Saturday, August 25, 2012

Rez Life: An Indian's Journey Through Reservation Life by David Treuer

During my back-to-the-land days in the mid 70s, I absorbed the written works of Sioux medicine man Black Elk. These days I belong to a women's spiritual circle that gathers every Sunday to discuss lessons set forth by Seneca/Cherokee author Jamie Sams. We also raise some funds for native American charities. I have been to the National Museum of the American Indian in DC, and walked through the Taos Pueblo only last year. Yet other than in passing, I have not spent any significant time in the company of Native Americans, but reading David Treuer's fine book, Rez Life (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012) almost makes me feel like I have.

David Treuer grew up on the Ojibwe Leech Lake reservation in northern Minnesota. Each chapter in this book loosely revolves around narratives tied to reservation members, including his grandfather whose suicide and burial begin and end the book, his mother, Margaret Seelye Treuer (a tribal court judge) fishing buddies and pranksters on both sides of the law. The author describes the book as a hybrid of journalism, history and memoir.

Although I skimmed over much of the history, I did learn some new facts about native Americans I believe will stick with me. For instance, I never realized that Indians could not legally practice their religions until 1978 when the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed. Outrageous. Did you know that Seminole tribe owns the Hard Rock Cafe Franchise? Because of casino gaming profits, some tribes have grown quite prosperous, branching out into banking and real estate, etc. The intricacies of treaties (often broken, of course), along with federal and state laws related to tribal rights, are enough to make anyone's head spin. The importance of saving Native American languages is one of the author's grand causes. Of the approximately 300 such languages in use when the Europeans came to the USA, now there are about 150, but only three are really "vibrant": Dakota, Dene and Ojibwe. The tricky topic of tribal enrollment and blood quotas is well aired. Treuer does not sugar coat any of these issues, something I much appreciated.

The most touching part of the book for me came during the last chapter, when the author writes about the feelings he had driving around in his recently deceased grandfather's Silverado truck, as if the ghost of his grandfather was with him, and in many cases, the sight of David Treuer in that truck affected others that way too, stopping them in their tracks. As he drove along, it was as if all his many ancestors rode with him.

"I am not supposed to be alive. Native Americans were supposed to die off, as endangered species do, a century ago," Truer says. "We stubbornly continue to exist." Thank goodness for that. For me there is no group of peoples more outrageously wronged nor more culturally fascinating. If you are interested in what contemporary reservation life is like, get your hands of a copy of Rez Life. This book was five years in the making and it shows. Thank you, David Treuer.

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