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A Novel Approach

NORTHERN LIGHT Louise Erdrich's stories are often set in her native North Dakota.
What's the best way to tell the truth about the connection between land, people, and politics? It might be fiction.

Louise Erdrich draws a clear distinction between her identities as a writer and as a citizen. As a novelist, she has earned nearly every accolade possible. Her epochal first novel, Love Medicine, won the 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award; The Plague of Doves was a finalist for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize; and her most recent novel, The Round House, won last year's National Book Award for fiction.

Most of Erdrich's works are set on a fictional reservation in North Dakota; they weave a complex, multigenerational narrative of modern Native American existence that has drawn apt comparisons to William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County saga. As such, her work can't help addressing the contemporary plagues of racism and poverty -- and the social and environmental decay that inevitably accompanies them.

In recent years, however, Erdrich, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, has allowed the citizen side of herself to come more to the fore. Together with her sister, the poet Heid Erdrich, she created the Birchbark House Foundation, which supports a press dedicated to preserving their Ojibwe language and storytelling traditions. She also co-owns Birchbark Books in Minneapolis (where she now lives), a bookstore specializing in Native American writers. In February, Erdrich helped organize a train trip from the Twin Cities to the Forward on Climate rally in Washington, D.C., where her group met up with more than 40,000 other people who had gathered to voice opposition to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. We spoke in the bustling lobby of the bed-and-breakfast where she was staying, just hours after she and her 12-year-old daughter had joined a crowd of protesters encircling the White House.

You arrived here via Amtrak, as part of a big contingent from Minnesota. Why did you decide to come by rail?

I've been following [Forward on Climate organizer and OnEarth contributing editor] Bill McKibben's writing from the very beginning. When he came to speak in Minnesota, I went with my husband and a couple of friends to hear him. We walked out of the event eager to take some kind of action. Somebody came up with the idea of a train ride, and we thought: what better way to draw attention to the fact that it's things like rail transit that are going to help get us to sustainability?

I've always loved being on a train. Our group took over the club car in the evening, and we had this wonderful night of singing and telling stories. When we woke up, we were going through the Alleghenies. We saw the sign for Harper's Ferry, and we looked out onto the historic buildings and the beautiful brick roundhouse you can see from the train at that stop. That was very moving. And it was moving again, today, to be here with my daughter. It's her first time in Washington, her first time seeing the White House. I'm proud that her first time here was as part of a protest march, proud that we were able to do that together. It will be engraved in her memory and heart.

Readers of your novels -- like Tracks and The Plague of Doves, which interweave stories of Native American displacement and dispossession with the environmental degradation that follows -- won't be surprised to hear that these issues are dear to you. Why are they so central to your work and your worldview?

I'm a North Dakotan. That's where I grew up, and that's where my parents and my family are. In the 1950s, when Congress was worried about downriver flooding along the Missouri, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a dam in the heart of North Dakota's Fort Berthold Reservation, displacing the Native people and creating the makings of an environmental disaster. In the 1970s, when nuclear energy was the future, Richard Nixon was prepared to declare the western part of the state a "national sacrifice area," fit for uranium mining but not for human habitation.

I believe the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota have now become our country's "energy sacrifice area." I'm extremely concerned about what's happening to the environment in the western part of the state. Fracking there has resulted in a methane burn-off so large that the flares can be seen from outer space.

Too often, when we talk about the boom-and-bust economy at the heart of extraction, we talk about the environmental consequences but ignore the human consequences. Your work would seem to inhabit the space in the middle.

There are a lot of people who are victims of the process, people who are living on the front lines in different ways. But the people in the very front of the front lines tend to be the poorest of the poor. And in North Dakota, they're usually the Native people. They're the women who suffer sexual assaults by the men who've been brought in to work the fracking fields, the families whose tiny rural roads have been overtaken by water tankers.

But the guys in the man camps, the ones who go there to get rich -- they're suffering too. My brothers worked as roughnecks in the oil fields in the 1970s; I know what it's like. These guys today are inhaling God-knows-what kinds of toxic chemicals on the job. A lot of them leave because they can't breathe anymore, and at that point it's game over for them. They worked for a year and made $100,000, maybe -- but now they've got a lifetime's worth of health problems.

The protesters at this rally are clearly energized. But after we all go home, what can we do next?

Well, first we need to stop subsidizing oil companies and start subsidizing wind and solar. Wind and solar are big in Minnesota; we have two plants that are making solar panels. And wind is also big in North Dakota -- but they don't have the lines to transmit the energy. North Dakota really should take some of that oil money and commit to building more transmission lines. The state could be exporting wind energy right now.

Second, we need to begin to hold accountable those people who, without regard for anything but profit, are destroying our climate and bringing an end to the Holocene. We need to call on our alma maters, our churches, our governments, anybody who has any money in fossil fuels, to divest from those companies. We have to tell them, "Let's get out. Let's hold these companies accountable." Because, obviously, holding signs up isn't enough.

I'm curious how this makes its way into your writing, how it informs your thinking.

I really can't tell you. I don't understand the connections that I'm making at the time. It's mysterious. I mean, there's nothing mysterious about doing the research and trying to figure out what to write about, but after that point I do have to wait for the characters to start talking to me. I'm harnessed to whatever the book, or the subject, wants of me. Once I choose a subject, it's pretty much sure to gather its force after a while. The Round House was political and suspenseful, and I enjoyed being a political-suspense novelist for a little while, just for that last book.

What are you reading these days that inspires you on this topic?

Do you know The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman? That one really got to me. Just the whole question behind it: would the world even miss us if we weren't in it? It reminds me of something a woman from the Ponca tribe once told me: "The earth can shrug us off by turning her shoulder." Some people look at a protest like this and say, "Well, you know, tree huggers, planet savers, whatever." No. This is self‑interest. We're not just trying to save the planet. We're trying to save ourselves.

image of Ted Genoways
Ted Genoways, OnEarth's editor-at-large, is the author of The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food (HarperCollins, online at www.tedgenoways.com), an examination of Hormel Foods and the great recession. The recipient of a 2010 Guggenheim fe... READ MORE >