UMD prof's novel lays bare America's solutions to 'Indian problem'

Linda LeGarde Grover
Linda LeGarde Grover, the Ojibwe author of The Road Back to Sweetgrass, in Duluth, Minn., on Monday.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

What does it mean to be American Indian in a country that for a long time tried to take the "Native" out of Native Americans?

That's a central theme of Linda LeGarde Grover's debut novel, "The Road Back to Sweetgrass."

The book, newly out in paperback, follows the intertwined lives of three Ojibwe women as they bounce between Duluth, Minneapolis and Chicago and a fictional reservation in northern Minnesota.

As they become young women and mothers and wives in the 1970s and 80s, they contend with various aspects of what was known as the federal government's termination policy.

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If that sounds extreme, Grover says it was.

The Road Back to Sweetgrass
The Road Back to Sweetgrass, by Ojibwe author Linda LeGarde Grover.
University of Minnesota Press

"What it meant was the termination of the legal sovereign status of American Indian tribes so that they would no longer exist, so they would be terminated," said Grover, an American Indian Studies professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

The stated goal was to eliminate the severe poverty on many reservations, and assimilate American Indians into mainstream society.

"Here's something that we can solve, what when I was a younger person, I would hear this from time to time, solve the 'Indian problem'. I always wondered what that problem was," said Grover, who'll read from the book Thursday night in Minneapolis. "It's a peculiar thing to be a person who is part of something that is the problem."

The government created a number of programs to try to solve what it considered to be that problem. Foster care and adoption programs and boarding schools took Native American kids far away from their homes and families, culture and language.

Grover, 65, said there was also a lesser known program called "relocation" where "young healthy people were coerced into moving into large urban areas away from their families, relocating far enough away that they never get back to where they came from."

That's what happens to one of the book's main characters, Dale Ann. She's a top student in her class. A government agent convinces her to move to Chicago — not to go to college but to work as an operator for a phone company. Her experience ends horrifically, and she returns to the reservation.

In some ways it parallels Grover's own story. She's a member of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa. She never "went on relocation" but knows many people who did. She was fortunate, she said, although she did work as a telephone operator after dropping out of college.

"Actually it was the best job I ever had," she said. "After I failed at UMD, I got a job at Northwestern Bell in downtown Duluth and I had just turned 18. I actually really enjoyed the physical work of that."

She took a job in Evanston, Ill., the same city where her character Dale Ann is relocated. Eventually Grover went back to school. After working with Indian education programs on Minnesota's Iron Range, she earned her Ph.D.

She began writing fiction and poetry as an escape from her research and interviews with elders on the boarding school era. That led to her first book, a collection of short stories called "The Dance Boots."

Termination policies like the boarding school program were eventually phased out. The irony is they often backfired, said Grover.

"There are people who believe that some aspects of the boarding school education policy actually strengthened people in some ways because it made some people absolutely determined that they weren't going to get wiped out," she said.

That's reflected in the characters in "The Road Back to Sweetgrass."

Children who are relocated or adopted eventually make it back home to the reservation, and the almost mythical smell of sweetgrass, one of the four sacred herbs of the Ojibwe, Grover said. When they return, their sense of who they are and where they belong is even stronger.

"Much of the story is about people having that sense of here is home. It's their destiny to continue as indigenous people."

Although in her mid-60s, Grover is just getting going as a writer. Her first book of poetry will be published in September. She's started her third book continuing the stories of people on her fictional Mozhay Point reservation.

She sees the paths her characters follow as a "coming of maturity" rather than a "coming of age" -- young people who experience life and then pass on their understanding of the world to another generation.

Her goal, she said, is to take that universal story and overlay it on themes of Indian history and Indian policy.

"I wanted to make it something that people without that experience might say, 'Oh my God, I never knew that,' but also be able to connect with the characters in some way," she said.

If you go:

Linda LeGarde Grover reads from her book, "The Road Back to Sweetgrass," at 7 p.m. Thursday at Magers and Quinn Booksellers, 3038 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis.