‘Rez Life’ Is a Humane, Grim and Hopeful Portrait of Today’s American Indians

Recently, the New York Times reported on the Oglala Sioux tribe’s federal lawsuit against liquor dealers in Whiteclay, Nebraska, a town standing a few hundred yards from the boundaries of the Pine Ridge reservation and the South Dakota state line. Merchants there sell an average of 13,000 cans of beer and malt liquor a day, mostly to Indians, who are not allowed to drink on the reservation. At Pine Ridge, four in five families have someone with a drinking problem, and fetal alcohol syndrome or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder afflicts one in four babies.

Somber as it is, the New York Times story paints a familiar picture of life on the nation’s Indian reservations. Pine Ridge and others are among the poorest places in the United States, with health indicators suggestive of Third World nations. It’s easy to conclude that for Native Americans, already burdened by a history of loss, the future might be even worse.

In this context, acclaimed novelist David Treuer’s Rez Life stands as a revelatory portrait of Indians in modern America. Treuer doesn’t shy away from somber realities; indeed, his own life has been touched by them. An Ojibwe Indian from Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota, the son of an Austrian Jew (and Holocaust survivor) and Indian tribal court judge, he opens his book with the suicide death of his grandfather, a veteran of D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge. Along the way he describes the appalling living conditions on numerous reservations; individual horror stories, like the despondent 16-year-old, Jeffrey James Weise, who killed nine people and himself in a massacre at Red Lake Reservation in 2005; and a culture so overrun with substance abuse that children live with grandparents or congregate with peers in places of dubious safety. “These kids are like motor pool cars,” says a law enforcement officer. “No one takes care of them until they’re broken. And then it’s too late.”

Yet Treuer’s broader themes are different: that “there is beauty in Indian life” beyond the poverty and despair; that Indians wish to hold on to their cultures and their deep attachment to place; and that, for all of their problems, they understand what non-Native Americans often overlook—that life is not all about economic advancement.

Rez Life portrays a population little understood by most Americans and sometimes the target of hostility, even today. In Treuer’s northern Minnesota, the tensions arise from treaty agreements, which guarantee tribes exclusive fishing rights in waters within reservation boundaries, as well as “off-reservation” privileges. Many sportsmen, commercial fishermen, and other non-Indians view these liberties as “special rights”. The issue was a hot one in Minnesota in the ’90s, as the Ojibwe exercised their extensive rights to fish for walleye pike. Politicians and citizens’ groups, including one led by revered Vikings football coach Bud Grant, mobilized in opposition. But the Supreme Court upheld Ojibwe treaty rights in 1999.

The Minnesota battles reflect a larger trend: Treuer chronicles how tribes became much more informed about their treaty rights during the second half of the 20th century. Federally recognized tribes enjoy sovereignty under US law as “domestic dependent nations”, retaining broad-ranging civil authority on their reservations and treating with the federal government, not the states, on civil matters. (“The domestic dependent” status differentiates their sovereignty from that of foreign nations.) From this base of local sovereignty comes the legal framework (confirmed by court rulings) from which Indian-owned casinos were born in the ’70s.

Like treaty rights, Indian sovereignty stirs resentment. Navy veteran Sean Fahrlander, an Ojibwe from the Mille Lacs Band in Minnesota, considers Indian rights a form of inheritance, no different than when a white person comes into money after a relative dies. “Our grandparents and great-grandparents worked to keep our land and our rights and we get to benefit from that,” he says. “That’s just how it works…They stayed when the world was against them. And because of that we have casinos and our fishing rights and our communities and our ceremonies. It’s our inheritance. Why isn’t that fair?” It sounds fair; what probably puzzles non-Indians most about sovereignty, though, is how to square it with federal assistance and social-welfare benefits.

What the grandparents and great-grandparents of today’s Indians endured to secure this sovereignty for their descendants is a central focus throughout Rez Life. Each chapter is devoted to a specific reservation or locale and usually a specific issue—tribal courts, casinos, sovereignty. Treuer visits with reservation residents whose cherished customs—like harvesting wild rice—are bound up in the traditions of their ancestors. His approach blends history, memoir and reporting, and while readers may not agree with every argument, Treuer provides a crash course in why Indians fight for the things they do, and how the tortured history of government-Indian relations continues to shape the present.

Unfortunately, the US government’s mistreatment of Indians didn’t end with the creation of the reservation system. As Treuer relates, the 1887 Dawes Act instituted a new policy of allotment, in which the federal government began giving plots of reservation land to tribal members, to be held in trust for 20 years. Since the Indian populations had declined drastically from disease or warfare, it didn’t take long for the government to dispense the allotments—with plenty left over for whites to claim. It got even worse with forced patenting: the government eventually took the allotted lands out of trust and gave patents and leases to Indians deemed “competent and capable”—an assessment often made through eugenics techniques. Non-Indian bidders got leases on the rest. During the nearly half-century these policies were in effect, Native Americans lost more than 90 million acres of tribal lands, about two-thirds of their total holdings.

Treuer also revisits the agonizing 20th-century history of Indian boarding schools, where children were instructed in English and forced to abandon their tribal ways: “Kill the Indian, save the man,” as the thinking went. But he’s evenhanded in noting that the boarding schools’ mastermind, Richard Henry Pratt, was concerned with Indian welfare (at least as he understood it). And it’s a fair contention that the only way forward for Indians within a modernizing America was to learn English and adapt to the majority culture. No less a guiding light than Sitting Bull had introduced one of his young sons to an army major by saying: “I wish him to live as the whites do and be taught in their schools… he wants to know how he is going to make a living.” But whatever their merits in theory, the boarding schools were brutal in practice, and the personal accounts of survivors make heartbreaking reading. At their worst, the schools were a chamber of horrors for generations of Indian children, who suffered cruelties ranging from sadistic corporal punishment to sexual abuse.

Yet throughout what he calls “a seething mass of history”, Treuer finds individual lives of strength and grace. His own parents offer strong examples. His father, an outsider everywhere he’d lived, traveled a winding path to the Leech Lake Reservation, found a home among Indians, and stayed. His mother, Margaret Seelye Treuer, dispenses firm but compassionate justice in the tribal courts. Others have moved forward from brokenness or hardship. Dan and Dennis Jones, brothers taken from their families and sexually abused in Canadian boarding schools, devote their lives to instructing children in the Ojibwe language.

The teaching of tribal languages exemplifies contemporary efforts to preserve Native cultures. Treuer visits with teachers in the Waadookodaading Immersion School, a small charter school in Wisconsin (Treuer himself is working on a book of Ojibwe grammar with his brother). “They trained us to become the worst kind of Americans and then blamed us for it,” says David Bisonette, an Ojibwe language immersion teacher, of life in the Indian boarding schools. “That’s why language and culture are so important.” Treuer contrasts today’s immersion advocates with the American Indian Movement (AIM) activists of a generation ago. AIM, he writes, was looking outward, seeking acknowledgement of the injustices Indians had suffered; the immersion people are looking inward, trying to recapture or preserve Indian identity. (Treuer’s father is less generous: the AIM people, he says, were “a bunch of Al Sharptons.”)

Can children facing such daunting levels of poverty afford to learn languages that might only ensure their marginalization? Treuer argues that immersion is not inconsistent with progress: though they only number about two dozen so far, students at Waadookodaading “test higher than the children their age in reservation and public schools around the state.” And Indian compromises with modernity—symbolized by casinos—have intersected with tradition in unexpected ways. Some tribes use casino revenues to fund tribal language schools, pow wows, and community services. If more tribes find a way out of economic deprivation, no one will question the practicality of preserving cultural heritage. Yet the hard truth is that saving culture must come first: economic fortunes can change, even after decades of poverty. A culture, once disappeared, is gone forever.

None of the issues Treuer examines are going away soon. In the last few years, the federal government resolved a long-running case involving allegations of mismanagement of Indian trust funds dating back over 100 years. The $3.4 billion payment is probably the largest government class-action settlement in American history. Boarding school survivors have filed numerous lawsuits in the US and Canada, mostly against institutions affiliated with the Catholic Church, which took over many of the schools from the federal government. Hundreds of Native students in the Northwest and Alaska will share a $166 million settlement against the Jesuits’ Oregon Province announced last year. The Obama administration has hosted an annual Tribal Nations Conference, at which issues range from sovereignty disputes to recent Supreme Court decisions. And Americans, Native and non-, will spend about $25 billion this year in Indian casinos.

Indians’ long-running struggle to preserve their cultures—an effort that sometimes brings them into the American mainstream, and sometimes moves them back out—will continue. The pressures remain one-sided in favor of the homogenizing forces of the global economy, for which much of what a culture holds most dear is dispensable. But as Treuer suggests, “there might be more to the job of life than simply living it.” Sitting Bull thought so, too.

RATING 7 / 10