John Sayles is an award-winning filmmaker known for his directorial style and the topics of his films. He is also an excellent writer of fiction. My first encounter with any of his work was the short story “I-80 Nebraska,” published in The Atlantic in 1975. A year or two later, his second novel Union Dues came out. I was more or less hooked. Within fifteen years, Sayles had released another novel, a collection of short stories and directed six movies, including The Return of the Secaucus 7, Matewan, and Eight Men Out. His most recent film debuted in 2013 and his latest novel, titled Yellow Earth, was just published.
Like much of his other work, Yellow Earth is about the United States of America. It is about hope and money, deceit, grift and outright theft. It is also about prairie dogs, love, misguided and true; and lust. Lust for wealth, lust for flesh both young and otherwise, and lust for power. Naturally, if this novel is about all this, it is also about destruction-of personal relationships, of families and of the earth itself.
The bulk of the tale’s action takes place in a town in the Dakotas. It begins when energy extraction companies send in their scouts to determine the potential wealth, they might be able to squeeze from the rocks below the surface of a nearby Indian reservation. Once it is determined that the profits will be great–fleeting perhaps, but great–the hustle begins in earnest. In a scenario played over and over again throughout US history, a conman, thief and killer who is also a businessman begins to lie and cheat his way into the hearts and minds of the indigenous people whose signatures he must obtain in order to get his reward.
He succeeds with most of them, beguiling them with the things their new found money can buy and cynically dismissing their concerns while drawing up favorable contracts he intends to ignore. In the process, he impregnates a teenage Lakota girl, disregards environmental and safety laws, kills an employee who challenges him, and eventually lies his way to an unintended fate. This particular character is ultimately more than just one man. He is a representative of and a metaphor for the industry built around the extraction of fossil fuels from the earth. Destructive, egocentric and motivated by greed, there is no human community or ecological marvel that will stand in the industry’s way.
The history of stealing indigenous lands and resources is the history of the United States. In the nation’s earlier days, this theft involved military conflict and settler warfare. Any treaties made were often the result of one of those or the other. Then the banks and corporations involved turned to the courts. Since they were courts made up of men who thought (and looked) just like the men in the executive boardrooms, the court system provided an easier and less bloody way to the same goal—the theft of indigenous land. In recent years, the phenomenon seems to have increased in frequency, but it has never really gone away. Before fracking was realized as a means to make money, an ongoing uranium mining project near the Four Corners region of the US Southwest was bringing sickness along with jobs to the Dine and Hopi nations. This project was the focus of several years of protest and lawsuits, yet the business of business rolled on, leaving death and despair in its wake. Once again, this is the history of the United States. John Sayles has created a tale of people and place bewitched and bedeviled by money and power, ultimately convinced to join in the destruction of their lands and their lives. Not only is his story believable, it could easily be a work of non-fiction, so accurately does he portray the possibilities of an energy extraction project on the lives of men and women in the US heartland.
Back in 1980, Richard Drinnon wrote an unforgettable and vivid history of the United States titled Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire Building. In the book, Drinnon destroyed the popular myth of heroic frontiersmen and brave US soldiers winning the west. In its place, he told the truth: the mass murder of Native Americans, the theft of their land and the rape of their women. Informing the descriptions of military and settler massacres was Drinnon’s discussion of the religious, sociological and philosophical underpinnings of this history most US citizens consider their own. Groundbreaking for its time, Drinnon’s text was one of a number of revisionist histories of the United States beginning to appear that stripped bare the narrative of American exceptionalism then accepted as truth. Unfortunately, this new narrative has been subjected to censorship by the powers that rule this nation. Yet it continues to exist, battling for equal time in the classrooms and media of the United States. In Yellow Earth, John Sayles gives his readers a modern-day fiction that provides a glimpse into the twenty-first century version of what Drinnon called the metaphysics of Indian-hating.