This unvarnished mix of journalism, history, and memoir tells hard truths about life on America's Indian reservations.
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Treuer writes about the bruising warfare between Native Americans and whites that has gone on for centuries now – initially a brutal affair of weaponry and physical destruction and more recently a debilitating battle of petitions and legal briefs. He tries to unwind tangled questions of Native justice and sovereignty. (Sovereignty, he notes, means that “you can determine your own lives” but that also means “you have the latitude to destroy them.”) He narrates a fairly horrifying account of both the state of Native youth – far too often living unsupervised and uncared for by their parents – and of the frightening siege of violence that drugs have touched off on reservations. (Treuer’s mother, he says, who presides over a tribal court, has seen enough drug-fueled violence to make her long for “the good old days” even if it is “a false nostalgia for days that were hardly good.”)Skip to next paragraph
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Yet for all the ugly truths of reservations life that Treuer brings to light he also offers profiles of various friends and family members – himself among them – who wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. He includes a fairly hopeful section about Indian casinos and the prosperity that they have brought to a small segment of the Native population and he also writes enthusiastically about efforts to revitalize Native languages. (Treuer and his brother, Anton, are currently collaborating on a grammar of the Ojibwe language.)
The characters who populate “Rez Life” are presented with the same clear-eyed rigor that Treuer turns on the reservations themselves. Treuer’s grandfather – who has just shot himself at the book’s opening – was “thing and rangy” and “tough.” “He scared me,” remembers Treuer. “We didn’t have much to say to each other. I wasn’t the only one who felt small next to his anger, his rage, his perpetual dissatisfaction. He didn’t have a lot to say to anyone.” A childhood acquaintance was “skinny, with a sharp face and short hair that, no matter the season, tufted from out his head at odd angles.... He dragged one leg and his right hand curled up like a bird’s wing against his chest. We never asked what was wrong with him and never teased him.”
Treuer made waves in 1996 when he published a book of literary criticism called “Native American Fiction: A User’s Manual” in which he mixed blame and praise in talking about respected Native American writers like Louise Erdrich, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Sherman Alexie, sometimes questioning the degree of authenticity they bring to their accounts of Native culture.
Perhaps Treuer’s contribution in “Rez Life” will be to make waves again, this time by telling some hard truths about Native American life, and by doing so in terms so compelling that we won’t be able to look away.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s Books editor.