Exploring Tragic, Forgotten Native American History in Crime Fiction
By Tim O’Mara
GIRL GONE MISSING is Marcie Rendon’s second crime novel featuring Cash Blackbear, a member of the Anishinabe Nation of North Dakota and Minnesota. Cash’s first appearance, in Murder on the Red River, earned Rendon the Pinckley Prize for Debut Crime Fiction.
In GIRL GONE MISSING, Cash begins to have dreams about a fellow Moorhead State student, a young blond girl who has disappeared. Then it happens again—and the girls are calling out in Cash’s dream to be saved. Not one to let a good dream go to waste, Cash enlists the help of her closest friend, Sheriff Wheaton, to find the missing girls.
“Cash is a gift to me from the universe,” Rendon says. “I don’t think I could have made her up on my own. I was writing a story about a young woman who wrote poetry and wanted to go to Nashville to try to break into the music business. Cash appeared and said, ‘Nope, this is the story you’re going to write’—and so I wrote it.
“Cash is every young Indian woman I’ve known…we are fierce, resilient, kind, generous, tough…lonely, alone…”
Turns out, there’s a horrible—almost forgotten by many of us—piece of American history behind that characterization.
“For too many years in America, Native American children were systematically taken from their families and placed with non-Indian families or institutions,” Rendon says. “Cash Blackbear was one of these children.
“In Minnesota, 60 percent of the children from the Red Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota were removed and placed in white homes. From my reservation, White Earth, it’s estimated that between 40-60 percent were removed and placed in white homes. Following that era in the ’50s and ’60s was the Native American Adoption Project. Indian children were adopted by white families and this was sanctioned by the states. This effectively terminated their ‘native’ status—they could no longer claim tribal rights nor rights to the land of their people. It was another form of a termination policy that made folks ‘not’ native. Today, many tribes will honor the tribal identity of native folks if they can provide their original birth certificates, which is often impossible with closed adoption.
“Professors who are teaching Murder on the Red River talk in their classes about Cash’s PTSD from foster care experience and how that shapes who she is,” Rendon says. “The current buzzword for that is historical trauma—but the resilience, the ‘bouncing’ is what I so admire. It’s fun to write her.”
The girls who disappear in GIRL GONE MISSING are white. In real life, the number of Native American females who disappear annually is astounding. A symbol of support for these missing women is a red dress. (This plays a prominent role in Marcie’s short story “Tonight Wasn’t Her Night to Die” in the collection Down to the River from Down & Out Books.)
“Each February 14th,” Rendon says, “the Native American community in the Twin Cities area has a walk for the Missing and Murdered Women, as do many communities across the continent. This year we gathered for two Saturdays at the White Earth Tribal office in Minneapolis and sewed red skirts to wear in the walk. It was the largest walk to date with hundreds of community members walking in commemoration of the missing and murdered.
“I was born along the Red River of the North where Tina Fountaine—14 years old—was dumped, tied in a gunny sack, in the Red River in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Savannah Greywind, after her baby was taken from her body, was dumped in the Red River by Fargo-Moorhead. I have always considered the Red ‘my’ river. And it’s heartbreaking to know that this body of water is used as a dumping ground for murdered Native women. In our belief system, women are sacred—they give life to all beings. Water is sacred. It sustains the life of all beings. To have both so horrifically desecrated is heartbreaking.”
Dreams play a huge role in GIRL GONE MISSING. How does the White Earth Anishinabe Nation view the role of dreams?
“Dreams have shaped who we are as Anishinabe,” Rendon says. “Our history says we were first closer to the Atlantic Ocean. Then one of our people dreamt we were to move where food grew on water. People listened to the dream and headed across the Great Lakes until arriving where wild rice grows. Dreams inform our life. We pay attention to them. We follow them when it’s clear that that’s what makes sense to do. We are told to always remember our dreams because we may need that knowledge someday.”
Both Cash novels take place during the late ’60s. The Vietnam War is raging and activists are, well, very active. Why that time period?
“The way I write is character-driven, and Cash appeared in that time, at that place. Additionally, it was a time of change for us as Native people. Social unrest in the United States—the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, the farm workers movement, the anti-war protests—all led to the emergence of the American Indian Movement. AIM gave voice to Native people across the continent: sovereign rights, tribal rights, educational rights, international treaty rights, environmental concerns, and the re-emergence of spiritual rights all came alive again in our consciousness and huge changes occurred throughout Indian country as a result in all the forementioned areas.
“The flippant answer,” Rendon adds, “is that I could avoid DNA and cell phones.”
When asked to describe a bit about working with Cincos Puntos Press, an indie press out of El Paso, Texas, Rendon says, “I spent five years sending Murder out to agents and publishers. And the rejections piled up. I approached Cincos on the suggestion of Dr. Debbie Reese. She heard that Cincos had published a couple other Native writers and to try them. I did. And they sent me a contract. Many people have a hard time believing that Native people still exist; they are steeped in the folklore of the past and make all kinds of assumptions about who we are today.
“Linda Rodriguez is a Native American crime author who has encouraged me to keep writing in this genre, and also encouraged me to join organizations like International Thriller Writers and Sisters in Crime. Most of the published authors who are writing Native crime are non-Native—so while they may be good storytellers/writers there are things about us that they will never ‘get.’ To have Cinco Puntos pick up my books has meant not just that I am published, but that Native folks get a real story, a real picture of themselves, a mirror back of themselves. They can read [my books] and identify in a way that we don’t get to always do with other stories.”
Rendon closes all of her email correspondence with the concept of Akinomaage.
Akinomaage—We draw laws from our environments, we draw analogies from there and we can distinguish from there. “Aki” is earth, “nomaage” is to take directions from it. “Akinomaage” is a sense from learning from the land. ~ Ogimaa Wab
“Ogimaa Wab says he first heard this from an Ojibwe elder up in Canada,” Rendon says. “When I first heard it, it moved me to think about how we are of the earth, the earth is of us. It seems as Native people that we have a pull to our particular place of earth. It calls us, it speaks to us. It remembers and reminds us of who we are and our purpose here.
“I was talking with some younger folk about our connection to place and how if you are in Duluth, Minnesota, you are in one climate and if you drive half an hour south you are in a different climate because of the specific climate created by Lake Superior which Duluth sits right next to. And when you live in connection with the earth and the land around you, your life, your lifestyle, your ceremony are determined by the land you live on. For example: plains folks have lots of sage and use sage a lot in their ceremony. Folks on the tundra—sage doesn’t naturally grow there. So what is used in ceremony is what grows around you.
“I am of the Red River,” Rendon adds. “That prairie, that river, that winter wind, that is who I am. So I guess when I write Cash, she too is embodied of that place, that river, and that wind. Although I have lived in the city of Minneapolis for 30-some years, I can close my eyes and return immediately to that land.”
Besides writing the Cash Blackbear series, Rendon is also curating a television show for Twin Cities Public Television called Art is…Creative Native Resilience.
“One of my roles in the Native community here in the Twin Cities is I act as a community arts activist,” Rendon says. “I promote other artists to pursue their dreams.
“I picked three Anishinabe artists. Sir Curtis Kirby III is director of the Ikidowin Theater group [which] creates performance pieces that evolve from Native youth experience. Andrea Fairbanks is an actor, performance artist, and a traditional dancer at pow-wows. Her part of the evening will showcase her many talents including some drawing of ‘Art is all part of the plan.’ Jada Brown is a college student I first saw singing the blues at the local Farmers Market at the Pow Wow Grounds Coffee Shop parking lot. She is very talented and should be heard on a bigger stage than a parking lot venue.
“None of these folks get the Center Stage spot they so deserve. So I chose them for this night to get center stage, to showcase their work, for them to shine.”
The clear segue here is to say that with GIRL GONE MISSING, both Cash Blackbear and Marcie Rendon will be shining brightly on center stage for some time to come.