ON THE REZ By Ian Frazier Farrar, Straus and Giroux 311 pp., $25
Readers who enjoyed Ian Frazier's 1989 best-seller, "Great Plains," will not be disappointed in his newest book, an account of his travels among the Oglala Sioux of the Pine Ridge Reservation in western South Dakota.
While "On the Rez" is more narrowly focused in subject and darker in tone, Frazier uses a similar, anecdotal narrative style that worked so well in his previous book. Without a chronological structure, moving freely from the present day to recent history to the 19th century, and mixing journalism with scholarship, Frazier gives an insightful and richly detailed portrayal of modern-day Indian life on the northern plains, one that manages to be both deeply empathetic and wholly unsentimental.
Frazier spends much of his time, and gathers much of his material, while driving around with his friend Le War Lance, a Pine Ridge resident - who appears memorably, if briefly, in "Great Plains" - and various of Le's relatives and friends. Indeed, judging from the author's experience, driving around is something that contemporary Plains Indians must do a lot. "Two 32-mile round trips between Oglala and Pine Ridge in a day were not uncommon," he writes. "Then there were the longer drives up to Rapid City to see doctors or relatives, trips to Chadron, Nebraska, to take a television to a repair shop, trips to Hot Springs, South Dakota, to drop [Le's brother] off at the Veteran's Hospital, trips to see a medicine man who lives miles off the paved road. It seemed as if every time I looked at the gas gauge it was falling back to empty, and every time I checked the odometer I had added another 300 miles. The Oglala may have lost the prairie vastnesses they used to hunt, but they are still obliged to roam."
The Indian reservation (with a handful of casino-rich exceptions) conjures up the most desolate images in the minds of many Americans. " 'Bleak' is a word attached in many people's minds to the idea of certain Indian reservations, of which the Oglala's reservation is perhaps the best example," Frazier writes. "Oddly, it is a word I have never heard used by Indians themselves."
Nevertheless, it would be hard to find a better word to use to describe the picture of life on the Pine Ridge reservation that Frazier presents: widespread poverty, alcoholism, suicide, and a general feeling of hopelessness. In the end, his frequent complaints of the way the media attach the word "bleak" to the reservation is at odds with the picture he paints of the place, a discrepancy that is never resolved. To Frazier, the lights of the village of Pine Ridge, as seen from atop a hill, may suggest the lights of Los Angeles as seen from Mulholland Drive. To an Indian resident, "It looks pretty, but it's just a slum."
While Frazier does not gloss over the "saddening statistics" of Indian life, he balances the ledger somewhat by pointing to positive numbers, hopeful signs that are generally overlooked: the increase in Indian life expectancy over the past 20 years, the increase in the number of Indian college graduates, the success of many new tribal colleges, and the large decline in the percentage of Indians living in poverty over the last 10 years.
But "On the Rez" is anything but a book of stats. With a gentle wit and engaging style, Frazier portrays many memorable individuals who are making the best of life on the rez, surviving, even prospering, with dignity, resilience, and a sense of humor.
The book is also full of historical information, as well as bits of Indian lore (a good fishing line can be made of the white hairs of a horse's tail, braided together), and a short list of the author's favorite Lakota words.
Frazier, who is also an accomplished essayist and humorist, doesn't end his book with grand summations or an analysis of Indian problems or suggestions on improving their lot. But he does make an impassioned and convincing plea for the government to return 1.3 million acres of federal land in the Black Hills of South Dakota to the Sioux; land which, even Congress agrees, was taken illegally from the Indians.
*David Conrads is a freelance writer in Kansas City, Mo.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society