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BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL : Voices of Rage, Pain at Wounded Knee Pierce the Heart : BULLET HEART by Michael Doane ; Alfred A. Knopf $23, 316 pages

August 22, 1994|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What do we remember of Wounded Knee? Not the battle in 1890 that was later recognized as a massacre, but the confrontation with American Indian Movement activists on the Pine Ridge Sioux reservation in South Dakota in 1973.

We remember that two FBI agents were killed, that AIM leaders were imprisoned and that Native Americans were still agitating years afterward for their release. That's about it.

Michael Doane brings those faded news clippings back to life in "Bullet Heart," a novel that tells the story of Wounded Knee and related conflicts through the voices of white people and Native Americans alike, then dares to leave the apparent climax in the middle and go on to trace its effects on the lives of participants and witnesses two decades later.

Bullet Heart is the name of a boy wounded in the Bones War before he is even born. His mother, Delores Her Many Horses, is Sioux; his father, Tyrone Little, is a white sympathizer distrusted by members of the tribe.

Her Many Horses leaves the fictional Clay Creek reservation; Little finds her in a bar in a neighboring town with a man named Harold Bad Hand. Bad Hand tries to pull a gun and Little shoots him. The bullet passes through him, hits the pregnant woman and lodges next to the unborn baby's heart.

Doane pauses here. We don't know who Bad Hand is, why Little shot him, why Her Many Horses left Little, or whether the victims lived or died. We backtrack to an account of the Bones War, which begins when developers of a golf course next to the reservation town of Choteau dig up a pioneer cemetery. Bones of whites are ceremoniously reburied, but the bones of a Sioux girl are declared state artifacts and taken away.

Demonstrations at Pierre, the state capital, achieve nothing. Native American anger mounts. On the reservation, AIM militants and "traditionals" square off against supporters of Bureau of Indian Affairs rule. Drunken men in pickups roam the dirt roads with rifles.

Meanwhile, across the line, on hundreds of thousands of acres that belonged to the reservation before whites nibbled them away, young Gaetan Avril allies himself with Little and Sioux leader John Fire Smith as a way of dismantling his father's empire.

Like Isaac McCaslin in Faulkner's "The Bear," who refused to inherit land tainted by slavery, Avril broods over records showing that his father snapped up 19,000 acres from Native Americans during the Depression. The former landowners live on the government dole, in trailers and tar-paper shacks surrounded by weeds and junked cars, drowning their despair in alcohol.

As Her Many Horses says: "There's a black hole we're always staring into and after a while we just jump in."

The Bones War terrorizes but reinvigorates Choteau. Noah Lame, a college graduate who tried and failed to live in the white world, sees his skin "turn red again." Lame's son, Herman, builds a sweat lodge and becomes a spiritual leader. Old men and women relive the tortured past; young people discover their roots.

Doane describes the violence through multiple points of view, as if in fragments of a broken mirror. When it's over--when two FBI agents and two Native Americans, including Herman Lame, are dead; when Smith and Little are in prison--we know some things.

For example, we know that Bad Hand, who shot one of the agents, is a killer who was paroled in return for agreeing to spy for the FBI.

But major questions remain. We still don't know who Little is, where his true sympathies lie or why Avril gave him a farm and a house to live in. Nor do we know why Avril, aside from the land-grabbing issue, hates his father and his father's friends so intensely.

A documentary would have to stop here, though, because the shooting is over. At most, it would add a brief epilogue. Doane risks another 100-plus pages. He's betting on the power of Little's and Avril's stories. They are powerful, even melodramatic, although his shifting back and forth in time and his fragmented way of telling their stories tends to play down the melodrama. Most of all, he's betting on the voices.

He wins. Doane's voices--terse and eloquent, bitter and authoritative--are a triumph of imagination. The sweetest of them is the voice of Joseph Her Many Horses, a.k.a. Bullet Heart, who has indeed survived to mow the fairways of the golf course where yet more Native American bones lie buried.

Bullet Heart's eventual meeting with Little and Smith only confirms what his very existence has suggested: that Wounded Knee was less an end than a beginning.

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