The Round House explores a tricky concept: how to ensure justice for people belonging to a culture—the Chippewa culture—that the legal system has been built to disadvantage and ignore. After Geraldine’s rape, Joe and Bazil want to bring her rapist to justice, but this process is full of bureaucratic complexity and infuriating roadblocks. Ultimately Joe turns to an old Chippewa tradition of justice to supplement the law’s shortcomings, though this comes at a cost to Joe’s emotional health. As Erdrich follows her characters’ path to justice, she reveals the pitfalls of both the American justice system and the Chippewa concept of wiindigoo justice, delicately balancing criticism of the legal system’s treatment of Native people and hope for future change.
Joe, who grew up with a tribal judge as a father, is familiar with the case law from the past several hundred years that forms the basis of contemporary Native autonomy and rights. Bazil taught Joe about cases like Johnson v. Macintosh, which allowed the United States government to seize lands from Native people in the first place, and Oliphant v. Suquamish, which took away the right of Native people to prosecute non-natives for crimes committed on Native land. While the legal history of Native people is quite disheartening, Joe does not feel the brunt of it until after his mother’s rape, when Joe’s engagement with this legal history becomes much more urgent and personal. The legal system, which is built on cases designed to disadvantage Native people to the advantage of white Americans, ultimately limits Geraldine’s ability to get justice, since her assault by a white man occurred on Native land.
Since, ironically, the United States justice system prevents Geraldine from actually getting any justice, Joe must reach back into the traditional, pre-colonial Chippewa legal system for other options, learning about the traditional practice of wiindigoo justice from his grandfather Mooshum’s stories. According to Mooshum, wiindigoos are people who “lost all human compunctions” and “crave the flesh of others,” and must therefore be killed. Wiindigoo justice is not arbitrary, as it requires community consensus to determine whether someone is, in fact, a wiindigoo. Wiindigoo justice does, however, lack the formal procedure of a modern trial, and it focuses more on communal values and harmony than on abstract values like “justice,” “truth,” or “innocence.” It is with this understanding of wiindigoo justice that Joe makes the choice to kill Linden into order to restore his community’s stability and safety.
Though wiindigoo justice does allow Joe to restore harmony to his community, killing Lark also comes with a price. Unlike the United States justice system, in which no individual person is directly responsible for punishing other people, wiindigoo justice means that “the person who killed Lark will live with the human consequences of having taken a life.” Certainly, Joe feels the effects of his crime profoundly, as he is plagued by nightmares and the anxiety that, in killing Linden, he has become a wiindigoo himself. Furthermore, Erdrich shows wiindigoo justice to be an imperfect system, in that it is easily overwhelmed by a mob mentality, as is apparent in Mooshum’s story of the buffalo woman.
By presenting both the wiindigoo justice system and the judicial system as differently flawed, Louise Erdrich suggests that neither wiindigoo justice nor governmental justice is ideal. However, Erdrich does seem to imply through Bazil that the judicial system could be reformed to better serve the Chippewa community. After Joe expresses frustration with Bazil’s lack of power as a tribal judge, Bazil explains to Joe that, in all of the cases he decides, no matter how small, he tries to make decisions that establish a precedent to strengthen Native claims to autonomy. Bazil even believes that, if Joe were ever tried for killing Linden, he could argue that wiindigoo justice should be allowable on reservations. In doing so, Bazil would be establishing precedent that would allow for a blend of traditional Native legal practices, like wiindigoo justice, and the mainstream justice system. It is unclear whether Erdrich believes that this idealist fusion of Native and legal justice is really possible, as Joe expresses impatience and skepticism when Bazil brings up this idea. However, Joe’s choice to become a lawyer and therefore become a part of the justice system seems to imply that, ultimately, Joe and Erdrich believe it could be possible to reform the justice system from within.
Land, the Judicial System, and Justice ThemeTracker
Land, the Judicial System, and Justice Quotes in The Round House
Small trees had attacked my parents' house at the foundation… As my father prodded away blindly at the places where he sensed roots might have penetrated, he was surely making convenient holes in the mortar for next year's seedlings… it seemed increasingly important to me that each one of these invaders be removed down to the very tip of the root, where all the vital growth was concentrated. And it seemed important as well that I do a meticulous job… It was almost impossible not to break off the plant before its roots could be drawn intact from their stubborn hiding place.
I was parsing out the idea, established in other cases and reinforced in this one, that our treaties with the government were like treaties with foreign nations. That the grandeur and power my Mooshum talked about wasn’t entirely lost, as it was, at least to some degree I meant to know, still protected by the law.
From the government's point of view, the only way you can tell an Indian is an Indian is to look at that person's history. There must be ancestors from way back who signed some document or were recorded as Indians by the U.S. government … after that you have to look at that person's blood quantum… In other words, being an Indian is in some ways a tangle of red tape. On the other hand, Indians know other Indians without the need for a federal pedigree, and this knowledge—like love, sex, or having or not having a baby—has nothing to do with government.
We read with a concentrated intensity. My father had become convinced that somewhere within his bench briefs, memos, summaries, and decisions lay the identity of the man whose act had nearly severed my mother’s spirit from her body.
I had imagined that my father decided great questions of the law, that he worked on treaty rights, land restoration, that he looked murderers in the eye, that he frowned while witnesses stuttered and silenced clever lawyers with a slice of irony. I said nothing, but as I read on I was flooded by a slow leak of dismay… Where was the greatness? The Drama? The respect?
We came to the tree that people call the hanging tree, a huge oak. The sun was in its branches. There were prayer flags, strips of cloth. Red, blue, green, white, the old time Anishinaabe colors of the directions, according to Randall. Some cloths were faded, some new. This was the tree where those ancestors were hanged. None of the killers ever went on trial. I could see the land of their descendants, already full of row crops.
I suppose I am one of those people who just hates Indians generally… my feeling is that Indian women are—what he called us, I don't want to say… He said we have no standing under the law for a good reason and yet have continued to diminish the white man and to take his honor… I won't get caught, he said… I know as much law as a judge. Know any judges? I have no fear… The strong should rule the weak. Instead of the weak the strong! It is the weak who pull down the strong.
It was true, however, that Mooshum had still been a child when his family left behind their neat cabin, their lands, their barn and sweet water well, and fled Batoche after Louis Riel was caught and sentenced to be hanged. They came down over the border, where they were not exactly welcomed with open arms. Still, they were taken in by an unusually kind-hearted chief who told the U.S. government that maybe it threw away its half-breed children and gave them no land, but that the Indians would take these children into their hearts.
These are the decisions that I and many other tribal judges try to make. Everything we do, no matter how trivial, must be crafted keenly. We are trying to build a solid base here for our sovereignty. We try to press against the boundaries of what we are allowed… Our records will be scrutinized by Congress one day and decisions on whether to enlarge our jurisdiction will be made. Some day. We want the right to prosecute criminals of all races on all lands within our original boundaries… What I am doing now is for the future, though it may seem small, or trivial, or boring, to you.
Every time there is an evil, much good comes of it— people in these circumstances choose to do an extra amount of good, show unusual love, become stronger in their devotion to Jesus… I have seen it in people who go their own ways, your traditionals, and never come to mass except for funerals… They come to the wakes. Even if they are so poor they have nothing, they give the last of their nothing to another human. We are never so poor that we cannot bless another human, are we? So it is that every evil, whether moral or material, results in good.
I should have felt happy watching them across the table, but instead I was angered by their ignorance. Like I was the grown-up and the two of them holding hands were oblivious children. They had no idea what I had gone through for them.
In all those miles… there was nothing to be said. I cannot remember speaking and I cannot remember my mother or my father speaking. I knew that they knew everything. The sentence was to endure… I do remember, though, the familiar sight of the roadside café just before we would cross the reservation line. On every one of my childhood trips that place was always a stop for ice cream, coffee and a newspaper, pie… But we did not stop this time. We passed over in a sweep of sorrow that would persist into our small forever. We just kept going.