“In its broad strokes, Blood Sisters is a compelling story and a riveting, thought-provoking read . . .”
Blood Sisters is an ambitious book, tackling the inequities of white-Indian relations, methamphetamine trafficking, opioid addiction, alcoholism, toxic waste, real estate fraud, corrupt law enforcement, kidnapping, murder, and forensic archeology.
The author, “a white-presenting Cherokee woman from Northeast Oklahoma living in Rhode Island,” tells the story from the point of view of Syd Walker, a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) archeologist. The story begins on Narragansett land in Rhode Island as Walker studies human bones in an accidentally uncovered burial site. “I brush wet dirt from the skull’s damaged eye socket and wonder if my sister is dead.”
Syd was born into a Cherokee family and raised in Northeastern Oklahoma in an area where Cherokee and Quapaw land had, over the course of years, been stolen and given to white settlers and mining corporations, aided and abetted by the BIA and other government agencies. There, Syd and her sister, Emma Lou, and their friend Luna—blood sisters solemnized by a childhood ritual—were caught up by happenstance as youngsters in a drug deal gone awry and attacked and beaten by masked men looking for Luna’s parents. In the confusion, the attackers were killed, the trailer is set afire, and Luna and her parents die.
Jump ahead 15 years to Rhode Island, where Syd learns her sister Emma Lou has gone missing. She fears that like hundreds of missing Indian girls and women across the country, little will be done to find her, and she will become yet another statistic, put on the shelf and forgotten. When a skull is discovered in Oklahoma with her BIA badge in its mouth, she is assigned to investigate. She sees in her visit back home an opportunity to find the missing Emma Lou. But her homecoming is not welcomed by all, as many now see the adult Syd as an outsider meddling in affairs she knows nothing about.
But urging her on through it all is the ghost of Luna, who appears from time to time. Her presence is vivid in Oklahoma. “She’s clearer here at my parents’ home, as if being close to her body in the graveyard makes her spirit stronger,” Syd says.
Owing to toxic waste dumps left by abandoned mines and subsidence from collapsing tunnels that is swallowing homes, Syd’s old neighbors are offered buyouts in a government effort to vacate the town. But this, too, is rife with corruption. The Cherokee and Quapaw people get little for their properties. Poor whites see it as another handout to the Indians, as evidenced by a drunken white man’s rant at a buyout meeting: “In the man’s eyes, I see a whiskey-fueled rage. I realize I haven’t seen this kind of anger in a while. The burning gaze hungry for a place to send decades of wrongs, resentments, and likely true injustices. Maybe that’s the saddest part. If he wasn’t so ignorant, he’d see that the people he hates and villainizes have more in common with him than the better-off white people where he thinks he belongs.”
The Cherokee see it differently. In a telephone conversation, Syd’s wife Mal says, “So people like your Aunt Missy had family who walked the Trail of Tears. Then had that land taken away, or at least the rights on it, when those minerals were found on it. Leaving literal poison behind. Now she’s trying to make enough to start again, and she’s not getting close?” Syd replies, “It’s as awful as that. . . . She doesn’t seem mad exactly. Almost as if she expected to get kicked again.”
Through it all, Syd works to find Emma Lou but is stymied at every turn. Her investigations into related drug dealing—both legal and illegal—and property fraud likewise bring resistance from expected and unexpected quarters.
In its broad strokes, Blood Sisters is a compelling story and a riveting, thought-provoking read delving into a number of important issues. But keeping up with the details can be challenging, as it is never clear at any moment who is a friend and who is a foe, whose side the BIA is on, who the bad guys are and who good guys are, and even who is dead and who is alive.