“Wazhaskoons eyes still looked past the priest; it was disrespectful to look directly at an individual.
The priest froze. Why would Wazhaskoons not look at him; was he being contentious or rebellious?”
Last Standing Woman, Winona LaDuke, p. 52
Last Standing Woman, by Winona LaDuke, spans seven generations of the Anishinaabeg – from 1862 to 2018. It spans generations of Anishinaabeg trying to live their lives, and white people getting in their way. From treaties, to conflicts with settlers and raiding parties, missionaries and boarding schools, to loan sharks who steal land, and finally the generation who works for justice, to take back their traditional lands, homes, and the artifacts and ancestors that were taken to museums. It is one thing to read in history books about the effect of colonization on Native Americans, and it is quite another to watch in unfurl before your eyes, and to watch the effect colonization has on families and communities. To watch, for example, two young girls in a sanitarium, the older sister falling asleep and waking up to find her younger sister has died in her arms overnight. It is much easier to read in history books.
The book started out a little slow for me. The names were long, and the shifts between characters, as well as the steady march of time, made it hard for me to connect to the story at first. However, the last half of the book took on a more traditional Western narrative structure, following the occupation of White Earth reservation, and sticking to a few main characters that you got to know for more than a few pages at a time. But this is when the beginning of the book also pays off – because you know so much of their history, you understand the characters’ motivations more deeply.
While reading Last Standing Woman, I was also reading White Fragility, and the parallels between what Robin DiAngelo explains and the actions the white characters were taking in Last Standing Woman were both depressing and fascinating.
“There is a peculiar kind of hatred in the northwoods, a hatred born of living with with three generations of complicity in the theft of lives and land. What is worse is that each day, those who hold this position of privilege must come face to face with those whom they have dispossessed. To others who rightfully should share in the complicity and the guilt, Indians are far away and long ago. But in reservation border towns, Indians are ever-present.”
Last Standing Woman, Winona LaDuke. p 125
Honestly, it made me feel like a bit of an idiot that a book written in 1997 could clearly show the racism that a book published in 2018 has to lay out for us self-proclaimed well-meaning whites. It reinforced that so much of the “study” of racism is just white people opening our eyes to the oppression people of color have felt for generations. You don’t need to explain the nuances of racism to everyone. (Just white people.)
“The idea of racial inferiority was created to justify unequal treatment; belief in racial inferiority is not what triggered unequal treatment. Nor was fear of difference. As Ta-Nehisi Coates states*, “But race is the child of racism, not the father.” He means that first we exploited people for their resources, not according to how they looked. Exploitation came first, and then the ideology of unequal races to justify this exploitation followed.”
White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo.
*The Case for Reparations, Ta Nehisi-Coates.
All this rambling is not to say that reading Last Standing Woman was the hard work of allyship or activism in some way. I genuinely enjoyed the experience, and will hold Winona LaDuke’s characters in my heart for a long time.