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BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL

Intrigue and Protest Atop Mt. Rushmore : SUN DANCER by David London; Simon & Schuster; $23, 320 pages

September 09, 1996|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

This is fact: In 1971, two years before their confrontation with the federal government at Wounded Knee, S.D., 20 members of the American Indian Movement demonstrated at Mt. Rushmore to protest the U.S. theft of the Black Hills, which were guaranteed to the Sioux in perpetuity by the Laramie Treaty of 1868.

They "set up a camp above the immense busts of the presidents," David London writes in a note to "Sun Dancer," his passionate novel about the continuity of Native American resistance, "and demanded that the government honor the . . . treaty," which "would mean returning the Black Hills and all of South Dakota west of the Missouri River" to the tribe.

"Within 12 hours, U.S. Army Rangers dragged the group off the monument. The AIM members were arrested and charged with trespassing."

This is fiction: In 1990, tribal militants led by Clement Blue Chest, a former alcoholic turned visionary, stage a hunger strike atop Mt. Rushmore. They plan no violence, but just in case, they are guarded by a ring of bunkers manned by armed Vietnam veterans such as Blue Chest's half-brother, Joey Moves Camp, a UC Berkeley graduate who is London's narrator.

The government brings in tanks, helicopters, Navy SEALS and a high-tech arsenal including gas and stun grenades. When negotiations break down, the Feds shoot to kill--restrained only by the need not to deface those precious statues. The surviving militants are shipped off to jail.

And nobody knows about it, London would have us believe. The nation is distracted by the Persian Gulf War. The government seals off the area with the aid of a cover story about a rail crash and a toxic spill. "Reporters" who interview the demonstrators are just Feds in safari jackets. Even six years later, when Moves Camp has served his sentence and has returned to the Sioux reservation at Pine Ridge, the wall of secrecy is unbreached.

The sheer improbability of this happening in our gabby society detracts from an otherwise impressive novel. London's left-wing vision of government agents as totally cynical and evil--a vision outlined chiefly by Quinn Bacon, a white Jesuit who has been tortured by U.S.-backed regimes in Central America and seeks to revive the old Sioux warrior societies--rivals any right-wing militiaman's paranoia.

Otherwise, London's skills are undeniable. His prose is clean, his narration swift. Against a background of shacks and rusted cars and broken liquor bottles, he describes Native American spirituality in ways that will move even readers who are familiar with "Black Elk Speaks" and the novels of N. Scott Momaday and James Welch.

The characters in "Sun Dancer" are both strongly and subtly drawn. Blue Chest, devastated by his young daughter's death, is reborn through a ritual in which he drags buffalo skulls 60 miles by thongs tied to skewers that pierce his flesh. Bacon sees him as an incarnation of the Messiah. Blue Chest's wife, Linda, prefers him as an ordinary man--neither drunk nor inspired. Moves Camp is skeptical, and has his own problem--a mocking voice in his head, the product, he fears, of war-triggered schizophrenia--but he, too, responds to the call of his heritage.

Blue Chest collects a variety of followers--idealistic youths, embittered elders, holy men ranging from the media-savvy Speckled Hawk, eyeing his next book contract, to Bear Dreamer Bordeaux, the genuine article. The rancher father of Moves Camp's pregnant white girlfriend, Frannie, vows revenge; a National Guard colonel, he joins the military posse. Meanwhile, Moves Camp is attracted to a Sioux woman, Sharon, who urges him to follow traditional ways.

It's a vivid picture of reservation life that London gives us--down to kids and dogs, stolen-cow stew and smarmy missionaries. "Sun Dancer" insists on ending, though, as a thriller, with combatants dangling on ropes from Abraham Lincoln's granite brow as the bullets fly by. Too bad.

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