'Being Lakota' by Larissa Petrillo
VANCOUVER, British Columbia - Even books are written in Indian time. It has taken Larissa Petrillo about 10 years to research, write and edit her first novel, ''Being Lakota.''
Published by the University of Nebraska Press, the 167-page book features candid interviews with Pine Ridge Indian Reservation residents Lupe and Melda Trejo, and the ethnographic insights of Petrillo, a professor of interdisciplinary studies at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
Petrillo met the couple through a mutual friend at a Sun Dance on Pine Ridge in 1995. The non-Native scholar said her love for the Lakota culture grew after reading ''Lakota Woman'' by Mary Crow Dog.
''I found there to be a real depth to the material, and the political, spiritual and cultural history, which seemed to be packed full of complex relationships,'' she said. ''It pulled me in and made me want to learn more.''
The Trejos were together for more than 40 years before Lupe passed away in 1999. Lupe, born in Texas of Mexican/Aztec heritage, became immersed in the Lakota way of life, yet throughout the book he talks about his unwavering connection to his bloodline.
Melda Red Bear Runs Along the Edge Trejo, 66, Lakota/Mexican, grew up attending American Indian Church meetings and various traditional ceremonies. She was born in Pine Ridge, but spent most of her childhood in Denver, Colo., and Scottsbluff, Neb.
It was in Scottsbluff where Melda met Lupe, the love of her life. After their courtship, and with the blessing of her father, the two traveled the country together as migrant workers. Jobs were limited in Scottsbluff, which is about four hours south of Pine Ridge.
During their life journey, they had 11 children, who helped bring 35 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren into their lives. Tragically, they lost three sons along the way.
The book itself is split into three sections: family, identity and tradition. Petrillo transcribed the open-ended interview recordings with little to no editing of the couple's actual words. Much like a play, Melda and Lupe converse about their life together. Some stories are funny while others are seemingly tragic, yet it doesn't seem to shake their faith in the Creator or each other.
''We went through some hard times and went through some good times, but we stick together,'' Melda said. ''You have to work at everything and trust.''
Altogether, Petrillo recorded a total of 10 90-minute interviews. The couple spent a good portion of the interviews talking about how the Sun Dance ceremony became an integral part of their lives when they moved to Pine Ridge in 1989 to care for Melda's elderly mother.
Melda, who speaks fluent Lakota, still lives on her family's land in a renovated, nearly 100-year-old log cabin four miles east of Allen, S.D.
Interwoven between the chapters and passages filled with the Trejos' dialogue, Petrillo humbly lends her ethnographic knowledge to expand on the couple's comments and uses quotes from scholars that help explain specific aspects of the Lakota culture. Additionally, using scholarly quotes, she juxtaposes past ethnographic writings on the Lakota - positive and negative - and how they have helped her in her approach to writing the novel.
''A lot of the academic discussions that take place are similar in theme to conversations that take place on the reservation ... questions about ethics, leaders and ways of doing things,'' she said.
In Chapter 4, she goes into detail about how the collaboration with the Trejos was born and how she initially intended to write exclusively about a traditional Lakota woman.
During her 10-year odyssey, she had to change her concept of gender roles, what defined being Indian, and make the decision to include Lupe. ''I thought that it might be good to make my writing process very transparent so everyone can learn about what it means to work together cross-culturally,'' she said. ''By showing people the things I did right, and the things I did wrong, we can hopefully all learn to work together and break down some of the barriers that seem to exist.''
Melda said she hasn't slowed down to read the entire novel, as she is busy raising a grandchild and working. ''I am a busy person and I am trying to keep the house going,'' she said. ''I am still selling burritos to make a living.''
As a result of the collaboration, a friendship was formed and continues to flourish. Petrillo said she plans to make the trek to South Dakota to spend some time with Melda.
''Native and non-Native readers alike who read the book will hopefully be struck by two things,'' she said. ''One, the meaning that can be found in the lives of each and every individual; and two, the friendship and learning that can occur across cultures.''