It’s strange that I have not read Red Earth, White Earth by Will Weaver years ago. After all, it takes place where I grew up, on White Earth Indian Reservation, and focuses on the controversy that inflamed racial tensions on the Reservation for many of my school years.
It tells the story of a friendship that began in childhood and stayed strong and true despite a ten year absence. It is also a story of a son finding a way to love his father. There’s another story, a romance between a laid-back California guy and an ambitious, buttoned-up East Coast woman. And all of these stories are framed by the conflict between the white farmers and the Anishinaabe Indians of White Earth whose lands were fraudulently taken and sold to white farmers early in the 1900s in response to intense lobbying by banks and farmers. Eighty years later, the Indians sought justice through the courts and all hell broke loose.
Guy Pehrsson grew up on White Earth. His father, Martin, and grandfather, Helmer, were farmers and there was an expectation he would be a farmer, too. His mother, Madeline, wanted more for him. His best friend was Tom LittleWolf. They began their friendship when they were five with Madeline’s blessing and Martin’s disapproval, even antipathy. That friendship remained strong until their junior year when a school trip to the state basketball championships reveals the despair of the urban Indian to Tom, setting him on a different track than Guy.
Guy, too, had ambitions, to get away and go to college. He hoped to earn his tuition and escape the farm by growing flax, a risky but high profit venture, if it would succeed. Guy, though, is forced to choose between family and success and chose family in a heartbreaking chapter early in the book. This sets him off, though, to California where he made his fortune which is where we find him in the prologue, a rich capitalist going home for a visit after his grandfather writes a letter saying they need help.
And he comes home to the big land controversy. This story reminded me so much of growing up. My neighbor’s farms and home titles were in question. For farmers, that meant no collateral for seed loans and farm equipment. It meant unscrupulous bankers calling in loans to foreclose on those who were unable to find the capital to keep going. For many families, it means fathers going to work on the pipeline in Alaska, the good pay there keeping farm and families afloat. Our land was legally purchased so is was easier for my dad to see both sides of the issue, leading to his ouster from the township board for being insufficiently anti-Indian.
One significant difference between the real history and the book is that there was no singular lawyer driving the White Earth Tribal Council’s strategy, but an entire group of Native American lawyers and activists. After all, Clyde and Vernon Bellecourt, two of the founders of the American Indian Movement were White Earth members. Winona LaDuke is from White Earth as well. White Earth produced many activists and their resistance had many leaders, not one. While it makes the story more dramatic to focus the resistance in the fictional Tom LittleWolf, there is more power and agency in the real history of many activists seeking power and the salvation of their tribe.
There were at times I loved this book and times it made me squirm. The young MaryAnn reminds me of a girl who was shunned by all of us, without exception, because of her appalling hygiene, though when we reached adulthood, we learned she like young MaryAnn, was sexually abused by her father and brothers, something no that occurred to none of us. While this scandal came out after the book was written, so it cannot be her, it is so uncomfortably close to home.
The story itself is wonderful. I liked the people, the compassion for everyone, even for Martin, Guy’s difficult father. There’s an understanding of how people work, how racism works and how conflict can build. It rings true. Some of the events happened and I remember them, our neighbor’s cattle being slaughtered in the night, “customs checkpoints” on the reservation border, though that only happened in response to one town setting up a checkpoint at the city limits on Hwy 2, only stopping Indians, a shameful response to a hoax perpetrated by an addict who robbed his grandparents and falsely claimed that he was robbed by Indians with rifles. But the anger was real and people did die, among them one of my classmates when racial animus broke out into a fight at a bar. Actually, maybe I do know why I have not read this book earlier.