Earth Mother

Acclaimed author Louise Erdrich ’76 writes complicated stories that illuminate issues confronting Native Americans and society at large. Now she’s speaking out to save the planet.

Giving the Commencement address on the Green in 2009, novelist Louise Erdrich was in crowd-pleasing form. With a buoyant voice and a radiant smile cutting through the mist of that drizzly day, she told funny stories, starting with what turned out to be an allegory about some baby chickens being transported in the back of the small plane that first brought her to Dartmouth. Every time the plane hit an air pocket, the chicks went peep-peep-peep-peep-peep—courageously raising their voices against a worrisomely turbulent world.

But near the end of her 15-minute talk Erdrich’s own voice darkened. So did her metaphors. “Knowledge without compassion is dead knowledge,” she said, her smile replaced by an expression of grim purpose. “Beware of knowledge without love. I don’t mean Harlequin Romance love. I don’t write those kinds of books. I mean love as in devotion to this world—a world that needs you right now, worse than it ever has.” She assessed the crowd with a gimlet eye. “Have you ever been in a relationship where you took someone for granted, but he or she seemed resilient? A relationship in which you had the feeling that things were going to be all right in spite of how you’d acted, and then, all of a sudden, boom—you got dumped? That’s the relationship we’re in right now with the earth. But if the earth dumps us, we all do die of broken hearts.”

It was a discordant note on that day of hope and optimism: a bit raw, a bit uncomfortable. But the students, and the College itself, may have gotten off easy. In the three and a half years since, Erdrich—whose 14 novels include her first, Love Medicine (1984), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and her most recent, The Round House (2012), which won the National Book Award—has become increasingly alarmed about our souring relationship with the earth and the looming prospect of an ultimate breakup.

Climate change haunts her, as does the environmental damage being inflicted on the landscape of her childhood, which she sees regularly when visiting friends and family in North Dakota. She cannot contain herself when it comes to fossil-fuel companies and their fiery oil fields, their pipelines carrying fracked oil, their fleets of massive, lumbering trucks clogging roads and spewing pollution into the air.

“Big energy companies aggressively do not care what they’re doing to the climate,” says Erdrich, a longtime resident of Minneapolis. “You have to stand watching the tankers roll all day, every day across Indian land to realize how brutal this process is and how much money is being made. You have to see clean natural gas flared, just burned off, because the oil companies won’t spend the money to cap and use it. The land is becoming utterly fouled. Nobody drinks the water, reservation ditches have become dumps for radioactive material too expensive to dispose of properly and there are accidents almost every day, often agonizing fatalities, involving oil tankers.”

“Why should Dartmouth divest from fossil fuels? Because when you are educating students to have a better future, you should do all possible to ensure they have a future.”

Last summer Erdrich, who grew up in Wahpeton, North Dakota, and is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa (also known as Ojibwa) Indians, drove to see friends on the Fort Berthold Indian reservation in the western part of the state. “Driving through the Killdeer Mountains in the Badlands took hours because of tankers inching up and down the steep hills,” she says. “This is out in what people call ‘the oil patch,’ with natural gas flares sometimes 20 to 30 feet high. At night it’s surreal, lighted like Mordor in The Lord of the Rings. The day before I visited, an oil tanker had plowed into wild horses and scattered them, screaming and dying, across the highway.”

Even worse is the oil-boom town of Williston, a two-and-a-half-hour drive northwest of Fort Berthold. “People say that driving into the oil fields of Williston at night is like being in hell, because they’re flaring off the methane,” she says. “In fact, that part of North Dakota can be seen now from outer space—it’s as bright as Minneapolis or Chicago.”

Given her rising distress about what’s happening so visibly in the land of her youth, it’s no surprise that Erdrich is lending her voice to an environmental cause that involves the other great proving ground of her life: the College. Erdrich agreed to grant DAM an interview only if she could issue a call for the College to divest itself of stock in companies with significant holdings in fossil fuels.

“Why should Dartmouth divest from fossil fuels? Because when you are educating students to have a better future, you should do all possible to ensure they have a future,” she says. “If I were giving the Commencement talk next year, I’d talk about how a commitment to real climate-change-oriented investment could have a huge impact. A clear signal on divestment would show that the College understands the challenges of climate change and is not going to contribute to making our world hot, dangerous and diminished.”

Erdrich was an early supporter of Divest Dartmouth, a student-led group formed in January 2013 that published a list of 200 companies with fossil-fuel holdings, at least a dozen of which count Dartmouth among their investors. The group’s leaders have met with President Phil Hanlon ’77 to press for divestment and circulated a 2013 petition, which Erdrich signed even before it was publicized, calling on the College to freeze new investments in the companies and complete a full divestment during the next five years. In September Hanlon instructed the College’s Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility, a standing group of students, alumni, faculty and administrators that meets weekly through the spring, to prepare a report on the pros and cons of fossil-fuel divestment; that work is currently under way.

“She’s deeply inspiring to us,” Divest Dartmouth co-organizer Leehi Yona ’16 says of Edrich, who is one of hundreds of alums who support the group. “Dartmouth is so fortunate to have alumni such as Louise, such an incredibly important person in American society, speaking out this way. As she eloquently explains, when it comes to climate change there is no bigger, more important issue facing society today. We think it’s a no-brainer.”

Erdrich agrees. “The administration and the board of trustees could immediately freeze all new investments in the fossil-fuel companies with the dirtiest records and the most devastating extraction plans,” she says. “Dartmouth can be rightly proud that it was the first Ivy League college to divest during the apartheid era [when American institutions began to stop investing in companies that directly or indirectly supported South Africa’s system of racial segregation]. In terms of moral leadership, I think divesting of fossil fuels is the next big statement. The College has the opportunity to again lead the way.”

How the divestment issue will play out is anyone’s guess, but Erdrich remains hopeful. “Every time I visit Dartmouth I’m struck by the thoughtful and brilliant people at my beloved school,” she says. “I have confidence in the leadership and in the acumen of the College’s financial planners. We need people who can creatively manage money to do good in the world.”

Bruce Duthu ’80, chairman of the Native American studies program and a friend of Erdrich, isn’t surprised by her push for fossil-fuel divestment. He sees it as an outgrowth of her Native American heritage and her writing. “It’s quite consistent in that she has always used her writing to bring attention to issues of justice,” he says. “She’s always wanting people to engage with indigenous viewpoints, including environmental, ecological knowledge that comes from an indigenous perspective.”

Erdrich’s environmentalism is anything but a recent phenomenon. Both her parents had a small carbon footprint long before that concept was invented. (Erdrich’s parents taught at the Wahpeton Indian School, now called the Circle of Nations School, near the edge of the Sisseton-Wahpeton reservation.) “I learned all about energy use and commitment to Native people from my family, starting with my father, who has never driven his car anywhere his bicycle can go,” Erdrich recalls. “He treads this earth lightly and gives back so much. He and my mother have an enormous garden. She cans the extra food every year and fills her freezer with still more.”

Erdrich, too, treads the earth lightly. In 2013 she had 10 locally manufactured solar panels installed on the roof of her house, despite what she describes as “the madness of the paperwork” the local utility company imposes on homeowners. She also funnels some of the proceeds from Birchbark Books & Native Arts, the independent bookstore she owns and operates, to 350.org, the climate-change activist organization led by the environmental writer Bill McKibben.

Erdrich’s sense of closeness to the earth has long been a key part of her Native American identity, for which she found unexpected support as a freshman in 1972. That year was not only the first for Dartmouth as an officially coed institution but, as important to Erdrich, also the year the College recommitted to its original mission of educating Native students and instituted its Native American studies program.

“It was reassuring to be with other Native students, but also strange because I’d never known any other tribe but Dakota or Lakota,” Erdrich recalls. “I was lost, overwhelmed by all I didn’t know, scrambling in a crazy way to make up for my inadequate high school education. What saved me was that I’d always read books, read everything, including things I didn’t understand.”

It was in Hanover that Erdrich, a creative writing major, began writing seriously, and where she found the first champions of what would become her storied literary career. “My writing teachers, Richard Corum and A.B. Paulson, were thrillingly encouraging,” recalls the author, whose sisters, Heid E. ’86 and Angela ’87, DMS’94, and daughter, Aza Erdrich Dorris ’11, followed her to the College.

“[North Dakota novelist] William Gass visited,” Erdrich recalls. “He was engagingly modest and also encouraging. Alan Gaylord was my first literature professor, and the canonical texts I read were vital to all else. I studied in London with professor Brenda Silver. She put Virginia Woolf’s books into my hands, and after Mrs. Dalloway I was never the same. I was seized by curiosity: How had she invented that fluid consciousness?”

Erdrich also studied philosophy with the late Victor Menza, who asked why she always fell asleep in his morning class. “I told him that I worked at Thayer Dining Hall, the 6 a.m. breakfast shift. I could tell from his face that he wanted to raise my grade just for serving 1,000 Dartmouth breakfasts. He gestured with his hands open, his head to the side. We stared at each other. He made a sad face and told me that I could put words together well, but there was no logical content. So I went back to telling stories.”

Good move. With Love Medicine, published to huge acclaim eight years after she graduated from Dartmouth, Erdrich began assembling a fictional world inspired by the people and landscape of her youth, including a small group of Native American reservations and immediate surrounding areas in North Dakota. Most of the novels—including The Beet Queen (1986), Tracks (1988), The Crown of Columbus (1991, co-written with her then-husband, the late Michael Dorris, founding director of Dartmouth’s Native American studies program), The Bingo Palace (1994), Tales of Burning Love (1997), The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001), The Master Butchers Singing Club (2003), Four Souls (2004) and The Painted Drum (2005)—are set in this universe, which is both mythic and contemporary in a way that has drawn regular comparison with William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Some of the novels focus on Native American characters, while others concentrate on German-American and other white people in the area. Through time the two groups have collided and sometimes blended.

Erdrich’s storytelling technique has evolved from an early emphasis on layered multiple narratives to a more streamlined, linear approach that, among other things, allows her to write more quickly. “I’m trying to ramp up the writing now,” she says, “because I just turned 60.” Her recent novels have increasingly focused on themes of justice and injustice. The Plague of Doves (2008), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, is about the historical impact of the lynching of Native Americans accused of killing a white family.

“She captures many of the struggles that the United States has been through itself and reminds us that our history has had its share of cultural violence,” says Sharon Rab, chairwoman of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, which recently named Erdrich the winner of its 2014 Richard C. Holbrooke Lifetime Achievement Award. “She also shows the melding of cultures that I think leads to hope.”

The Round House—parts of which she read to daughter Aza’s “Native American Law and Literature” class, taught by Duthu, during the writing process in 2010—takes on the issue of sexual assault on Indian reservations and how the justice system’s handling of such cases is stymied by complex jurisdictional rules. “It was very exciting to see mother and daughter in the class together,” recalls Duthu, who advised Erdrich on tribal law and jurisdiction matters for the book. “She let us read a chapter before it was published and asked the students for feedback. It was the high point of my teaching career.”

“His students’ were the first reactions I had, and I made changes according to what gripped them and what troubled them,” Erdrich recalls. “Along with my daughters, they were my first editors. Professor Duthu really gave me enormous help with the thorny questions in the book and confidence that I was moving in the right direction with the narrative.”

These days, Erdrich is working on a new novel, LaRose, which she says will delve “deeply into questions of justice.” She’s also putting the finishing touches on Makoons, the latest in a series of children’s books, about “the life of an Ojibwe woman and her family—100 years of life—and I am afraid that I’ll be 100 before I finish the series.”

So many stories, so little time. But Erdrich will continue to tell them.                  

Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer and regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and Poets & Writers magazine.

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