By Noel Martin
Too bad recovering alcoholic lawyer Jesse Crowchild and his sidekick investigator ex-cop Mike Morningstar are fictional characters. It is precisely the kind of tenacious dedication that these two native protagonists bring to their pursuit of justice that would have come in handy in the early stages of the investigation into the women that went missing over the course of three decades on the Downtown Eastside; and that continue to disappear on the ‘Highway of Tears’ in northern British Columbia. There are no larger than life heroics here though, just the dogged determination of two good people doing the next right thing in order to solve a murder mystery.
Author Frank Larue’s novel, “Innocent Until Proven Indian” turns the idea of legal precedent on its head in order to impress upon readers a fundamental fact of life for Aboriginal people. The burden of proof is on the defense rather the prosecution when the accused is a member of a First Nation. In this straightforward narrative which follows the movements of a colorful cast of characters from Vancouver to Saskatoon, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Hawaii and Pender Island and back, Larue reveals just enough information at just the right time to keep us wondering who did what, and where, and when.
Crowchild and Morningstar come together as a contemporary version of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade as they try to discover the real killer in order to vindicate Jimmy Greyeyes who is accused of murdering the man who raped his sister. As Hammett put it, referring to the work of the private eye, it’s like a “blind man in a dark room hunting for the black hat that wasn’t there.”
In this case the black hat (or the Maltese Falcon) is the murder weapon, an Eskimo carving of the Virgin Mary. And it is on this piece of soapstone that a second layer of meaning leaves its prints. Good and evil are consistently well-defined in this quite conventional detective novel. The native characters come together under the banner of community values and mutual solidarity, while the white men working for the system assume the worst about the first Indian they can pin the crime on.
This novel is more than an interesting mystery in the tradition of detective fiction. “Innocent Until Proven Indian” is about two quite different attitudes to human existence. It is not too farfetched to see the DNA of the Residential Schools on the sculpted Catholic/Anglican icon of religious devotion, and it is made even more ironic because of its creation by an Inuit artist, especially when it is juxtaposed as it is in the narrative progression with another well-known sculpture by the famous Haida artist Bill Reid depicting an entirely different creation story.
The narrative persona does not beat us over the head with statements about social justice and the oppression of Native Peoples. Larue leaves it up to readers to come to their own conclusions about right and wrong. But in the end the sum of parts is larger than the whole. Jesse Crowchild wins because he still has a soul. We understand that the money hungry individualistic materialism of the system represented by the real perpetrators of the rape and the later murder, and the white cops and the prosecution who presume the “Indian’s” guilt on the basis of the logic of revenge, are ultimately no match for the collective force of Native spirituality and community.
Larue has written a novel that is thoroughly grounded in the real life experience of Aboriginal people, and this experience is articulated in authentic dialogue between a cast of characters ranging from drug addicted musicians and sex trade workers to millionaire real estate moguls and their gold-digging girlfriends. In the end, Crowchild and Morningstar and the other native characters (with assistance from unbigoted characters of various backgrounds) triumph over the systemic racism which is the larger crime at issue in the book.
As the narrator says after the final courtroom scene in which the real truth is revealed, “everyone has a fire that sustains the soul, a fire that must be stoked to remain holy, and for Jesse it was . . . defending the oppressed.” Whether we read it for the mystery or the message, this book repays our effort with entertainment value and REAL positive role models in a contemporary world where First Nations peoples are still negatively stereotyped, disproportionately incarcerated and economically oppressed.