SINCE AS EARLY as the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), humans have been trying to harness the power of water. And well, why not? There’s certainly enough of it. According to the US Geological Survey, about 71 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered in water. Though tinkerers and engineers had tried everything — from spinning cotton to powering turbines — it wasn’t until the 19th century that the full potential of harnessed water was realized. On September 30, 1882, the world’s first hydroelectric power plant began operation on the Fox River in Appleton, Wisconsin, providing power to a system of both private and commercial consumers. People were understandably emboldened by their sudden control over the waterway; they wouldn’t be the last to enjoy a shortsighted victory over nature.

Many dam stories do not have happy endings — or beginnings, for that matter. During the long history of dam-building in the United States, hundreds of communities have been vacated, demolished, and flooded to allow for new waterways. Among the hardest hit have been Native American communities, which were forced to relocate from their sacred homelands with meager, if any, compensation. This is the dark part of American history that Amy Hassinger illuminates in After the Dam, a contemporary story about several generations of two families, the Bishops and the Claybornes, whose lives are changed by a dam. The Bishops are Ojibwe tribe members, whose ancestral land is flooded by the building of the dam. The Claybornes are the white descendants of the dam builders and they’ve felt its effect too, primarily in their strained relationships with neighbors and a sense of accumulating guilt. Rachel Clayborne, the great-granddaughter of the dam builder, is the protagonist of the novel. She’s a new mother, trying to find balance and self-worth. The book’s other central character is Joe Bishop, a Gulf War veteran, who returns home to Old Bend to manage the town’s dam, scuba diving in the reservoir in his free time. With him we bear witness to the many costs of dam-building on Native communities — what Joe calls “the very thing that had destroyed his great grandparents’ way of life.”

It’s striking, though not surprising, that the hubris of early dam builders echoes in the attitudes of our contemporary engineers and industrialists. Our most recent example, of course, is the Dakota Access Pipeline, whose proponents not only ignored the very concrete effects that the pipeline would have on the region, but also insisted on something much bigger and more abstract — that humans can control nature. In After the Dam, it’s Joe, keeper of the Old Bend dam, who tells us to wise up. In one passage, he recounts the number of deaths and catastrophes associated with dam failures. “Again and again,” Joe soberly recounts, “they built the dams, repaired the levees, filled in the wetlands, tore up the forests, and basically asked for it.” Replace the word “dam” with “pipeline” and Hassinger has written the playbook for what the future looks like when we fail to consider the bigger picture. The novel urges us to look away from profit and think instead of the people who live in these areas and of the land we all inhabit.

Hassinger’s story is also multidimensional, diving into our ideas of “home,” the complicated relationships of youth, and Native American history. The novel fluidly moves through time, so we eventually learn that Joe was in fact Rachel’s first love, until he joined the Marines and left town to fight in the Middle East. His deployment unravels their relationship and Rachel moves on, earning an environmental studies degree and marrying an indigenous studies scholar. A pivotal, emotional scene unfolds the night before Joe leaves for the war. Rachel, who grew up in an “ultra-progressive” family, believes that Joe is making a mistake by joining the Marines. She doesn’t understand his repeated explanation — it is for “the land, not the country,” he says — but for Rachel, it’s impossible to differentiate between the two. Joe’s perspective, on the other hand, is that “country” is an invented word, whereas “land” is the real place that needs protecting. Joe wasn’t there to defend the land of his Ojibwe ancestors when it was replaced with a reservoir, so his chance to right that wrong was, ironically enough, in Kuwait. And yet, as far as Joe is concerned, he doesn’t ever get a chance to become a warrior. The “big man” in the uniform, as Rachel calls him, eventually becomes the keeper of the dam and the scuba diver, passing his time in the lake-grave of his ancestors. To him, this is defeat.

Native American land rights, which also encompass water rights, aren’t usually headline news. That changed with the ongoing battle over the Dakota Access Pipeline, the proposed 1,172-mile pipeline that will transport approximately 470,000 barrels of crude oil per day from North Dakota to Illinois. In an interview with The Huffington Post, Doug Hayes, the staff attorney with the Sierra Club, called the resulting protest by tribes around the world “unprecedented.” Though the pipeline is now on hold, the stakes are worth repeating: this wasn’t a fight just for the environment, but also for land rights. The rallying cry of the pipeline protestors was “Water is life,” and not without reason — chief among the protestors have been the Standing Rock Sioux and other tribal nations, who feared and still fear that the pipeline’s installation will contaminate their sole water supply. It is still worth noting that the pipeline, and projects like it, threaten the sovereignty of tribal nations, which are federally recognized as independent from the United States. It also jeopardizes their ability to protect their sacred land and water. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s agency as a sovereign nation had been thwarted in many different ways from the very beginning of a building process marred by a lack of transparency. The Army Corps of Engineers used a general nationwide Permit 12 that does not address Native American sacred sites, climate, or environmental impact.

“Water is life” is also a theme throughout After the Dam. In some ways, it carries a story of its own, flowing through the lives of the many other characters who populate this novel: Rachel and Joe, of course, but also Joe’s mother, Diane, who happens to be caring for Rachel’s grandmother, named Grand. The story and characters eventually converge in Wisconsin at the Farm, Grand’s home, where Rachel spent her childhood summers. Rachel returns at her father’s request to “spy” on her grandmother, whose physical and mental health is in decline. The question is, who will inherit the Farm, built on land once owned by Diane’s family, members of the Ojibwe tribe, and a place that neither Rachel nor any of her family have visited in over a decade. Much to the Clayborne family’s concern, Grand wants to return it to its rightful owner, which, she believes, is Diane.

Exactly how Diane’s family lost the property is as murky as the dam water her son swims in. In fact, both families don’t quite know the truth, except for Grand herself, who in a rare moment of lucidity, tells Diane what happened long ago. As the Dakota Access Pipeline Project reminded us, the United States has a long, unsavory history of deceiving Native American people. Hassinger could have rehashed this well-known saga, but she digs below the surface, uncovering the often-complex circumstances and agreements that lead to exchanges of land. In After the Dam, let’s just say that financial desperation and technology conspire and eventually leave Diane’s family homeless. They are forced to return to the land as caretakers rather than owners, guests to the man who destroyed their community.

The families are bound together by their shared history and the land they both live on. Rachel understands the wrongs that her family has committed against the Bishops, and she sees that the dammed-up river her great-grandfather designed, was “something created for the profit of one — company, species, class of creatures — to the loss of another.” An even more telling scene takes place when Rachel is in her 20s. She visits the dam as a newlywed, with her husband Michael. She can immediately recognize how it has obliterated traditional ways of indigenous peoples and, while personally owning the wrong she believes her great-grandfather committed, Rachel suggests blowing it up. Even though it’s clear that she’s not serious, Michael chides her anyway, betraying no emotion at all. Throughout After the Dam, the exchanges between Michael and Rachel illustrate how the academic world, which encourages dispassion and objectivity, can cripple the emotions that drive us to action. Michael flinches at the word “Indian,” and yet he never offers any understanding of the real loss of the people whose lives he studies. He’s a robot to Rachel’s pulsating life force. Rachel’s passion to do the right thing — for all her imperfections — is a lesson on how passion becomes compassion.

Let’s take a cue from the Dakota Access Pipeline. It’s a simple question: what is the right thing to do? Numbers might be informative, but they might also numb us to the reality that the pipeline, if built, would traverse land that is home to many people — families, grandparents, lovers — as well as animals and artifacts of major cultural significance. Tribal members consider it sacred. The United States government doesn’t. To illustrate just how sacred the land is, the attorney to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe notably compared the project to “constructing a pipeline through Arlington Cemetery or under St. Patrick’s Cathedral.” He offered a translation of sorts — a path to empathy and, hopefully, compassion. The protests at Standing Rock, like Hassinger’s After the Dam, highlight the fact that there is more than one way to understand home or what is sacred.


Mary Warner has contributed to Paste Magazine, Edible, Garden & Gun, and is the author of the website Coucou Home, a meandering collection of writing, interviews and images exploring how home is the intersection of design and memory.