Through the book’s second half, recounting developments since World War II, Treuer’s counternarrative to Brown takes its fullest form. In particular, his detailed assessments of what he calls “becoming Indian” highlight the resiliency and dynamism of contemporary tribal communities. Interrelated processes rooted in family and culture, he suggests, undergird the continuing sovereignty of modern Indian tribes. Such processes, he shows, are in fact ubiquitous. They are also deeply personal. For instance, as he concludes about his mother’s adjuration to maintain his family’s methods of ricing, hunting, sugaring and berry harvesting, “sovereignty isn’t only a legal attitude or a political reality.” Sovereignty is lived. It is inhabited, performed and enacted, often on a daily basis. It can also become as empowering as it is cherished: “To believe in sovereignty,” Treuer writes, “to move through the world imbued with the dignity of that reality, is to resolve one of the major contradictions of modern Indian life: It is to find a way to be Indian and modern simultaneously.” As the political theorist Glen Coulthard (Yellowknives Dene) similarly suggests, culturally specific, place-based relationships root Native peoples not only with their homelands but also with ethical obligations and a moral worldview that he terms “grounded normativity.”
Family, relationships and place-based sovereignty are a major feature of contemporary Native America, whose collective “heartbeat” has grown stronger throughout the Self-Determination Era. The legacies of conquest, however, continue, and Indian communities still endure beleaguering disparities. They also continue to confront legal and political challenges, as well as threats of violence. Treuer writes that in recent years the United States Supreme Court has been “shaped by the questions of community and obligation between the government and several Indian nations.” But he might have noted as well that since 1978 the court has fashioned a “common law colonialism” that chips away at the ability of tribal courts to enforce criminal and civil laws against non-Indians, while environmental degradation and the extraction of resources plague Indian communities disproportionately.
Increasingly, colonial battles have moved from Wounded Knee to Congress, where Native communities have, at times, been victorious. “In 2013, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA),” Treuer writes, “was reauthorized and significantly revised. Among the new provisions was the empowerment of tribal courts to charge and prosecute non-Natives who raped or assaulted Native women on Native land.”
Such statutory reforms offer tribal communities opportunities to reform misguided court rulings, and political advocacy has become an effective mechanism for protecting community members, enforcing environmental regulations and further institutionalizing sovereign authority within tribal communities. Indeed, working with Congress has become a common feature of contemporary American Indian politics. Treuer speaks of “a slew of laws” passed in the 1990s and 2000s that have empowered Native peoples.
Threats to tribal sovereignty, however, loom. Shortly after the VAWA reauthorization, Dollar General Corporation took a case to the Supreme Court contesting tribal authority over civil affairs. In 2016 it nearly won with a court that divided 4 to 4. Legal challenges like this one have become among the 21st century’s primary landscapes of confrontation.
Ultimately, Treuer’s powerful book suggests the need for soul-searching about the meanings of American history and the stories we tell ourselves about this nation’s past. There is an urgency to fashion new national narratives. Treuer’s suggestion, for example, that Indian peoples have been infected by colonialism with a disease “of powerlessness … more potent than most people imagine” could be extended to include the subordination experienced by other gendered, racialized and historically disempowered communities. This disease also has the potential to spread even further, because it cannot simply be up to America’s indigenous people to ward it off. As Treuer explains, “This disease is the story told about us and the one we so often tell about ourselves.”