America Saved My Father’s Life. It Tried to Destroy My Mother’s.

In 2015, Imoved into a small back house in California, a necessary step in a divorce that was ugly and would remain so for nearly a year. At first I traded spaces with my soon-to-be ex. Then, for a year, I lived above a garage in Pomona on a pullout couch. These were awful times. One night, all three of my children were asleep, nested, innocent, seemingly safe, but I couldn’t sleep. Earlier that day 14 people were murdered and more than 20 wounded nearby in San Bernardino, and I was suddenly afraid: for my kids, for myself (as the person, impossibly, who was supposed to protect them) and for the country.

And I wondered, in that moment, what my parents would do if my life were theirs. It was hard to imagine them together, though they had been together for 24 years of my life. Even so, in my mind I couldn’t put them in the same room or the same attitude, about anything. When they were divorcing, I went for a walk and stumbled on them sitting in lawn chairs near the family’s sweat lodge. They were there, literally, to pull the lodge apart. I was shocked, because it was the first time I could remember them being in something close to agreement. They were both sad, both contemplative, both staring at the frame of sticks that had once been theirs and was symbolically a representation of their union.

My life felt as if it was being pulled apart, too: between the one I had been living (with my children and my soon-to-be ex) and the one — unknown and unknowable — to which I was headed. It was as if some dispassionate tinkerer had made a series of small cuts and extracted the spine, the plot and structure of my life as if to say, “Let’s see what happens now.” In a strong bid for mimesis, the same cuts seemed to be happening to America, the country that, like my parents, both birthed and plagued me: the same unknowing, the same uncertainty, the same darkness descending on the horizon and creeping ever closer.

I didn’t know how to deal with any of this, and I’m not sure I even knew how to be. But I did know this: I was the sum of my parents’ faults and ambitions. My father was nothing if not intense — a deep feeler whose emotions often ran a little too close to the surface. Despite his emotional architecture or perhaps because of it, he approached his jobs and his life as an opportunity to make the world better. Much of that drive had to do with the fact that America had, undeniably, saved his life. Austria, the country of his birth, tried to kill him during the Holocaust. It had turned against him.

But then there was my mother, a Native woman who grew up as an outsider in her country and for whom America was a constant threat — a country seemingly determined to grind her down and against which all of her skeptical ferocity was aimed. And so I grew up — the recipient of both my parents’ attitudes about the republic — perplexed, confused, almost paralyzed.

My mother would be dead in five years; my father, in the final throes of Alzheimer’s, in mere months. There I was, with my kids asleep in the next room, sitting in that outer dark, blinking confusedly in the light of my personal and patriotic wars. What to do about this country that saved my father’s life and tried to destroy my mother’s? What to do about myself? These questions plagued me, defined me and redefined my relationship to my parents. I never would figure out how to answer them until they both were gone.

Robert Treuer in Bemidji, Minn., in the early 1960s.Credit…From David Treuer

My father, Robert Treuer, was born in Vienna in 1926. His earliest memory was of crouching, terrified, in his seat at the Wiener Staatsoper during a production of “Don Giovanni.” He recalled (vividly and often) how scared he was when the winged demon dragged Don Giovanni (unrepentant) to hell; how my father grabbed his mother’s hand; how she laughed at him. It was only a few years later, in 1934, that fascists would come into power (also remembered vividly and often).

My grandfather dipped into the family’s meager savings to pay for English lessons for my father, delivered in the back of the stationery store he managed in their working-class neighborhood. My father was taught how to cook, how to mend his socks and sew on buttons, how to navigate public transportation. “We won’t be able to stay here for long,” my grandfather told him. “And the future lies in the West, and the future is spoken in English.” He wasn’t wrong.

After the Anschluss in March 1938, things got worse. Just before the Nazis smashed the windows on Kristallnacht, the family itself broke apart. My grandmother and father fled, sometimes together, sometimes separately, through Germany, Belgium, England and Ireland, where my father found refuge at a Quaker boarding school in Waterford. My grandfather went into hiding in the Austrian countryside posing as a farm laborer. And, with the exception of two cousins and an aunt and uncle, the winged demons came for the rest of the family. They were, eventually, turned to ash.

Against all odds, my grandparents and father were reunited in Southampton, and in 1939, they sailed on the S.S. Westernland under a Nazi flag, docking in New York Harbor in February of that year. By 1940, the family settled in Yellow Springs, Ohio. In those early days, they bought the only house they could afford, in the Black part of Yellow Springs, across from an A.M.E. church. My father’s closest friends were his neighbors and the other outsiders in their integrated high school. He hadn’t been in the country more than a few years before he joined sit-ins at lunch counters around Yellow Springs and Dayton. He had been a second-class citizen in Austria, and so he made common cause with the second-class citizens in Yellow Springs.

When he turned 18 in 1944, a lot changed: My father became a father, a soldier and an American citizen. The Army, in its infinite wisdom, pulled this fluent German-and-English speaker from his unit en route to Belgium, taught him Japanese and sent him to the Pacific, where he served in the Philippines and, later, in Okinawa. Even there he managed to find common cause. He made friends with a few Japanese P.O.W.s and, in Japanese, asked them to install a hidden kill switch on his Jeep, a vehicle that was easy to steal at the time.

My father was a small, compact, powerful man. And he possessed a kind of intense charm. There was a great power in his legs and arms; it wasn’t until he was 70 and I was 26 that I could honestly say I could outwork him. His power, I think, was a result of his energy. The man never seemed to stop moving. After the war, he returned to Ohio — suddenly home and just as suddenly the father of three young boys with his first wife, Nancy — and entered a new chapter of life as the Zelig of civic engagement. He found work in a steel mill outside Chicago, as a shop steward and as an organizer for the A.F.L.-C.I.O.

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He and Nancy and their three sons eventually moved to northern Minnesota, where my father got his teaching degree and took a job as an English teacher at Cass Lake Senior High School on the Leech Lake Reservation. It was the only school that would hire this German-and-English-speaking Austrian immigrant. He taught Shakespeare to Native American children. I’m unclear why his job as a teacher came to an end after a few years. He says it was because he decided to teach “The Communist Manifesto.” (“If these kids are going to hate communism, they should know something about communism!” he told me.)

After his job at the high school, he worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Community Action Program, which was a part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. As a soldier in that war, ferociously committed to helping people, he traveled to reservations all over the state — White Earth, Leech Lake, Red Lake, Bois Forte, Fond du Lac. He once delivered roses to an elder at Nett Lake in January by keeping them on his lap for the entire 200-mile icy drive. She had never received roses or flowers of any kind.

Eventually, my father and Nancy divorced. I still don’t know why. And he and my mother began dating. My mother suspected there was overlap between the end of his first marriage and the start of the second, beginning a theme that would define their relationship and their divorce. My mother shared, with great bitterness, how during their first “date,” he told her that he and Nancy were through, and yet my mother came downstairs in the morning and noticed Nancy’s bathrobe, slippers and things all over the house. After a few years — having run out of jobs in Minnesota — he and my mother moved to Washington, D.C., in 1967.

Of all the things a person could do during America’s postwar boom, my dad cleaved to public service: labor unions, teaching, social-service administration, community building. But by 1978, after they’d been living in Washington for 10 years and my three siblings and I had been born (my older half-siblings were grown long before we arrived), my mom wanted to move back to our reservation, Leech Lake, in northern Minnesota. So we moved. My father loved Native people in a curiously modern way — unpaternalistically. I once asked him how it felt to be on the reservation, to be among us. He spread his hands wide. “I had been kicked out of my country and persecuted,” he said. “So had they. We understood one another.”

Here was a man who, back when he lived in Washington, stood in line to have a flag he had purchased himself fly over the U.S. Capitol for a day. Every Memorial Day thereafter, he flew that flag over our house on the reservation. He loved this country in spite of everything he knew about it. He loved it in a way I never felt I could. Because, however much I was my father’s son, I was also my mother’s.

Margaret Seelye Treuer and the author, David Treuer, at a powwow in Ball Club, Minn., in 1973.Credit…From David Treuer

My mother, Margaret Seelye, was born at the Cass Lake Indian Hospital in 1943. She grew up in a 12-by-14-foot cabin in our ancestral village of Bena. She and her four siblings were drastically poor. They had electricity but no plumbing or heat. They survived the way most of their neighbors survived: by harvesting and selling wild rice, snaring rabbits and hunting partridge and deer. She often told me stories of how the Native kids at Cass Lake High School did not have to begin the school year until after the wild-rice harvest was over, usually in mid-to-late September. When she returned for her senior year, she was walking down the hallway to her first class and the principal passed her and asked her what she was doing. “Going to class,” she said.

“Why?” he asked.

“Why what?”

“Why bother?”

She bothered anyway and graduated in 1961, attended St. Luke’s nursing school in Duluth and then returned to Leech Lake, where she founded our reservation’s Community Health Program, established an ambulance service and wrote the grants that funded Red Lake Reservation’s nursing program.

After marrying my father, she moved to Washington with him, and after my brother and I were born, she enrolled in law school at Catholic University. She went on to become the first American Indian woman lawyer in Minnesota and the first American Indian woman judge in the country.

There is much I still don’t understand about her. I don’t understand how someone who had been told, in ways direct and indirect, that she wasn’t supposed to achieve anything could end up driven by so much ambition. She was simply wired to want, despite the country’s attempts to prevent it. My father seemed to labor under a vow of engagement with the country and its institutions, but my mother was moved by something else.

For her the answer was not engagement but armor, and the best armor wasn’t what money could buy; it was money itself. She was obsessed with it. Having it. Having more of it. Making sure more was coming in than was going out. Accumulation, for her, was key. Money — and nothing else — was going to keep her safe. In 2002, Walmart came, at long last, to Bemidji, Minn. She was pretty excited about it. I chided her by asking if she wouldn’t rather support local businesses. “Local businesses?” she sneered. “You mean the ones owned by the people who used to follow me around to make sure I wasn’t stealing when I was kid? No thanks.”

One story she fixated on, the one that would come up regularly no matter what we were talking about, was how, when she was 12, the sheriff stole her rice. Every fall the extended family went, en masse, to harvest rice in the old way: in boats that were pushed along the weedy margins of lakes and rivers by a long pole while another person used carved cedar knockers to beat the ripe rice into the bottom of the boat. It’s arduous, even under the best circumstances. At the end of the season, the rice was sold by the pound, and that was pretty much the sole source of income with which to buy school clothes, kerosene, lard and flour to get them through the winter.

One fall, they spent a few days camping and ricing at Raven’s Point on Lake Winnibigoshish near the village. The weather was terrible: stormy and windy and cold. My mother and her ricing partner had been given a flat-bottomed plywood duck boat to use. It was awkward, and the wind caught it and blew them sideways. My mother, who weighed less than 100 pounds, leaned on the pole and tried to keep them on course. By the time they got back to the landing, everyone was exhausted, hands numb and tingly from gripping the pole and the knockers, covered in rice beards and rice worms, but content: They had managed to collect hundreds of pounds.

Waiting for them at the landing was the sheriff. He told them they had been ricing illegally, and he confiscated the harvest. Everyone knew, because everyone knew him, that he was going to take the rice and sell it himself and keep the money. But there was nothing she or anyone else could do. I think this small episode stood in for what the country was “up to.” It was, to my mother and to my community more generally, never up to any good. As for the “community” itself, it was made up of our relatives and neighbors and the village of Bena as well as the other smaller villages at Leech Lake and White Earth in a loose constellation of relatedness. But it was principally among the family where my mother was comfortable. She would be tight, rigid with distrust the farther away from Bena she traveled. Back among her uncles and aunts and cousins, she would really laugh.

And so I inherited from her the same distrust, the same belief that it was a matter of time before the country came for me. I did all the “right” things: I achieved, I barely misbehaved, I earned and I kept my hands, metaphorically and literally, where they could be seen. I inherited, too, for better or worse, that desperate wanting. Ambition and greed, for her and for me, were the armor that protected us from the spears that would pin us to the ground if they could.

Credit…Illustration by Dadu Shin

I came of age in the 1990s with the different and warring natures of my parents’ attitudes fighting for room in my head. While I was in college, the multicultural wave crested, and I couldn’t help angrily noting the superficiality of it. It seemed that all anyone wanted from Native culture was the “three F’s”: food, folklore and fashion. As part of that multicultural process I, my mother’s son, was skeptical of even the adoration that was beginning to creep into how people thought of me, my tribe, my reservation and, by extension, Native Americans generally: exoticized others who were interesting in direct proportion to our suffering. So it became easy to align myself with my mother’s response to America. She never wanted to run for tribal or governmental office, and unlike my father, who was an aggressive institution joiner and builder, she would never put herself in a position in which anyone had control over her.

Around this time, when I was home for the holidays in December 1990, there was a memorial walk and ride, culminating in a vigil at the Bemidji waterfront commemorating the 100-year anniversary of the murder of more than 300 men, women and children at Wounded Knee, S.D. My father was one of the organizers, and he roped me and a college friend into tending “the sacred fire,” which had been built on the ice near the statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe. It was bitterly cold, as it was at Wounded Knee a century earlier. I was just as bitter at having to stand out there and tend those flames, and it occurred to me then that if there was ever a better metaphor for the country, I had yet to see it: a fire built on top of lake ice, the flames purely decorative and not powerful enough to warm us or melt the ice underneath.

My father gave a speech to the few people around the fire. He was a man who savored words, and he was in no hurry. I don’t remember the substance of his speech. I don’t remember any of his speech, actually, except his repeated use of the word “justice,” which he gave an extra spin by landing on the “-ice” for a few beats too long. Justissss. My friend and I laughed through the frost of our breath, and it became something we repeated to each other over the years as an inside joke. My father’s earnestness, his complete lack of irony, his belief in the rightness of things and the improvability of both our nature and our republic — it all embarrassed me.

Robert and Margaret Treuer, circa 1967.Credit…From David Treuer

My mother was not at the memorial. She did not stand by the fire. She was, I imagine, at home smoking the cigarettes that would help kill her a few decades later. Even my parents’ choice in cigarettes betrayed them. My father smoked Winners. My mother favored Merits.

But though my father believed this country was ultimately a just place, he never avoided its history, either. He wasn’t naïve. As we drove into Bemidji, following the lake past the waterfront, my father would remind me regularly of burial mounds in the area that had been destroyed to make room for the city. When a nearby road was being widened, he heard, a number of graves were found, and the construction workers had wired skulls to the radiators of their bulldozers. When driving to Minneapolis, he rarely failed to mention how in 1850, the government forced nearly 3,000 Ojibwe to travel 150 miles from Wisconsin to Sandy Lake, Minn., to receive the annuities they depended on. They arrived in October and had to wait until December. Overcrowded, underfed and exposed to the weather, more than a hundred died waiting, and 250 more died on their long walk home.

Not that I really needed him to tell me that Indians were expected to suffer. I felt it in the very low expectations my teachers had of me. I heard it in my band teacher’s voice when he told my class that all “Indians were lazy and on welfare and should return to Canada where they’re from.” I saw it in the bruises on my uncle’s arms, neck and ribs after he was “detained” by Bemidji police. I was immersed in it when I went to reservations like White Earth, where many of our people were relocated in an effort to terminate and dismantle other reservations.

I felt it, too, on my way to and from college in the smug towns all across Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania and New Jersey — towns with Indian names but no Native Americans at all: our lowness, our abjectness and the social and governmental structures that tried to keep it that way. This great dreamy country squatted like a rock, like grief itself, on my chest and made it hard to breathe.

My parents divorced not long after the Wounded Knee memorial. They had been living separate lives inside the house for years before that; my mother went so far as to renovate the house so that she had her own room, ostensibly because my father snored. Really it was because they didn’t like each other anymore. When they finally divorced, they both came to me with their disappointments. My mom felt betrayed by my father’s adultery, and my father felt that my mother simply didn’t love him anymore. Both of them were right.

After the divorce, they each — in their houses about a mile apart — began their respective declines. In 2001, my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer, which she managed to beat. People will always surprise you, but they will never break character. Instead of feeling as if she won the lottery, which was my reaction to her remission, what her cancer taught her was that death was indeed coming. She was overprescribed oxycodone, which dampened, shaped and authored the end of her life in March 2020. It was the oxy — not her lung cancer, and not her subsequent bout with pancreatic cancer, which she also beat — that did her in.

My mom lost her life because she lost her body, but my father lost his because he lost his mind. One time, weeks before my father’s final decline, he and I were having lunch. We were at the tail end of things, and I knew it. His Alzheimer’s had taken most everything by then. The stories he told were getting fewer and fewer — the tapes he played, that we all play, as we narrate the meanings of our lives, had been degraded to the point that only a few remained.

Pausing between bites, I asked my father about the food in the army. Was it as bad as everyone says? He shrugged. “I had no complaints,” he said. This was not surprising: He was one of the least complaining people I had ever known. “For the first time in my life I got three meals a day, as much as I wanted to eat!” That was not surprising either: He had an indiscriminate palate.

Then, when I least expected it, he kept talking and told a new story, or at least one that was new to me. When he was at the base in Okinawa back in 1945, the kitchen staff would haul huge oil drums into the mess, and the soldiers, my father among them, dumped their scraps there. Off the base, meanwhile, the Japanese and Okinawans were starving. They would line up near the waste barrels outside and pick the trash clean. “They were so poor!” my father said, the tears starting to come. “They were so poor they didn’t even have bowls. But they put the food in whatever they had: shell casings, bags, baskets, even their hats.”

The base commander got wind of it and began ordering the cooks and orderlies to douse the leftover food with bleach. “They were so thin! They were starving to death, Dave!” He, unlike most of the other soldiers, had a good relationship with the Black cooks and dishwashers, so he asked them to disobey the order and set the food aside, and he would take care of it. Together they hauled the barrels outside the base and the Japanese lined up down the block. They bowed to the kitchen workers and they bowed to my father.

His tears were flowing freely now. I asked him if it was, I don’t know, weird, or if he felt weird, considering what the Japanese Army had done in China in Nanking, and to American soldiers at Bataan and in the Philippines and Malaysia and Korea. He pounded the table. “These were people, David. Starving people! That was enough. That was all I needed to know.”

I had been so ashamed of him for so long: ashamed of what I considered to be his weaknesses, ashamed of the surplus of feeling. And now, finally, I had managed to be ashamed of myself. “How can you stand the things this country does?” I asked. “How can you live with it?” I was thinking of the base commander who ordered the food doused in bleach. I was thinking, too, of myself. I hadn’t chosen America any more than it had chosen me. To abandon it would be to abandon my tribe and tribal homelands. Something I couldn’t possibly do.

“You chose this place,” I said, gesturing to the house, the birds, the pine trees scratching the screens. “You chose this country. So how can you stand the things it does?”

He stopped eating and put down his silverware and spread those great gripping hands of his. “No one else wanted me,” he said. “I was hunted down in Austria, barely tolerated in England and Ireland. But America saved my life. It saved my life. So it’s my job to save it from itself. That’s the deal. That’s the bargain.”

Credit…Illustration by Dadu Shin

After that lunch, in January 2016, the same month he was to have turned 90, my father died. I think he was ready to die. We knew it was coming, too. Because of his Alzheimer’s, he had been dying by degrees. The blood vessels in his brain had become brittle. (For much of his life, he smoked two packs of cigarettes a day.) They’d been snapping like dried spaghetti. Snap. Snap. Snap. Even before the onset of his Alzheimer’s, he was given to extravagant moans and exclamations.

I lived with him and helped take care of him for about five months. Every morning when I came down the stairs, he looked at me with surprise and wonder. “Dave!” he said. “What are you doing here?” I would tell him I was living there. Then his tears would come. “That’s great news, Dave. Just great. But” — and then he sighed in that way of his, so familiar to me — “I’ve got bad news.” Pause. “I have Alzheimer’s.”

“Ah, that’s a tough break, Pops. But I’m here, and we’ll be OK. You’ll be OK.”

But he wasn’t. After I returned to California, the family hired help. A home-health aide cleaned him and bathed him. His driver sat with him as he noted and counted the birds at the feeder. He had two strokes and didn’t talk much after the second one.

He was eventually moved into my brother Paul’s house in Duluth, 140 miles from the home he built on the edge of the Leech Lake Reservation. Paul had done the lion’s share of coordinating his care before the move and took care of him almost single-handedly after the move. It was there that things got worse. I wasn’t around to see it, but according to Paul, our father sometimes woke at night, disoriented, crying out and screaming. He began to wander, but not far. One place he was drawn to was the refrigerator. My brother would find him there, lit by its glow. He also found him on the back deck, staring at Lake Superior, moved to tears by the water.

My father ultimately died in bed. Slowly, suddenly, all at once: He was gone. Everyone, it seemed, came to Duluth to pay respects. My brother kept my father’s body, unembalmed, in the downstairs bedroom until all of us had the chance to spend some time with him before he was cremated. It was winter, and cold, which was convenient. I visited with the family and — to show I was really OK — got as many people as I could involved in a game to see who could stand on one leg the longest. Finally, my brother Anton looked at me and said, “Shouldn’t you go back there and say goodbye?”

Some of the objects in his room were so familiar, had moved from place to place with him. The same painting that hung in his childhood room in Vienna graced the wall here. It had not only survived the war but survived the many separations the war entailed. There was also the walking stick with ribbons and eagle feathers that meant something to him for reasons I disparaged while he was alive. His slippers were there, too.

There was no avoiding it — there he was. His mouth was open. His eyes were closed. He was dead in the manner he had slept. My father’s sleep had been something epic for him and for those of us condemned to need him while he was sleeping. As kids, when we woke him up, he did so with terrified energy. His hands shot out to the sides and his eyes bounced around the room wildly, and he asked, “What WHAT WHAT IS IT?” I always thought his frustration had to do with me and what I wanted. I didn’t understand his panic had more to do with him.

For someone who had escaped so much, for whom safety was not something given as much as it was something stolen; for someone who endured so much loss and against whom such vast forces of the state had been mobilized; for whom death was assigned at such an early age, sleep must have been the great, unavoidable helplessness, a daily unbridling of consciousness in exchange for the possibility (but not the certainty) of waking up the next day to do it all over again.

Here was a boy who fled the Holocaust; someone who had started fresh over and over again; whose status as a survivor turned him into something of an idealist; someone who saw that this country had a lot to offer; someone who could be in this country in a way that I — a Native who grew up on a reservation and had my own relationship to the government that put me there — could not. I looked at my father’s shrunken face, his jaw dropped down onto his throat, and missed his tears.

Then I left. Back to New Mexico where I was living temporarily. Back to my own divorce that was almost done. (Slowly, suddenly, all at once: It was gone.) Back to 2016 and a country that felt as if it were falling apart.

In the months after his death, I had a chance to visit my old writing mentor at her home. She asked about my father, of whom she was terribly fond. I said he’d passed away. “The living elude us,” she told me, “and it’s only possible to understand people after they’re dead, because it’s only then they sit still long enough for us to see them clearly.” She, too, would be gone in a few years.

It was only after he “sat still” that I could see him clearly and could see, also, that I had begun to absorb some of his worldview. By degrees — not epiphanically, not pegged to any one thing — his belief in this country stopped seeming ridiculous to me. The polarities within me were in the process of being reversed. I could no longer write off this country as my mother had. I couldn’t see it as a place that existed only to exercise its worst impulses. Hope, of all things — for my country and myself — began to filter in. It was, perhaps, the best and only way I could honor my father.

My ideals, and those of the country, weren’t merely notional or aspirational. They had some kind of visible substance, and you could, sometimes, see them in practice. In order to survive, I needed to hold within me two opposing ideas: I needed to believe in my mother’s version of things, that America will always try its best to break us down, and we must stand guard against it. I also needed to hold onto my father’s vision that America can, and sometimes does, nurture and sustain us.

This country is a terrible country, and this country is not. This country has done its best to take and conquer and kill my Native life, and at the same time it has saved my father’s life and created mine. There is a great ugliness on the land and also a great beauty. This country would and will do its worst at the same time it embodies the most nurturing habits our civilization has to offer. There is no reconciling these contradictions; they cannot be reduced or done away with. I must, we must, find a way to contain both. And I had, as we all do, the dead to guide me — first in 2016 and again in 2020 — when I left my parents’ sides for the last time and traveled back home to my children.

David Treuer is an Ojibwe from the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota and the author of “The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present,” a 2019 finalist for the National Book Award. Dadu Shin is an illustrator in Brooklyn who has worked for clients including The New York Times and Armani Exchange. His work focuses on emotion and empathy.

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