This unvarnished mix of journalism, history, and memoir tells hard truths about life on America's Indian reservations.
“Leech Lake is a big reservation – forty miles by forty miles, peppered with lakes large and small, and broken in half by the slow shallow course of the northern Mississipi River,” writes David Treuer of the northern Minnesota Indian reservation that is his home. “We passed two of our casinos (we have three) on the drive to my house on the northwestern edge of the reservation.” Despite the casinos, however, Treuer points out, Leech Lake is not an affluent place. “My reservation will be poor for a long time, maybe forever,” he predicts.Skip to next paragraph
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There are 310 Indian reservations scattered across more than 30 states in the United States. Treuer’s goal in Rez Life – an unvarnished and discomforting mix of journalism, history, and memoir – is to help all of us non-Native Americans understand a bit more about them.
Twelve Indian reservations are bigger than the state of Rhode Island and nine are larger than Delaware, notes Treuer. Indian land makes up 2.3 percent of the land in the US and there are more than two million Native Americans living in the US. Yet for the most part, writes Treuer, “it is pretty easy to avoid us and our reservations.”
Although Treuer did grow up mostly on the Leech Lake reservation, his experience is hardly what most of us would think of as representative of reservation life. Treuer’s father was an Austrian Jewish survivor of the Holocaust who met Treuer's mother – an Ojibwe tribal court judge – while teaching at a reservation high school. Treuer graduated from Princeton University in 1992. Nobel Prize-winner Toni Morrison was his senior thesis adviser at Princeton and since graduating Treuer has written three novels.
But if there is anything that Treuer wants to do, it is to shake up the preconceptions that many non-Native Americans have about reservation life.
Treuer’s father, who stumbled onto an Indian reservation after running from the Holocaust, says that it was on Leech Lake that he “found something that had eluded him all the years before.” For the first time in his life, writes Treuer, “he felt safe.”
Yet most people (including both “Indians and non-Indians,” Treuer notes), don’t “think of the story of rez life as a story of beauty.”
If beauty is not the first thing you think of when considering Indian reservations, there is actually little in “Rez Life” that will help you to do so. Although Treuer’s reminiscences are often affectionate, the story he tells is most often painful and notably lacking in any of the romance sometimes associated with narratives about Native Americans.