Charles A. Eastman, Lakota, wrote about Native American generosity in The Soul of the Indian, “Parents often gave so much to the needy that they frequently impoverished themselves, thus setting an example to the child of self denial for the general good… Children must early learn the beauty of generosity. They are taught to give what they prize most, that they may taste the happiness of giving.”
LaRose by Louise Erdrich describes the kind of generosity Eastman spoke of – generosity that few whites can understand. Hunting on reservation land an Ojibwe man accidentally shoots and kills his neighbor’s six-year old boy. He is filled with such remorse that he convinces his wife that the only way to make things right is to give their own six-year old son, LaRose, to their neighbors, their lifelong friends.
Their decision was pure anguish even as they made it. Landreaux and his wife, Emmaline, spent two days fasting in their sweat lodge, her hating him for the idea, him hating himself for everything. As they sweat and argue, we learn the LaRose history. “There had been a LaRose in each generation of Emmaline’s family for over a hundred years.” All gifted. All self-sacrificing and capable of healing.
“Before the first LaRose died, she had taught her daughter how to find guardian spirits in each place they walked, how to heal people with songs, with plants . . . how to leave behind her body when half awake or in sleep and fly around to investigate what was happening on the earth . . . how to dream, how to return from a dream, change the dream, or stay in the dream in order to save her life.”
Neither Emmaline nor her mother, the third LaRose, remembers teaching little six-year old LaRose the old ways. But he is so sweet, loving and capable, so confident in his role as a son to two families (they end up sharing him) that they all grow out of their anger and sadness in his healing presence. Not without misstep.
Louise Erdrich’s unrivaled prose paints such vivid images that I can only do them justice by quoting her:
- We gain a deeper understanding of this family’s unthinkable act: “Before they took LaRose to the Ravich house last fall, Landreaux and Emmaline had spoken his name. It was the name given to each LaRose. Mirage. Ombanitemagad . . . that name would protect him from the unknown, from what had been let loose with the accident. Sometimes energy of this nature, chaos, ill luck, goes out in the world and beget and begets. Bad luck rarely stops with one occurrence. All Indians know that. To stop it quickly takes great effort, which is why LaRose was sent.”
- Describing the Indian Schools that her people were compelled to attend (up through the 1960’s), schools bent of destroying the ‘old ways’ of their native culture, she writes, “In Landreaux’s past there were the buzzers, bed checks, whistles, bells, divided trays, measured days of boarding school. There was the unspeakable neatness of military preparation for violence.”
- Struggling to keep an open, generous heart Emmaline describes her work with reservation families: “Heartbreak mitigation. Her heartbreak. Kids’ heartbreak. Parents’ heartbreak.”
Louise Erdrich won the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award for LaRose. Rather than wrest the entire story from her capable hands, I urge you to read it. (Order direct from her Minneapolis bookstore: Birchbark Books.) Her writing, combined with her native wisdom, enlighten beyond any single lesson. The one I needed to learn this time around centered on generosity.
Recently, through mutual friends, I met a Lakota woman online. Having learned of my South Dakota roots, she encouraged me to buy a copy of Early Dakota Days, a book comprised of personal accounts by Dakota homesteaders in the early 20th Century. Among their stories of hardship many reported warm reception from the Lakota, from the very people whose land they were taking possession of.
When I e-mailed my new acquaintance asking how her ancestors could be so generous to the white settlers who helped steal their land, she said, “Indians have human values – integral to “nature.” Because it was inherent in them they would tolerate other peoples’ cultural values, contradictions and all. However, it’s is different today; today, most Indian are less tolerant, and if white people should ask questions they can’t answer themselves, it becomes tedious.”
If only I had read LaRose before asking my naïve question. If only the whites who appropriated their land – including my own ancestors — could have learned from them. Perhaps with teachers like Louise Erdrich (Ojibwe) and my new Lakota friend we will begin to understand.