In "Spirit Car," which won the 2006 Minnesota Book Award for memoir, Diane Wilson explored her Native American ancestors who survived the Dakota War of 1862. She traced how her family had been devastated by generations of cultural extermination, leaving behind a multi-generational "soul wound." How to move forward against the trauma of her family's history? Wilson began a long process of remembering what was lost, while seeking to understand her family, her Dakota history and the Dakota way of life.

In "Beloved Child," Wilson moves powerfully into wider focus, exploring the "soul wounds" suffered by members of the Dakota tribe. The psychological and physical wreckage she describes, traceable to longstanding U.S. policies intended to eliminate the Dakota and their culture, have ravaged these mostly-Minnesota families with alcoholism, substance abuse, violence, incarceration, absurdly high suicide rates and a subconscious self-hatred. What Wilson does is both profoundly radical and deeply moving: she brings readers inside the lives of several contemporary Dakota who have changed their lives by holistically embracing their Native American culture. These Dakota have found that the way to heal is not to forget the past and "move forward," but to remember and return to their traditions.

Wilson and the Dakota she profiles are swimming against the stream of western history. "By rediscovering our relationship with the earth, with ceremony, [and] storytelling," writes Wilson, "we reestablish an indigenous worldview." Harley and Sue Eagle, for example, home-school their children, rejecting the "dominant" view of American history that asserts that Columbus "discovered" America and that whites were pre-ordained to conquer and "civilize" Native Americans.

As Sue Eagle explains, "we began to realize how much of the public school system perpetuates the lies, perpetuates the patterns of oppression."

Another Dakota, Gaby Tateyuskanskan, embraces nonviolent protest as a vehicle to change the way Native Americans are treated. "It's easy to be angry; it's easy to lash out," notes Gaby, "It's so much harder to ... [compassionately] teach somebody or influence somebody to change what they're doing." Dakota like Gaby and Sue Eagle, and others that Wilson describes, pursue healing by seeking to understand their own family's past and the trauma suffered by the Dakota. Wilson explains that they aren't attacking the dominant western culture, but they're consciously embracing the Dakota way, which is to get close to the land, to use oral traditions, to acknowledge the self-loathing that has been hard-wired into their brains, and to choose another, more compassionate way to define themselves.

Wilson has written a heartfelt love story filled with pain and trauma, but also redemption. She writes simply and beautifully, getting close to her subjects by listening intently and with palpable curiosity. "We find ways to transcend the trauma so that we no longer identify as victims," writes Wilson. "We become free to work toward justice for our communities." "Beloved Child" is inspirational and deeply empowering.

  • Chuck Leddy is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He also reviews for the Boston Globe.