Author David Treuer talks Native American history and "vibrant renaissance" ahead of Pittsburgh appearance | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Author David Treuer talks Native American history and "vibrant renaissance" ahead of Pittsburgh appearance

click to enlarge David Treuer - PHOTO: JEAN-LUC BERTINI
Photo: Jean-Luc Bertini
David Treuer
In 1877, Elmer Scipio Dundy, a U.S. District Court judge in Nebraska, ruled in Standing Bear v. Crook that a Ponca chief had the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of liberty guaranteed to white men.

It should have been a landmark case. Instead, the decision was overshadowed by the Fourteenth Amendment, added to the Constitution in 1868, which ensured citizenship for all people born in the U.S. Except for Native Americans.

“They weren’t even considered in the law as full autonomous human beings,” says David Treuer, author of The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native American from 1890 to the Present (Riverhead). “Indians didn’t even have human rights, less the rights of American citizens.”


Treuer appears Mon., Jan. 18 at a virtual talk hosted by Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures’ Ten Evenings series.

The Heartbeat is an extensive look at the history of Native Americans in North America. Citing Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, published in 1979, Treuer writes that author Dee Brown “relied on — and revived — the same old sad story of the ‘dead Indian.’ Our history (and our continued existence) came down to a list of tragedies we had somehow outlived without really living: without civilization, without culture, without a set of selves.”

That narrative obscures the true history of Native Americans and the rich and vibrant cultures that existed in North America when European settlers arrived. And while the exploration and settlement of the continent are often written as inevitable by historians, Treuer thinks it could have been different if the native tribes were monolithic, or at least a consortium that worked together.

“In the centuries-long process in which America made itself, nothing that happened was necessary,” Treuer says. “It didn’t have to be that way. History didn’t have to be what it became. It could have gone differently.”


In 1890, the U.S. Census tabulated fewer than 200,000 Native Americans living in the country, down from an estimated peak population of 20 million. That diminution of the population was the result of a willful and often vicious determination that American Indians, if not eliminated, should be marginalized and isolated from white settlements.

Native Americans, who often welcomed the new arrivals warmly, were viewed as barriers to progress. White settlers, and especially the U.S. government, “were blinded by the myth of American exceptionalism,” Treuer says, “a kind of divine destiny linked with manifest destiny to reach the other coast. Blinded by greed and a desire to have land and to expropriate resources from that land, they needed to think of natives as not fully human, as not endowed with any unalienable rights, because if not, you couldn’t do the things they wanted to do.”

Now, 130 years after Wounded Knee, a new paradigm is emerging. Sean Sherman, the Sioux Chef, has received widespread acclaim for his Indigenous menus. There are writers like Tommy Orange, a citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Nations of Oklahoma, whose novel There There earned an American Book Award in 2019 and was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. And Deb Haaland, a congresswoman from New Mexico and member of the Laguna Pueblo, a federally recognized tribe of Native American Pueblo people, is the presumptive Secretary of the Interior in President-elect Joe Biden’s administration.

“There is a kind of insanely vibrant renaissance, cultural, linguistic, artistic, economic in some places, in Indian country,” Treuer says. “It’s so fun to see. When I look at the landscape, I can see off the top of my head four or five native artists and designers. There are so many interesting things happening in fashion and food. When I was a kid, it did not look like that. Those things weren’t there.”
David Treuer at Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures’ Ten Evenings. 7:30 p.m. Mon., Jan. 18. (Virtual event, watch anytime online for one week.) $15. pittsburghlectures.org

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