David Treuer: Rez Life
A Native American writer examines tribal history through the lens of his own life
Published: February 8, 2012
Rez Life: An Indian’s Journey Through Reservation Life
Atlantic Monthly Press, hardcover
The Ojibwe, the Native American tribe to which author David Treuer belongs, is the most populous in North America. But the Ojibwe didn’t traditionally own horses, wear colorful war bonnets, or engage in elaborate beadwork, so they’ve largely been ignored by American popular culture, Treuer writes, unlike the Sioux, who “have cornered the market on Indian cool.” In his new book, Rez Life: An Indian’s Journey Through Reservation Life, Treuer systematically dismantles many of the preconceptions—and misconceptions—the general public has about Native Americans, a complex stew born of romanticism, guilt, lack of historical knowledge, and, sometimes, willful ignorance. Treuer’s approach—a unique blend of memoir, history, and journalistic account, interspersed with entertaining forays into topics like the natural history of the walleye and the origins of casino décor—lends a human touch to a story that is not often presented in such terms.
The history of the reservation system and the federal government’s relationship with the tribes has been documented elsewhere, but here Treuer uses his own family and friends to provide context. Personal stories—of “life on track,” in HUD tract housing; of his grandfather’s suicide; of seeing his first porn magazine; of tapping maple trees—are interspersed with scholarly descriptions of the historical and sociological factors that led a family like his to live the life they do. As a result, the book is heavily skewed toward the Ojibwe and other Midwestern tribes. (One might wish it went into such great detail about tribes in other regions of the country, but the personal touch would be lacking, and Rez Life already exceeds 300 pages.)
Treuer’s family background uniquely suits him for this method of storytelling. His father, a white man, worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the administrative body through which the federal government most directly deals with the tribes. His mother, who is Ojibwe, is a judge. Treuer descends, memoir-style, into “the soupy, complicated, comforting trouble of family” but their positions also allow him to examine the judicial and administrative systems within his tribe up close. He attends a day in court presided over by his mother, Judge Margaret Seelye Treuer. There, in a “low-slung, graceless structure” in Northeastern Minnesota, he watches as she passes judgement on 11 cases, all related in some way or other to alcohol or drug abuse. Treuer subsequently delves into the prevalence of alcoholism and drug addiction on the reservations, the factors leading to it, and the sad stories that result. Under U.S. law, the maximum penalty his mother can impose on anyone is one year in jail and a $5,000 fine, and in some cases jurisdiction automatically passes to the federal courts. Treuer thus launches into a compelling treatise on tribal judicial systems, which are held greatly in check by the U.S. government—tribal courts have no jurisdiction over non-Indians, for example, even if they commit crimes against Indians on the reservation—despite the supposed sovereignty of the tribes.
Some of the most fascinating portions of the book are dissections of what “tribal sovereignty” means in practical terms. Tribes are not supposed to keep standing armies, but they can vote in federal and state elections; they can’t levy taxes but they can determine fishing and hunting quotas by Indians on reservation land. Squabbles over sovereignty can result in painful ironies, as Treuer describes. In 2010, for example, the Iroquois national lacrosse team, which had been traveling around the world on tribal passports for 30 years, was denied passage to Britain in 2010 because of new restrictions related to the PATRIOT Act. The team refused to use American passports and missed competing in the championship of a sport the Iroquois invented.
Treuer’s account is generally evenhanded. He is careful to portray Native Americans—both those he knows and historical figures—as human beings, with all their accompanying flaws, not simply as blameless victims. But he also retains a refreshingly cheeky, none-too-journalistic tone. In reference to a controversy over the fishing rights of the Mille Lacs band of Minnesota, former Gov. Jesse Ventura is quoted as saying that if they were going to exercise their 1837 treaty rights, the Mille Lacs “ought to be back in birch-bark canoes instead of with 200-horsepower Yamaha engines with fish finders.” Treuer responds that “it is safe to say that many Ojibwe would go back to using wooden spears and birch bark canoes if non-Natives simply fished with cane poles from shore, with bits of pork rind on the end of their hooks, only as far west as the Ohio River.”
This little jab points to one of the most important arguments Treuer makes in the book: Reservations, he says, are not some kind of “moral payment” by the U.S. government to make up for lousy treatment the tribes received in the past. The power balance was initially the other way around. Native Americans agreed that the federal government could settle and develop new land; reservations and treaty rights were the concessions they negotiated in exchange. To those who complain that Native Americans get too many special rights—fishing and hunting rights, tax relief, gambling concessions—Treuer has this to say: ”We will ‘give up’ our reservations and treaty rights, and all the non-Natives can move east of the Appalachians.” Rez Life is a bracing, eye-opening, often moving read. Highly recommended.
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