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John Lamb, Published April 17 2013

Erdrich to accept Rough Rider Award on behalf of her community, Roosevelt’s progressive spirit

WAHPETON, N.D. - In many of her novels, Louise Erdrich writes about fictitious families on or near an unnamed and imagined reservation somewhere in eastern North Dakota.

In real life, Erdrich’s own story is rooted firmly in Wahpeton, N.D., where her parents, Ralph and Rita, still live. So when Erdrich receives North Dakota’s highest honor Friday night, it’s only fitting that it be presented in her hometown with her family on hand.

“It is for my family and community,” Erdrich said, when asked what it means to win the Rough Rider award. “I’ve been lucky enough to work at what I love. That is because all of my life I’ve been loved and supported by my family and community.”

The 58-year-old also said in a recent interview that she’ll be happy to accept the award in the spirit of its namesake, Theodore Roosevelt, who she thinks would be branded a progressive in today’s political climate – a legacy she sees as a reflection of many of her own beliefs.

A literary force

Erdrich is being honored for a body of work consisting of more than a dozen novels, three collections of poems and six children’s books.

From the time her first novel, “Love Medicine,” was published in 1984, Erdrich was a force in the literary world. “Love Medicine” won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction that year. “The Plague of Doves” was a finalist for 2008’s Pulitzer Prize.

In November, her latest novel, “The Round House,” won the National Book Award for Fiction just weeks after it hit shelves.

In March, she celebrated the honor at a National Book Award reading at Concordia College. Two weeks later she was named the 10th female Rough Rider.

“We tend to look at her as a regional writer because we want to claim her,” said Greg Danz, a friend of Erdrich’s who has been selling her books at Zandbroz Variety in Fargo for more than 20 years. “But I think she transcends that with ‘The Round House.’ ”

“The Round House” follows 13-year-old Joe as he seeks justice for a brutal attack on his mother. The book explores the cracks in the judicial process on reservations, particularly the inability to try a non-Indian of a crime on reservations.

When Erdrich was the featured guest at last summer’s North Dakota Humanities Council’s symposium, “Four Souls: Stories from America’s Borders,” she said she wanted to get more involved in issues of tribal justice.

As the House of Representatives prepared to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, Erdrich wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times with eye-opening statistics:

one in three American Indian women is raped; federal prosecutors decline to prosecute 67 percent of sexual abuse cases; an American Indian woman battered by her non-Indian husband has no recourse for justice in tribal courts; and more than 80 percent of sex crimes on reservations are committed by non-Indian men, who couldn’t be prosecuted by tribal courts.

While she said she was happy to write the piece, she doesn’t plan on being a spokesperson for any cause.

“I really haven’t got the expertise to speak with a depth of knowledge,” she said. “I’m just a writer and a storyteller. And the book told a story that resonated with people enough to read more deeply into some of the legal issues on reservations.”

‘Old-fashioned Republican’

Erdrich may be reluctant to become a spokesperson, but she has been active in certain causes, most notably promoting environmental issues.

She believes that Roosevelt, as a “trust buster,” would be handling oil development in western North Dakota differently than today’s politicians.

“He’d make the fossil fuel companies reaping huge profits in North Dakota clean up their mess, cap the methane, and build pipelines … nice, new, state-of-the-art pipelines to every community for natural gas and transmission lines for wind and solar. Every North Dakotan should have free energy.”

She also sees her support of reproductive rights reflected in a comment Roosevelt made about his wife being closer to death while giving birth than he ever was in the battlefield.

“I found Roosevelt’s words poignant – nobody should force a woman to have a child, not even another woman,” Erdrich said. “I certainly wouldn’t be able to have written the books I have, or have devoted my life and energy to books the way I have, if I hadn’t had the chance to plan when I would have children.”

Speaking from her Twin Cities home, Erdrich still pays close attention to the politics in her home state and was upset about the recent signing of anti-abortion laws.

“On this issue, I’m an old-fashioned Republican. Keep the government out of our intimate decisions,” she said. “All life is precious, including the lives of the most vulnerable women – the underage, the raped, the poor, those who can’t afford to go to Minneapolis for help.

“I’m writing a check right now to the Red River Women’s Clinic, so I might be the only colonel in the Rough Riders to do that,” she said with a laugh.

All in the family

Despite her openness with her views, Erdrich doesn’t plan on sharing them at Friday’s acceptance speech.

“It’s really a celebration for us to get together and be with friends and family,” she said.

On Saturday the Erdrich sisters – Louise, Lise, Heid and Angela – will host a fundraiser for the Red Door Gallery, an old renovated bank in downtown Wahpeton their mother has been active in renovating. Like Louise, the other sisters are authors and advocates in some way and each will discuss their work.

She’s also looking forward to spending time with the family. She says each of the siblings will wear an item of clothing their mother Rita knitted.

“I am the daughter of two extremely intelligent, loving parents unafraid to live their convictions and state their thoughts,” she said.

She describes her father as a man who taught his children about nature and her mother as a devout Catholic of admirable faith and convictions who “made certain we applied to schools we thought beyond our reach.”

“My parents protected me and gave me the gift of an interesting childhood. They were schoolteachers and taught all they knew, 24/7,” she said. “My sisters and brothers have always had my back. I rely on them and love them.”

If you go

What: Louise Erdrich Rough Rider Award presentation and reading

When: 7 p.m. Friday

Where: Student Center, North Dakota State College of Science, Wahpeton. A reception will follow from 9 to 11 p.m. at the Red Door Art Gallery, Wahpeton.

Info: Free and open to the public


What: Rough Rider ceremony

When: 7 p.m. April 25

Where: Prairie Public

If you go

What: Louise Erdrich and her three sisters read and discuss their work

When: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday

Where: Stern Cultural Center, North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton

Info: Tickets are $25, includes luncheon and book signing. (701) 591-1010

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Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533