This unvarnished mix of journalism, history, and memoir tells hard truths about life on America's Indian reservations.
âLeech Lake is a big reservation â 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,â writes David Treuer of the northern Minnesota Indian reservation that is his home. âWe passed two of our casinos (we have three) on the drive to my house on the northwestern edge of the reservation.â Despite the casinos, however, Treuer points out, Leech Lake is not an affluent place. âMy reservation will be poor for a long time, maybe forever,â he predicts.
There are 310 Indian reservations scattered across more than 30 states in the United States. Treuerâs goal in Rez Life â an unvarnished and discomforting mix of journalism, history, and memoir â 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, âit is pretty easy to avoid us and our reservations.â
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. Treuerâs father was an Austrian Jewish survivor of the Holocaust who met Treuer's mother â an Ojibwe tribal court judge â 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.
Treuerâs father, who stumbled onto an Indian reservation after running from the Holocaust, says that it was on Leech Lake that he âfound something that had eluded him all the years before.â For the first time in his life, writes Treuer, âhe felt safe.â
Yet most people (including both âIndians and non-Indians,â Treuer notes), donât âthink of the story of rez life as a story of beauty.â
If beauty is not the first thing you think of when considering Indian reservations, there is actually little in âRez Lifeâ that will help you to do so. Although Treuerâs 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.Â
Treuer writes about the bruising warfare between Native Americans and whites that has gone on for centuries now â 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 âyou can determine your own livesâ but that also means âyou have the latitude to destroy them.â) He narrates a fairly horrifying account of both the state of Native youth â far too often living unsupervised and uncared for by their parents â and of the frightening siege of violence that drugs have touched off on reservations. (Treuerâs mother, he says, who presides over a tribal court, has seen enough drug-fueled violence to make her long for âthe good old daysâ even if it is âa false nostalgia for days that were hardly good.â)
Yet for all the ugly truths of reservations life that Treuer brings to light he also offers profiles of various friends and family members â himself among them â who wouldnât 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 âRez Lifeâ are presented with the same clear-eyed rigor that Treuer turns on the reservations themselves. Treuerâs grandfather â who has just shot himself at the bookâs opening â was âthing and rangyâ and âtough.â âHe scared me,â remembers Treuer. âWe didnât have much to say to each other. I wasnât the only one who felt small next to his anger, his rage, his perpetual dissatisfaction. He didnât have a lot to say to anyone.â A childhood acquaintance was âskinny, 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 birdâs wing against his chest. We never asked what was wrong with him and never teased him.â
Treuer made waves in 1996 when he published a book of literary criticism called âNative American Fiction: A Userâs Manualâ 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 Treuerâs contribution in âRez Lifeâ 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 wonât be able to look away.Â
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitorâs Books editor.