Janis (Jan) Johnson
This essay advocates for increased classroom and critical study of the work of Flathead (Salish) Indian writer Debra Magpie Earling. Earling deserves increased attention because she is exploring some of the most important issues of our time: violence, including the violence of colonialism and patriarchy, trauma, loss, and meaningful personal, community and cultural survival. In intensely beautiful and disturbing prose, Earling remythologizes a violent family and tribal history of colonialism and patriarchy, and in doing so, protests and prevents the erasure of the most intimate of histories. Earling recognizes the urgency of rewriting history from the perspective of the colonized and disempowered, and particularly from a female perspective.1 She is keenly aware that sexual and other violence against women has historically been a tool of both colonialism and patriarchy, and that it persists unabated in contemporary society.2
Earling’s writing functions as testimony to the trauma of colonial and patriarchal history, as well as a narrative of recovery.3 Earling’s readers won’t find the irony, humor and trickster aesthetics often found in contemporary Native American literature, yet she is clearly a figure on the continuum of Indigenous storytellers whose writing works to decolonize the self and move non-Native readers toward post-colonial epistemologies. With a keen awareness of irredeemable loss coexisting with the resilience not to be destroyed by grief, Earling redeploys violence as a tool of decolonization and empowerment. Earling should be read, taught and studied because her writing is stunning: her language delights, and her characters and stories captivate and compel. Even more importantly, Earling’s work enables us to confront our painful personal and cultural histories, and allows us to imagine paths to recovery and survival. For to be fully human--which means truly responsible and compassionate beings--we must acknowledge the horrors of our pasts, and learn not to be destroyed by them or to repeat them.
Violence is a primary narrative strategy for Earling, yet the violence of her vision does not create simple binary oppositions of “bad (white) guys” and “good (Indian) guys,” for brutality is not only a tool of manifest destiny. Brutality is an element of patriarchal supremacy and a response on the part of Native peoples to those ideologies, and it is also an element of human nature. Stylistically, in creating a hyper-alertness in her story and readers through lyrical language, characterization, plot and the use of synaesthesia—a joining together of sensations normally experienced separately--Earling re-imagines the clash of cultures of Indigenous and European cultures as traumatic, erotic, and at times, empowering. Violence in nature and in and between humans is a transcendent and transformative force in Earling’s vision.
After a biographical and bibliographic review, this essay discuses the short story “Bad Ways” which appeared in Ploughshares, the novel Perma Red, and the essay, “What We See” from Lewis and Clark Through Indian Eyes. These three works exemplify Debra Magpie Earling’s extraordinary power as a writer and her vision of loss and resilience in three genres: short fiction, the novel, and the personal essay.
Debra Magpie Earling was born in Spokane, Washington, on August 3, 1957. She grew up in Montana and is a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Indian Reservation in Polson, Montana. She is the great-great-granddaughter of Chief Charlo, the Salish Chief who refused to sign the Hellgate Treaty of 1855 which ceded over 12 million acres of ancestral homeland to the United States. Her great grandfather was Paul Charlo, last of the Flathead traditional chiefs. Earling dropped out of school at age fifteen and at seventeen earned her GED from Spokane Community College, where at least one teacher discouraged her from pursuing higher education (Lankford). For two years she worked as the first public defender in the tribal justice system on the Flathead Reservation, then moved to Seattle to attend the University of Washington. There she began taking writing courses, and had Assiniboine/Gros Ventre writer James Welch as an instructor. In 1986 Earling graduated magna cum laude from the University of Washington with a B.A. in English and Phi Beta Kappa honors. As a Ford Doctoral Fellow, Earling attended Cornell University, earning a Masters in English in 1991 and a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing in 1992. She then returned to Montana to teach Native American Studies and Creative Writing at the University of Montana, where she is currently an associate professor in the English Department. In 2006, Ms. Earling won a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship.
Perma Red (2002), Earling’s first novel, took nearly two decades to write, went through nine revisions and at one point was entirely lost in a house fire (Abrams). It is based on the life of Earling’s Aunt Louise who was murdered at age twenty-three on the Flathead Reservation in the 1940s. Louise had a young daughter at the time of her death that was raised as Earling’s sister. Critics lauded Perma Red for the stunning precision and compassion with which its setting, characters and themes are drawn, winning it the Spur Award for best novel of the West, the Western Writer Association Medicine Pipe Bearer Award for best first novel, the Mountain and Plains Booksellers Association Award, the WILLA Literary Award, Montana Book Award Honor Book, and American Book Award.
Earling has contributed stories to numerous journals, including Ploughshares, Northern Lights, The Cream City Review and Northeast Indian Quarterly. Her short stories and novel excerpts appear in the anthologies The Last Best Place: A Montana Anthology, Song of the Turtle, Wild Women: Contemporary Short Stories by Women Celebrating Women, Circle of Women: Anthology of Western Women Writers, Talking Leaves: An Anthology of Contemporary Native American Short Stories, and Reinventing in the Enemy’s Language: Contemporary Native Women’s Writing of North America. She contributed a personal essay to Lewis and Clark Through Indian Eyes, a collection of Native authors exploring the significance of the Lewis and Clark Expedition to their tribes and personal identities. Earling is currently working on an historical novel about a Kootenai medicine woman warrior who died in 1850 after being ambushed by a group of Blackfeet warriors. She is also writing a novel based on a fractured prose piece called “The Lost Journals of Sacajawea,” which imagines the experience of the Shoshone woman who accompanied the Lewis and Clark Expedition, serving as guide, translator, wife and mother.
Exploring Violence: Colonial and Sexual
Earling explores the pressure cooker of violence created by manifest destiny, the 19th century ideology that underpinned western expansion and the colonization of Native peoples. Earling believes there is a residual violence that stays long after colonization has occurred, a violence that is both physical and spiritual. In her view, American society has taken an enormous leap from ignoring Indians to acting like things are now “okay”; she feels she must tell the stories of her family and tribe, that she must rewrite history so these stories are included. She says she is driven to express the dark and violent, the stories that perhaps most of us do not want to hear. In addition, Earling finds a strange beauty in violence. She calls it “searing.” In her writing, she explains, she’s “staring down violence. . . It’s about survival” (Personal interview).
Earling purposefully breaks the unspoken taboo against women writing about sex and violence in ways that have long been acceptable for men, such as in war stories. She wants to express the power of violence without censoring herself or being censored. Earling may find honor in the exploration of violence if it can tell the story that has not been told but which she believes must be heard. Writer Greg Glazner describes Earling’s work as permeated with a sense of irredeemable loss, and having a political edge in its exposure of the brutality of colonial rule. Glazner observes that her work turns colonial violence against itself with the victim at times becoming the aggressor. Earling “turns violence inside out, puts it in your face and doesn’t whitewash it,” he says (Telephone interview).
Earling is particularly concerned by the violence experienced by women at the hands of men throughout American society. She was living in Spokane when mass murderer Robert Lee Yates was killing women and a female family member nearly encountered him in her work as a real estate agent. This experience heightened her awareness that “violence against women is everywhere” (Interview with author). Thus, much of Earling’s work addresses violence against women, including her novel Perma Red and the short story “Bad Ways,” which tells the story of the “white-man ghost” that haunts the river near Dixon on the Flathead Reservation.
“Bad Ways” explores what happens to a formerly free people who after the Dawes Allotment Act, are literally fenced in, confined and fearful,
. . . afraid of old power dying on their tongues, that day by day their people would
begin to stink with loss. . . . And a deep hunger made them small and
so hungry, at night they dreamed of small bits of food in the mouths of birds, so
hungry the sides of their bellies bloated like deer and their ribs became hard.
With the people in this pitiful condition, a white man with a shiny watch, coins in his pocket, and gold in his teeth shows up and wants to play a gambling game. Curious, the tribesmen agree to play the gambling game, a fishing game in which whoever catches more fish, a group of tribesmen or the white man, will get the white man’s money. The white man wants an Indian woman to accompany him, and confident that they will win the game, the men give him a young woman named White Crow. When the men go to check on White Crow and the white man, they find he has caught more fish than they have seen in the river for a very long time, but that he has brutally murdered White Crow and is using her as bait.
“Bad Ways” reveals the sexualized violence that came with white greed and betrayal, as well as the culpability of tribal men in that violence. The Flathead men’s brutal killing of the white man perpetuates the violence of manifest destiny, while the story also offers a sobering, prescriptive meditation on this terrible sickness that has struck the people:
We have lost ourselves when we let the white man come too close, when we give ourselves away. And we should go back to the water first, to listen, to embrace the ghosts that shiver our bellies. . . . Because little by little, over all these many years, the power is still leaving us, and we have to hook it, snag it like a great struggling fish and pull it back. (20)
Earling explores a more personal story in her novel Perma Red. In it she embraces a ghost that informs her personal history and identity, that of her Aunt Louise. Perma Red tells the story of a young Flathead woman’s defiance of her confinement by gender role and reservation boundaries, and her fear of invisibility and insignificance. Earling heard stories of the beautiful, fearless and defiant Louise from her own mother while growing up, and from reservation residents she interviewed who had known and remembered her. Their memories were so vivid and detailed that her aunt took on a mythic quality. Through the young Louise, the novel explores the poverty, constant hunger, and limited freedom and respect Indians endured on the Flathead Reservation in the middle of the Twentieth Century.
Freedom is what Louise wants, yet she is confused about exactly what freedom means, and how to attain it. She is humiliated and terrorized by the nuns at the local Catholic school on the reservation, and taunted and assaulted by boys in the white schools she is sent to by the county social worker. She is pursued and constrained by several men in addition to the social worker: Baptiste Yellow Knife, a boy her age who predicts she will marry him because he has the power of the “old ways”; reservation police officer Charlie Kicking Woman who wants both to protect and to possess Louise; and Harvey Stoner, the richest white man on the Flathead Reservation who sees her as a beautiful yet expendable ornament.
Earling has said that Louise is like many people on the reservation with lots of promise and lots of problems, someone “beloved and wild” that the entire community tries to save (Abrams). Louise’s probable fate is suggested in the novel’s first sentence: “When Louise White Elk was nine, Baptiste Yellow Knife blew a fine powder in her face and told her she would disappear” (Earling, Perma Red 3). From this point on, Louise seems to be running for and from her life. Louise knows that tuberculosis, truant officers, social workers and others are causing Indians to disappear, to become invisible.
Louise’s fear of invisibility is emphasized when she runs away from the white school she has been sent to in Thompson Falls and hitches a ride from cowboy who is driving toward Missoula where Louise hopes to hide. On the dark highway the man hits a deer that crashes through the windshield, trapping the driver in the car and injuring them both. Louise escapes and is picked up by tribal police officer Charlie Kicking Woman who takes her home. When her grandmother gives her the newspaper containing the story and a photograph of the wreck, she looks closely at
[t]he blurry grain of the photograph, looking for herself in the wreck, some clue that she had been there. For a moment she wondered if her life would be recorded at all, if anyone would remember her times of suffering or if she too would be cut away like a spine-broken deer that wouldn’t even make it to a poor person’s table” (95)
Earling’s project in Perma Red, as in other works, is to make Louise and others like her visible, to record their history and re-imagine their lives. Unlike Earling’s aunt, Perma Red’s Louise survives her attempted murder and is given a chance to live. In this way Earling remythologizes the family and community trauma of colonialism and patriarchal oppression. Those most damaged by oppression in the novel are given another chance to live, with the novel’s ending suggesting traditional Salish tribal stories of Fox “passing over” Coyote and bringing him back to life.
In fact Earling’s project of fearlessly “facing down violence” may stem from an Indigenous Northern Plains tradition of honor in bravery and Salish and family traditions of “passing over” debilitating loss in order not to be destroyed by it. In her essay “What We See” in Lewis and Clark through Indian Eyes, Earling movingly details the forced removal of the Bitterroot Salish people from their ancestral lands in the Bitterroot Valley to the Flathead Reservation after the Hellgate Treaty of 1872. James Garfield (later to become U.S. president) forged her great-great-grandfather Chief Charlo’s “X” on this treaty:
The Salish warriors dressed for war, but there was no war. The warriors guarded the people as they journeyed to their new homeland. When they reached Missoula, the warriors flanked the cross streets and halted traffic to spare the people the indignity of curious gawkers. They rode beside Charlo’s procession, attempting to shield the people from the onlookers who lined the streets to witness their passing. (41, 42)
Tribal stories of Coyote’s ability to come back from the dead after his friend Fox has jumped or “passed over” him, and Chief Charlo’s wisdom provided the people with a model for surviving the devastating loss of their ancestral homeland.
In “What We See,” Earling relates that
When Charlo finally agreed to move from the Bitterroot, he carried the sorrow of
his loss with him but did not pass his grief on. He must have prayed to the land
to let his people live, to let his people kindly pass over the land that held them so
that future generations could continue. Had we kept our desire knit to the land of
our grandfathers and grandmothers, our yearning would have destroyed us (44).
Earling writes that she often wondered why she, herself, did not long for the Bitterroot Valley: “I visited my mother, and we talked about our lack of grief for the place we should long for. When someone passes from us, my mother said, the people protect the children so that they can move past their sorrow, so that they can forget the memories that would stir grief” (42).
Debra Magpie Earling’s remythologizing of family and history entails a confrontation with violent histories and memories, and then a kind of forgetting that provides for survival. In “facing down” gender and colonial violence, Earling’s work ultimately demonstrates the resilience of Native people, and the importance of their stories being told. Earling’s vision can help us find our way toward a humanity that imagines alternatives to colonial and patriarchal oppression.
Abrams, David. “Writing the Great (Native) American Novel—An Interview with Debra Magpie Earling.” The Drexel Online Journal 6 February 2003 .
Glazner, Greg. Telephone interview. 3 September 2006.
Josephy, Alvin M., Jr., ed. Lewis and Clark Through Indian Eyes. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.
Lankford, Gwen. “Never Truly Passing.” Indian Country Today. 16 July 2002
Many thanks go to Debra Magpie Earling for taking time to talk with me in person and for sharing with me her works in progress. I am also grateful to Kim Barnes, Greg Glazner and Georgia Johnson for sharing their ideas about Debra’s work and for helping me to refine my own ideas.
1 See Nancy J. Peterson, Against Amnesia: Contemporary Women Writers and the Crises of Historical Memory, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001; Linda Krumholz, “The Ghosts of Slavery: Historical Recovery in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” African American Review, Vol. 26 No. 3, 1992; Kimberly Chabot Davis, “Generational Hauntings: The Family Romance in Contemporary Fictions of Raced History,” Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 48, NO. 3, Fall 2002; and Devon Abbott Mihesuah, Indigenous American Women: Decolonization, Empowerment, Activism, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003;
2 See Andrea Smith, Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide, Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2005, and Amnesty International’s report on violence against Native women at <http://www.amnestyusa.org/Womens_Human_Rights/Join_Voices_with_Native_American_....>
3 See Bonnie Duran, Eduardo Duran and Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, “Native Americans and the Trauma of History,” Studying Native America: Problems and Prospects, Edited by Russell Thornton, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998.