No, Indian reservations are not ‘sh**ty land’
In The Atlantic’s October 2013 piece titled, “The Poem That Made Sherman Alexie Want to 'Drop Everything and Be a Poet,'” Sherman Alexie wrote, “Now I am actively and publicly advocating for Native kids to leave the reservation as soon as they can. The reservation system was created by the U.S. Military. It was an act of war. Why do we make them sacred now, even though most reservations are really third-world, horrible banana republics?”
Always a provocateur, Alexie constantly flamed out seemingly against-the-grain unconventional wisdom. Except while making statements like the one above — and as someone who never lived on his reservation since he was a teen, it must be noted — he became guilty of perpetuating generic generalizations of Native Americans being singular conglomerates and a racial construct, not diverse tribal nations.
While Indian country could dismiss many of Alexie’s opinions as entitled arrogance ultimately leading to #MeToo downfall moment, there’s no doubt the magnetic self-acknowledged 'Indian du jour’ left an indelible impact in our circles and beyond. For better or worse, Alexie became a cultural ambassador of sorts as outsiders gleamed political discourse and perceptions of Natives beyond his art,
“Every Native writer is aware of (Alexie’s) dynamic—to think otherwise would be naïve,” Blackfeet writer Sterling HolyWhiteMountain wrote in a review of Alexie’s 2017 memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me. “And every one of us is aware that the fate of a finished manuscript is ultimately in the hands of white American readers who know little to nothing about us. What is interesting to consider in this context, then, is how a writer conveys their material, what kind of tribal cupboard the Indian opens for the white man, so to speak.”
So when National Public Radio ran a piece called, “Native American Author Tommy Orange Feels A 'Burden To Set The Record Straight,’” a sinking feeling came about me. Not because of NPR piece — which detailed his highly acclaimed novel There, There and growing up in Oakland as an urban Native — but because of something I’d read days before in an interview via Electric Literature titled, “Lit Ghosts in the American City.” It was subtitled, “Tommy Orange, author of ‘There There,’ on writing for a Native audience.”
While pertaining to be "writing for a Native audience" with a "burden to set the record straight," Orange said something straight out of the Alexie playbook. He said, “Reservations aren’t home. That’s where we got moved to, shitty land. We got moved there because they thought it was shitty land, and then they found oil and they did more shitty things.”
Firstly, if one wants to have a character believe such things in a story, so be it. Certainly, also speak from your own Native experience and opinions. But outright dismissing the political importance of what Indian reservations represent with simplistic Alexie-ish soundbites grounded in willful ignorance is certainly not setting any “record straight.”
As a fellow Native writer of nonfiction and fiction, one might dismiss my concerns as stemming from a crab in the bucket mentality toward an already highly successful writer who is by all accounts — including my own — a pretty affable young man.
What motivates me to write this, however, is during these perilous times of attacks on tribal sovereignty via the Trump Administration, is how people want to erode the very notion of tribal nationhood into a racial construct. I’ll fight tooth and nail in order for my Northern Cheyenne nation to live on, however. People who read books like There, There are the same people Natives need as political allies, so if a bestselling author is saying reservations are but mere “shitty lands,” well that person ironically became the king crab of the proverbial bucket.
One does not have to have live or have lived on an Indian Reservation to understand the importance of a land base regarding nationhood, from the Standing Rock protests to the Israeli and Palestinian conflict — to tribes like the landless Little Shell Tribe in Montana, whose website opens with the words, “The Little Shell Chippewa Tribe is without a reservation or land base and members live in various parts of Montana.”
Whether one’s reservation is on traditional lands or not, it’s now the de facto cultural, language, and political center of their tribe regardless. These lands were paid for by the blood of our ancestors. For instance, after the Civil War gold was discovered in Montana Territory, pressure was on the U.S. Army to drive “hostile” Natives onto Indian reservations to open up the Bozeman Trail.
The ensuing northern plains battles would collectively become known as Red Cloud’s War, and during this time U.S. Army Captain Fetterman boasted, “With 80 men I could ride through the whole Sioux Nation.” On December 21, 1866 Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Lakota allies — led by genius Lakota war strategist named Crazy Horse — would orchestrate what would be known as the Fetterman Massacre as Fetterman and his 80 men were annihilated.
The U.S. Army eventually conceded defeat in Red Cloud’s War, and they sued for a peace.
The Fort Laramie Treaty was signed in April 1868, with victorious Native allies burning down all of the forts in the area afterward.
This treaty land was won by fierce fighting and from a position of strength and the dignity by those who sacrificed for it. Red Cloud’s War is where talk of treaty rights stemmed from during the #NoDAPL protest. Lakota people stood their ground protecting not only the water, but with the same blood of their ancestors flowing through their veins on land they’d defended 150 years ago.
My Cheyenne tribe has their own powerful and unique history, a history beyond tragic massacres perpetuated against us by the whites we initially sought to make peace with time and time again; before our hearts became hardened, and we earned the moniker The Spartans of The Plains due to our combat ferocity.
After the Fort Laramie Treaty, and after the Battle of the Little Bighorn—in which Custer had attacked the Cheyenne side of the Native camp—the Northern Cheyenne were sent to the so-called Indian Territory of Oklahoma, where many of them immediately died off in droves because of disease. Lead by Chiefs Little Wolf and Morning Star, the Northern Cheyenne decided they’d fight to their death on their way home rather than die out in sickness. And that they did in what was called The Cheyenne Exodus. Despite half the band being captured and put in the barracks of Fort Robinson, then breaking out in a daring escape where some 64 of those 150 were killed, the Cheyenne kept fighting, fighting for our tribe to exist, fighting for our right to live in Montana, fighting for me — fighting for my 9-year-old daughter, Aurelia.
After this genocide and a 1,500 mile trek, we earned our land back in Montana. It was land many gave their last breath for, and I won’t dismiss its importance just because I don’t currently live within its boundaries, or because I’m an “urban Indian.” Sherman Alexie asked of sovereign Indian reservation lands, "why make them sacred now?"
To that, and as a Northern Cheyenne Tsistsistas, I point toward our official tribal documents that all have the inscription, “In memoriam of the great Northern Cheyenne Chiefs Little Wolf and Morning Star: Out of defeat and exile they lead us back to Montana and won our homeland that we will keep forever.”
Lest one is purposefully obtuse to the importance of events leading to that statement, Alexie’s question can be answered in that context.
Adrian Jawort is a proud Northern Cheyenne journalist and fiction writer based in Billings, Montana.He edited and contributed to theOff the Path IandOff the Path IIliterary fiction anthologiesfeaturing indigenous writers from North America on over to Hawaii, New Zealand, and Australia. He also has a dark fantasy novelMoonrise Falling: A Modern Gothic Tale.