Abuses and Allotments: The setting of Louise Erdrich’s Tracks and its importance
by Mark Schauer
The story of Native American history since contact with Europeans has been one of land and the diametrically opposed conception of it held by both groups: the former saw it as a setting that supplied sustenance and belonged to everyone within a tribal range, while the latter conceived of it as a commodity that could be owned, parceled, and sold by individuals. Though they lacked the insatiable greed of their colonizers, the importance of land was keenly felt by those who had lived on it for generations. In Louise Erdrich’s Tracks, the character Nanapush states the dilemma thusly: “Land is the only thing that lasts life to life. Money burns like tinder, flows off like water. And as for government promises, the wind is steadier” (T 33). Over the course of centuries, the colonizers’ sustained assault against indigenous people resulted in, “the Native cultures (being) disposed, nearly wiped out by 1900 (Lincoln 7). Having seized most of the continent, the colonizers were not content to merely confine what was left of the decimated first inhabitants on reservations and leave them to live as best they could using traditional means. Instead, the dominant power structure wanted to ‘assimilate’ the indigenous population by dividing what was left of native land and parceling it out in individual acreages. Tracks is, “in part an autopsy of this process, whereby place becomes property,” and thus is deeply and inherently political (Larson 1). “As a Native American writer, Erdrich has to deal with the fact that Native Americans have been constantly underrepresented or misrepresented in traditional Western historical narratives. By simply writing about Native American history and peoples, she counters the invisibility of minority life and history in American mainstream society” (Quennet 145). For the full effect of this necessary reclaiming of Native history, however, the place in which the historical fiction is set is of vital importance. Erdrich herself has opined that, “a traditional storyteller fixes listeners in an unchanging landscape combined of myth and reality” (Erdrich 1). The preponderance of evidence shows that in Tracks, as well as its chronological sequels Love Medicine, The Beet Queen, and The Bingo Palace, this landscape is in North Dakota in locales that strongly resemble the Turtle Mountain Reservation in the north central part of the state and Erdrich’s hometown of Wahpeton, in the southeast on the Minnesota border.
Nonetheless, much has been made of the similarity of the fate of the Ojibwe characters in Tracks with the historical outrage perpetrated against the White Earth Anishinaabeg from the signing of the Dawes Act in 1887 to the nadir of Native American wellbeing in the early 1920s. Eager to assimilate indigenous people into the dominant society in the wake of the American Civil War, the timber-rich White Earth Reservation was envisioned by white policymakers as a showcase for the effort to convert communal, nomadic natives into yeoman farmers tending allotments as small-time capitalists. The objective solidified twenty years later in the General Allotment (Dawes) Act of 1887, in which tribal members across the nation were eligible to receive up to 160 acres of land exempt from, “sale or alienation for twenty-five years” (Meyer 391). (Tracks begins in 1912, 25 years after the Dawes Act.) Surplus land remaining after these allotments were issued was opened for white settlement, which immediately led to a net loss of more than 65% of Native-controlled land (Larson 6). Not satisfied with this massive infusion of land onto the market, however, in the first decade of the twentieth century Minnesota congressmen Moses Clapp and Halvor Steenerson, acting on behalf of timber interests hungry for White Earth land, sponsored bills that first allowed mixed-blood tribal members to sell timber rights, followed by a 1906 act that removed all restrictions from land sales on White Earth and other reservations. Massive allotment fraud, unscrupulous tactics by land speculators, a pseudo-scientific attempt to prove that virtually all of the tribal members were mixed-bloods and thus not legally eligible for allotments, and aggressive tax delinquency seizures resulted in 99% of the reservation being taken from tribal members by 1920. In 1988, the same year Tracks was published, Erdrich co-wrote with her then-husband Michael Dorris an expose of this travesty that was published in The New York Times Magazine, which added to speculation that the politicized novel was a thinly veiled account of White Earth. This connection was particularly emphasized by respected critic James Stripes in his “The Problem(s) of (Anishinaabe) History in the Fiction of Louise Erdrich: Voices and Contexts”, which was more noted for pointing out the connection between trees, lumbering, and the triplicate government documents Nanapush so derides, but also strongly implied that the story is set on the White Earth Reservation.
Lost in the rush to place Tracks in Minnesota, however, was the fact that the historical Turtle Mountain Ojibwe in North Dakota experienced just as egregious a theft of timber-rich tribal land, both prior and subsequent to the Dawes Act. Critic P. Jane Hafen points out that, “although the particularities are consistent with the history at the White Earth Chippewa Reservation, the scenario could have and has happened dozens of places” (Hafen 326). The Turtle Mountain Reservation was one of those places, and in some ways served as the textbook example for the fraud committed at White Earth. In fact, were it not for the sustained political struggle waged by tribal leaders, the Turtle Mountain band may actually have been forced to relocate to White Earth prior to the time period of Tracks.