One reason that the plucky heroine of Louise Erdrich’s most recent novel, “Wit”—deft, passionate, fiercely independent—wears such a patchwork of identities is that she has been jockeying for power since childhood. A rustic, girl-crazy, Indigenous woman, she’s been mired in her own kind of generational games of hunt, court and politics.
But this is also the tale of Dorothy Fliner, North Dakota’s most prominent-minded law student. As “Wit” unfolds, Erdrich makes what could be a “grassy knoll-ish” and revolutionary novel of a pair of prominent “big strokes” in Fliner’s life. Erdrich recognizes the ludicrous parallels between Dorothy and the Roland Mahony character in “Oryx and Crake,” when he, too, is on the backfoot for much of a novel following years of civil conflict.
Surprisingly, only the center line of the story in “Wit” about the events leading up to a planned summit between Native American tribes and the federal government pushes the reader further than other action-packed genre tales might. (The Tressler sisters are more confining than an abduction plot. Yellow Buffalo, the hotel scandal, and the mysterious death of Meri, our heroine’s beloved mother, are excellent as standalone dramatic feats. “Wit” itself follows in those footsteps.)
Yet as a central thesis about power, it comes off pretty well. Back in the 1980s, the M.R.C. refused a meeting between Indian leaders and President Reagan, citing terms that were too permissive. Afterward, North Dakota’s tribal governments tried to map out stronger conditions. But when the White House relented—part of the Savin Hill Accord—North Dakota was left with a brand-new set of conditions.
The solution chosen by the North Dakota government was provocative, to say the least. After forcing the tribes into “modern” reservations without meaningful sovereign ownership, the state government commissioned a special legislative session to pass the Sovereign Holding Co. bill. It created a 51 percent stake in reservation lands to wholly owned LLCs—a term (coupled with “independent”) no Native American member had ever heard of.
Founded by white North Dakotans, its board had the sole power to take over every aspect of governing on the reservations. Dorothy Fliner was a member of a North Dakota state university branch administration, and made her reputation as an educational expert on Indian affairs before the state Legislature even formally passed the Sovereign Holding Company bill. On April 30, 1987, she became the first member of North Dakota’s nine reservation tribes to be appointed to the board of an SLCC company.
Her action was so bold, it led to her dismissal, but not before she set in motion a significant change in federal Indian Policy, the development of the Community Based Health Service, and the pace of recognition of First Nations rights.
She also happened to be one of Erdrich’s closest friends, always an ally on the road from TR Closet that houses Erdrich’s books to her home. Naturally, Erdrich and Dorothy Fliner got stuck together for years. The wife of the former Lake man of the year (and, thus, a lifetime trust constituent), Dorothy took a leap of faith into political activism at the dawn of the 21st century, leading her to the doors of The New School for Social Research in New York and, now, the Middle East.
After decades of travel, interacting with a diverse group of men, including Saudi Arabian tourists and Palestinian-Israeli reconciliation supporters, Dorothy comes home to teach at her local university. “I had never seen anything like home,” she writes—too close to be a metaphor, at least.
The Harvard professor, before taking a leave of absence to write, was deeply invested in the future of her hometown, in the country itself. Erdrich, finding that the African-American civil rights era could act as a template for reconciliation of different nations, seems drawn to seeing in the “Wit” character the “elephant in the room.”
In the end, it is Dorothy’s life and her place in history that Erdrich tries to delineate. This is not the story about Dorothy Fliner alone. This is the tale of the First Nations, too. It is the story of a place, its violence and its efforts to mend, of a journey and its future, and its lessons for today.