The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee by David Treuer

Hello everyone, and happy Leap Day! Today I am reviewing The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present by David Treuer. 

First, I want to refresh everyone about why I chose this book to read for the blog. As writers, we often find ourselves in the position of writing ‘the other.’ This means writing from the perspective of someone who differs from you in a significant way (race, gender, ability, etc.) This can be a tricky and even risky proposition. But it’s also necessary unless you want to spend your whole life writing about people who are exactly like you. Personally, I think that would get boring pretty quickly. To write ‘the other’ well, you have to do your research. Ideally, a good percentage of this research would involve information that comes directly from your target group.

David Treuer is a member of the Ojibwe Nation. He’s a Native American talking about Native American life. This first-hand perspective is invaluable for anyone who is trying to understand another group. For the writer, it’s also beneficial, since we are trying to create a realistic perspective for our characters.  I have a BA in History, and we spent a lot of time talking about how important it is for groups of people who have been historically marginalized to be given the space to tell their stories in their own words. As a writer, I intend to honor the spirit of that sentiment. Even if I am writing from the outside looking in, my characters should be based on the perspectives of real people from whatever group I’m writing about. 

Now maybe you are thinking that this doesn’t apply to you because you make up your own fantasy cultures. That’s fair. I also write fantasy, and while historical civilizations inspire some of my cultures, they are not meant to be representative of the real thing. But the concepts I’m about to discuss still apply to us. Bear with me for a moment.

Let’s say you are writing about a fantasy culture that has been invaded by outsiders. Learning about something like the Native American experience could help you create realistic reactions to that situation. Or maybe your main character lives in a society where almost no one is like him or her. Learning about any minority group would help you write that character’s emotions and desires in a way that will connect with your audience. So now that we all know why we are here let’s talk about the book.

I highly recommend The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee to anyone who wants to learn more about the modern Native American experience. This book introduced me to a ton of new information that has changed the way I think about Native America. One of the best things about this book is the Treuer doesn’t settle for just telling us about his Ojibwe perspective. He traveled the country and talked with Native Americans from various tribes and walks of life about issues like Native identity, the outcome of government policies, and Native rights activism. 

Treuer’s stated mission in this book is to overturn the pervasive idea that Native Americans are hopeless victims whose cultures virtually ended after 1890 (the year of the Wounded Knee massacre). He shows us a diverse group of Native peoples who have survived the depredations of colonialism and continued to grow and adapt. Yes, some things have been lost, but much has also been preserved. This book wasn’t just written to educate white people, but also to give Native people a more positive outlook on their past and their future. He’s not minimizing the damage that was done to Native America by colonialism; he’s just shifting the focus to the amazing story of Native American survival. 

Treuer also highlights the ways that Native Americans are participating in modern life. In K-12 school, most of us are taught to think of Native Americans as being somehow frozen in time. We don’t ever learn about what Native life is like today. Unless you live in a part of the country where Native Americans are visible in your community, you might not have ever thought about the fact that many Native people have jobs in tech and use social media. Even in our age of “social justice,” racist and just plain inaccurate ideas about Native American people are pervasive. Again, this is a concept that we, as writers, can apply to our work even if we are not writing about Native Americans. But on the real-life side of things, it’s also important to be educated about these issues. 

I think that this book has a lot to offer to any writer who is trying to create characters that come from groups that are marginalized, misunderstood or misrepresented, (even if those groups are made up). It’s also an essential book for anyone who wants to bring their knowledge of Native America up to date.

If you have read this book I would love to know what you thought of it. As always, I’m open to recommendations of other books that could further my education in this area. 

In March I will be reading The Nine Fox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee, a hard science-fiction novel that deals with my favorite subject–math. Wish me luck.

Happy Reading

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