This is the systematic policy of extermination that has gone on and has turned into a kind of bureaucratic attempt to eliminate cultural life and is now a struggle for a land base and mineral and water rights and a struggle for health and education.
"The amazing thing is there are Indian people who have come through all this and are still alive, struggling, kicking and celebrating their culture and the culture is still there."
Lewis--who won the Robert Kirsch Award for her body of fiction and poetry that includes "The Invasion," a 1934 novel about the collision of Indian, French and English cultures on the early frontier--said she was buoyed by the self-reliance that has infused some tribes in recent decades.
"More and more I think they have taken charge of their own affairs," she said. "I'm thinking partly of the Navajo (who are) really an independent nation within a nation," she said, referring to the largest tribe whose reservation sprawls across Arizona, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico.
Lewis' comment about independent nations prompted remarks by Michael Dorris, Erdrich's husband and collaborator, a member of the Modoc tribe who is an activist in Indian affairs.
"I think you hit the nail on the head when you talked about independent countries because that is the legal status of reservations, domestic dependent nations," he said. "As such there are a lot of rights implicit in the law that have been ignored. One of the things that's happened in recent times is that more and more native people have become attorneys and have reclaimed those rights, which is one of the things that makes the United States good . . . If there is a universal among tribal people, it is that the treaties should be kept rather than new ones made."
Both Lewis and Dorris noted that the much-ignored treaties, now a truism of Indian lore, were regarded as fiction even as they were being drawn up, that even the pretense of compliance was often tossed aside.
"About the Ohio Territory," Lewis said, "(George) Washington said in a letter to somebody that the treaty is not to be considered seriously and any man who would not go in and get himself some land now was a fool."
Dorris noted that only recently have demographers begun piecing together one grim reason why the treaties were articles of expediency.
"A hundred years ago when people made the treaties, they were sure Indians were going to disappear," he explained. "The real story of contact, the most dramatic story of contact, was the susceptibility of Western Hemisphere people to Eastern Hemisphere diseases. The current estimates are that shortly after contact with Europe, 19 out of every 20 Indian people died."