I recently reread a book called The Round House by best-selling Lakota novelist, Louise Erdrich.
The narrator and main character, Joe, is the adolescent son of two loving parents, growing up on an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota. His father works as a judge in the tribal legal system; his mother works in the tribal registry office, handling the convoluted web of privileges and duties tied to one’s genealogy and ancestry.
In the summer of his 13th year, Joe’s mother, Geraldine, was brutally raped and doused in gasoline but escaped before her attacker could kill her. Geraldine had been a vivacious, kind, responsible wife and mother prior to the crime; her position at the tribal registry office played a direct role in her being targeted. She retreats into her room and into herself for weeks, refusing to divulge the details of the attack, including who did it.
“Her serene reserve was gone—a nervous horror welled across her face. The bruises had come out and her eyes were darkly rimmed like a raccoon’s. A sick green pulsed around her temples. Her jaw was indigo. Her eyebrows had always been so expressive of irony and love, but now were held tight by anguish. Two vertical lines, black as if drawn by a marker, creased her forehead.”
The family and authorities only know that the crime happened somewhere near the round house, an old log hexagon once used for rituals. The quest for justice consumes the family. The court case ends up resting on the question of where the attack took place—as different laws apply to different jurisdictions, and it is not known whether the rape took place on reservation, state, or federal land. Because the jurisdiction could not be determined, no legal process was possible, and, ultimately, the perpetrator is set free.
Geraldine is supported by her community without question or hesitation. Many neighbors and relatives ask Joe how his mother is doing and offer kindness, whether in the form of thoughtful words or a casserole. Everyone condemns the attacker without in any way blaming, shaming, or belittling the victim.
Erdrich cites a 2009 Amnesty International report that found that one in three Native American women are raped—86 percent of these crimes are committed by non-native men, most of whom are never prosecuted.
But discrimination against North American indigenous peoples is not exclusive to the United States. Canada, too, has a long history of legalized racism.