HANOVER, N.H. – Louise Erdrich, the highly acclaimed American Indian writer, will deliver the main address at Dartmouth College’s 2009 Commencement exercises and receive an honorary degree.
The graduation ceremony will take place June 14 on the Dartmouth Green where the college’s Native American students hold an annual pow wow in May.
The college typically awards about 1,000 bachelor’s degrees and approximately 500 master’s and doctoral degrees in the arts and sciences from the college’s three professional schools: Dartmouth Medical School, the Thayer School of Engineering and the Tuck School of Business.
Founded in 1769 as a school for American Indian students, the college recommitted itself in 1970 to its original charter mission, and since then has made a focused effort to recruit both American Indian students and faculty. The college now includes the largest Native population – around 160 undergraduates or three percent – among Ivy League colleges. Dartmouth has a Native American Program and a Native American studies academic program.
Dartmouth President James Wright, who is stepping down at the end of June, selected Erdrich as this year’s commencement speaker.
“Louise Erdrich is one of the outstanding American writers today and one who creatively shares the complexity and richness of the Native American experience, and indeed the history of all in the eastern Great Plains. She represents and symbolizes the best of our heritage and the contributions of our graduates.”
Erdrich, a member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa and a 1976 Dartmouth graduate, is widely praised as one of the most important Native writers for her novels, poetry and children’s books. In April, her newest novel, “The Plague of Doves,” was named as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction.
The novel has been called “one of the major achievements of Louise Erdrich’s considerable oeuvre,” and “Louise Erdrich’s masterly new novel.”
The story centers on an act of racism in the early 20th century: After five members of a white family are found murdered in a small, off-reservation town in North Dakota, white men from the town hang three Indian men and a boy, one of whom survives, while the actual murderer goes unpunished.
Erdrich said the story’s underlying theme is unresolved injustice.
“It has a lot to do with injustice that’s never been fully acknowledged or resolved, injustice that’s never been worked through in a way that the people against whom the injustice was committed have some sense of resolution.” She said it explores how people living with injustice are re-traumatized all the time.
“I started writing about one small incident, but as it grew in my mind it grew to represent something that had to do with the vast unresolved injustice with Indian people in this country.”
Erdrich said she hopes the current talk about a truth finding commission on torture will take place, because she has opposed much of what has happened over the past eight years.
“But it makes me think, where is the truth commission for our history?”
The monuments to Native history are forts and the only thing remembered about Indian nations is warfare, Erdrich noted.
“We have the Smithsonian, thank God, but we don’t have something like the Holocaust Museum. We should have the Thank You Museum to say thank you for all the land, thank you for your ideas, and thank you for your kindness. We need to have a Thank You, We’re Sorry Museum to the American Indian or something that would allow Native peoples to go forward without this continual sense, which of course was beaten into so many people during the boarding school era, of sorrow.”
Congress could play its part too, Erdrich said. Instead of the Apology Resolution that keeps popping up every few years, how about a “Let’s Keep the Treaties Resolution?”
“That would be the greatest thing. The treaties are written nation-to-nation and are supposedly inviolable. That’s in the book too, not really in the book itself, but it’s what it’s about on some level.”
And yet, paradoxically, in the continuum of unresolved injustice toward the indigenous peoples in North America, tribal ideas and values have come into the vernacular, such things as looking out for children, thinking about protecting the earth and realizing that we’re all in this together.
“The sense of community, which I think is one of the most wonderful aspects of Native culture, has become part of our national conversation at last,” Erdrich said.
Even while we’re out bashing tribal societies elsewhere in the world?
“I know,” Erdrich said. “But I don’t think anybody calls it tribal (here). I think they’re scared of the word tribal, even this administration.”
She said President Barack Obama, in expressing hope that “the lines of tribes will dissolve,” during his inauguration speech, misstated his idea.
“It was the wrong word to use for what he was trying to say. Tribal societies are societies that raise their children together and have very close ties. I mean, he comes from a tribal society, really, I think what he was talking about was the viral kind of nationalism, the hatred between people based on the little they have to fight for. I think there’s an overarching corporate agenda that’s causing people to fight over what little is left after the grasping raid on resources by the corporate world.”
The sharing of resources typical of tribal societies is a value that no administration has understood, Erdrich said. “They call it socialism or communism, but there really isn’t a word for simple human caring.”
But Erdrich has never been one to write political polemic; instead the ideas are revealed as the narrative unfolds.
“I’ve tried to tell the truth in the stories and hope they have political content on the basis of telling something real that will touch other people. The emotions are the basis of this story.”
Will these be some of the ideas she presents in her commencement speech to the Dartmouth graduates?
“I have no idea,” she said, laughing. “I’m trying to run things over and over in my mind about what I’ll say to these young people. I’m really excited about this opportunity.”
While today’s students still face some of “the same painful issues” that her class had to deal with, the college has grown to provide a wonderful program for Native students, Erdrich said.
“And I think the college has become more securely supportive because they can see the success of the program, they can see the leaders that have come out of the college. They have two generations of students who go (attend) understanding that they’re going to go back and work with their people and help their people. I think going to Dartmouth as a Native American is an extraordinary opportunity.”
Erdrich will be one of seven people to receive an honorary degree at the graduation ceremony. She declined an honorary degree from the University of North Dakota because it still uses the “fighting Sioux” logo.
Her family has close connections with Dartmouth. One of her four daughters, Aza, is a member of the Dartmouth Class of 2011. One of her four sisters is also a Dartmouth graduate, and all of them are writers, while her two brothers work in medicine and environmental engineering.
And while Erdrich continues writing fiction, she has a new project – a bookstore call Birchbark Books & Native Arts in Minneapolis – a tiny independent bookstore online at www.birchbarkbooks.com where, among other things, book reviews by staff members’ dogs are posted.