Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Three Books on American Indians, Land Loss, and the IRA

In its February 24, 2009 decision on Carcieri v Salazar the Supreme Court decided that the word "now" in the Indian Reorganization Act means the year 1934 when the Act was passed.

The term "Indian" as used in this Act shall include all persons of Indian
descent who are members of any recognized Indian tribe now under Federal
jurisdiction, and all person who are descendants of such members who were, on
June 1, 1934...

In light of this ruling I thought it might be appropriate mention some good books on the subject of how American Indian land was lost in the first place and how the IRA worked to reverse the tide.

In 1887 the Dawes Act divided Indian Reservations into individual allotments with the purpose of ending the very unAmerican custom of holding land in common and turning Indians into farmers. Another convenient consequence was to open un-allotted land to sale outside the tribe. The allotments were to be held in trust by the Federal Government for a specified period, after which they would become fee lands that could be sold by the individual owners. One purpose of the Indian Reorganization Act (part of FDR's New Deal) was to end the hemorrhaging of Indian land being sold for subsistence or, especially during the Depression, lost for taxes.

An excellent book on the history and effects of the IRA is The Nations Within, the Past and Future of American Indian Sovereignty. Under the IRA, provisions were made for the Secretary of the Interior or Congress to take land into trust for American Indian tribes. Since 1934, according to the NCAI website Interior has taken about 9 million acres into trust, accounting for only about 10% of the total lands lost between the Dawes Act and the IRA. Now the Supreme Court has ruled that the Secretary's ability to take land into trust applies only to tribes federally recognized as of 1934.

But as any school kid knows, most Indian land was already lost before The Dawes Act. Some Eastern tribes have been on reservations for over 300 years. Others like the Lenape who started in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware, were constantly pushed west until they ended in Oklahoma, which, for a time, was supposed to remain Indian Country until it too was opened to settlement. So how did the Indians come to lose all that land?

A common misconception is that Indian land was lost through conquest, but that isn't really accurate. Conquest by Law tells the history of Johnson v M'Intosh, the land tenure case that was the first of the Supreme Court decisions known as the Marshall Trilogy that formed the basis for American Indian Law. How the Indians Lost Their Land tells how, "between the early seventeenth century and the early twentieth century almost all the land in the present-day United States was transferred from American Indians to non-Indians."

Some of what you read here may be surprising.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Ablutions, Notes for a Novel

Publication Date: February 18, 2009

Provided free from Amazon Vine
Given the major cutbacks among the big publishing houses and the tendency over the past decade or so to go with the promise of commercial success, I am very surprised that Ablutions by Patrick deWitt found a publisher outside the small presses. That isn't a criticism. It's just that the style is somewhat experimental and the author's prior publishing credits––three in all––were not exactly in top-tier literary journals.

"Notes for a Novel" is an accurate description of what is mostly vignettes centered around the life of an alcoholic and substance abusing bartender working at a well-known but now seedy Hollywood bar. That format along with the second person point of view (you), which I can enjoy in short pieces but often find tedious in a novel, had me convinced I'd hate this. Instead it pulled me in, so much so that I felt so creepy-crawly and grimy I wanted to take a shower, but I couldn't put it down. Scary to think––but no doubt true––that so many people drive our highways with that much booze and narcotics in their systems. And not to give anything away, but I hope the first thing this guy did with his money was visit a good dentist.

I can imagine the author struggling to shape all these notes into a compelling novel, then giving up and deciding to just work at threading them together. The result is something masterful that would have come off rather prosaic had he stuck to a standard form. Ablutions has the potential to become one of those breakout word-of-mouth novels like A Confederacy of Dunces, only happily the author is still with us to enjoy the praise.

At 163 pages, Ablutions is a one-nighter if you can handle the intensity, but however long you take, it's well worth your time.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Valeria's Last Stand

Provided free from Amazon Vine

Valeria's Last Stand
by Marc Fitton is the lighthearted tale of a Hungarian town reluctantly moving into the 21st century before even catching up with the 20th. The term lighthearted, here, should not be confused with insignificant or throw-away. It is light in the style of Italo Calvino who uses humor to point out the foibles of society.

Zivatar is the town history ignored–no bombings during WWII, no tanks rolling through during the 1956 Revolution. The current older population looks back wistfully on Communism, not as dogma, but as a convenience that would have provided security in their old age. Now the mayor––once a loyal party member, now an ardent capitalisit––is determined to drag his small town into the future, building a train station and constantly courting foreign investors with the promise of new factories and jobs. In a town where everyone is still either a farmer, a shopkeeper, or a craftsman, where everyone travels on foot or on bicycles, the mayor takes his Mercedes to travel just down the block.

Valeria is an old spinster, once jilted, who afterward never enjoyed life and became the town hag, until love presents itself in the form of the town's Potter. The Potter, a widow, has had a short fling with the pub-owner, Ibolya, herself somewhat disillusioned with life and love. None of these characters is young any longer, yet, like the town, they teeter on the brink of change, at times lured by its promise; at times recoiling in fear.

Marc Fenton is Editor of the Chattahoochee Review, and anyone who has read the short fiction that appears there may, as I was, be somewhat surprised at his writing style. However, it is definitely a pleasant surprise and one I would highly recommend.