Rez Life

This unvarnished mix of journalism, history, and memoir tells hard truths about life on America's Indian reservations.

Rez Life: An Indian’s Journey through Reservation Life By David Treuer Atlantic Monthly Press 330 pp.

“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.

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. 

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.”)

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.

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