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Gathering around 'The Round House'

Erdrich novel sparks conversations, celebrations on Indigenous culture

Front cover of "The Round House" by Louise Erdrich
February 11, 2021

Louise Erdrich’s 14th novel “The Round House” opens with an image of creeping tree roots threatening the foundation of a family home on the Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota.

The novel’s narrator, Joe Coutts, works to remove each seedling at its root — the last memory he has before his 13-year-old life is forever changed. Joe will soon learn that his mother has been brutally attacked. 

What follows is a story told retrospectively, through an Indigenous lens, about Joe’s journey to a deeper understanding of his personal and family history, and the cascading, intergenerational effects of his mother’s assault.

Exploring themes of justice, vulnerability and resilience, Erdrich’s award-winning novel is at the center of the prestigious Big Read Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, awarded to Arizona State University's Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, which, beginning this month, has launched over 25 virtual events — talks, workshops, performances and exhibitions — in celebration and support of Indigenous literary arts and culture across the Valley.

“For the Piper Center, it was important to serve and prioritize Indigenous communities. Arizona is one of the most Indigenous states in the country. Over 25% of the state is tribal land,” said Jake Friedman, senior coordinator for the Piper Center, who views the grant as a foundation for future projects that create space and redistribute resources. “The work is already taking place. We’re celebrating communities that have always been here.”

With a focus on family history, community archiving and Indigenous land, the ASU Library and its Labriola National American Indian Data Center are participating in the Big Read in a big way, curating a library guide and a book display in Hayden Library and hosting half a dozen events, including a creative writing and zine workshop led by Indigenous poet and ASU alumna Amber McCrary, the founder of Abalone Mountain Press.  

Here, for a discussion about how the library is supporting readers of “The Round House” and engaging with Erdrich’s work as a way into conversations around Indigenous resilience and expression, Alex Soto (Tohono O’odham), assistant librarian, is joined by Joe Buenker, associate librarian, who once read Erdrich’s first published novel “Love Medicine” in one sitting and then, within a few days, read it again.

Question: Can you talk about Louise Erdrich’s work and “The Round House” as the chosen book for the NEA Big Read: Phoenix?

Soto: Joe can nerd out on Erdrich all day, but in general, like Joy Harjo and other Native authors and poets known internationally, Erdrich is just a really good author who happens to be Native and is able to share that experience. When looking at Native authors, who use their blessings and talents to infuse the colonial system with who they are, what stands out to me is the resilience of Natives to have to package their stories in the non-Native language to show that there is humanity within us and behind us. And the storytelling is effective.

Buenker: The NEA Big Read is like the common book assigned to college freshmen, where we all, approximately at the same time, get to experience the same book. We often do this with film. Everyone is bringing their own background and experiences to that reading, and then getting them together to talk about something they normally don’t talk about. I think “The Round House” is a great book for introducing Erdrich’s writing, as it’s more streamlined. There are no multiple narrators and it’s chronological. In some ways, it’s one of her simpler books in terms of plot, but it’s very rich in terms of emotional experience and character growth.

Q: A sexual assault case drives the plot of “The Round House.” Erdrich has said in interviews that she wanted to write a book about jurisdiction, calling attention to the disturbing statistics that 1 in 3 Native women are raped and that very few perpetrators are brought to justice due, in part, to a patchwork of tribal laws and jurisdictional issues. Additionally, more than 80% of rapes are believed to be committed by non-Natives. Can you talk about some of the heavier conversations in the book related to violence and vulnerability, and how the library is supporting this awareness?

Buenker: There are several incidents of violence in “The Round House” and this is because Erdrich was responding to the possible expiration of the Violence Against Women Act, legislation which President Biden helped pass 40 years ago, and the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) crisis. Violence against Indigenous women, in particular, is higher than any other group, and it’s higher on tribal lands, as perpetrators know the likelihood of being prosecuted is very low. Most tribal courts can only sentence someone for up to a year, so meaningful prosecution requires the FBI to get involved. The question then becomes: Will the FBI invest their resources? There’s a really bad track record for the amount of prosecution that happens.

Soto: I think the library guide is a good entry point. Depending on where you want to go, the guide connects you to resources that further frame the issue. In terms of the events that Labriola is hosting around archives and memory, the need to investigate historical trauma plays a crucial role in Native family history. Having that knowledge of your family history, learning how to archive — this is what we are trying to share in our workshops. 

Q: Alex, can you talk about the March 9 student panel event on “BIPOC Memory” and the March 17 panel event on Indigenous land acknowledgements?

Soto: The student panel of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) archivists is inspired by the book’s theme of wanting to know one’s history and digging into those histories. The panel is a way to bring in many perspectives in our work to decolonize the archives. Many of our stories have lived outside of the main institutional narratives, and if our stories don’t fit into the narrative, then they don’t get preserved. But librarians and archivists are in it for the long haul. We want to bring awareness not just with Natives but with everyone. The panel on land recognition really connects to the book in terms of the jurisdictional issues and how non-Native institutions should support Natives. The folks on the panel have experience with crafting land statements and there’s a lot of interest in it. A lot of libraries are looking at us and the land statement we created last year. 

See the full list of events for the NEA Big Read: Phoenix, including “All about the Round House with Joe Buenker” on Feb. 28.

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