“Rez Life” Goes Beyond Diane Sawyer Riding a Horse on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

Book Review
A realistic look into contemporary American Indians

A realistic look into contemporary American Indians

Rez Life: An Indian’s Journey Through Reservation Life
By David Treur
Atlantic Monthly Press | 330 pp | $17.16
ISBN: 9780802119711

Americans seem to have a fascination with American Indian reservations.

Twelve years ago, Ian Frazier wrote a book called “On the Rez.”

Two years ago, Oprah Winfrey’s OWN channel ran “Life on the Rez” segment on “Our America with Lisa Ling.” Two Octobers ago, ABC’s “20/20″ featured a segment with Diane Sawyer reporting on an Indian reservation called “A Hidden America: Children of the Plains.”

In three cited cases, the reservation featured was the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Even though there are some 300 American Indian reservations in the United States, the media seem to get stuck on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

Readers will be pleased to know David Treuer’s latest book “Rez Life: An Indian’s Journey Through Reservation Life” is different in at least two ways. First, the book was written by Treuer, who is a tribal member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. And, second, Treuer writes about his own reservation and several others.

Treuer is an author of three novels. He is a winner of a Pushcart Prize, the Minnesota Book Award, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation. He teaches literature and creative writing at USC.

Treuer points out reservations were the remainder of lands negotiated by American Indian tribes to the United States federal government. The Ojibwe word for “reservation” is “ishkonigan,” which means in English “leftovers.”

The title of the book “Rez Life” was taken from Treuer’s cousin, Jesse, who has the words tattooed in gang styled lettering just under the arc of his ribcage.

In his own words in the Author’s Notes section, Treuer writes:

“Like reservations themselves, this book is a hybrid. It has elements of journalism, history and memoir.”

This hybrid results in a balanced treatment that is refreshing because it captures more of the essence of reservations that non-Indians don’t come to close to capturing. For instance, apparently Diane Sawyer thinks Americans still want to see Indians riding horses. So, in “A Hidden America: Children of the Plains,” she decided she wanted to go along for a ride too. Whenever I think about her depiction, I still remember the image of her bouncing hair riding horses with Indian kids smiling in her segment. It seemed so contrived.

Treuer, on the other hand, provides an array of chapters laced with conversations he had with American Indians. Anytime there are quotation marks, he actually has audio tape to back up the subject’s words. This is not short of good journalism in action. One senses the realness by frustration in Indian voices. Life on the rez can be frustrating.

The Indians depicted in “Rez Life” are real. Their voices are real. They are the voices American Indians are used to hearing. They relay the realness of being Indian living on reservations.

Fortunately, Treuer is not afraid to present real life situations that have gripped American Indians during the past generation. Particularly, he writes about the problems with fishing rights in Great Lakes states on Indian reservations. He writes about the racism experienced by Indians who have simply tried to protect their treaty rights.

Other issues Treuer is not afraid to confront are issues confronted by American Indians who live on reservations surrounding vast poverty, alcoholism and sovereignty.

Treuer even allows into tragedy in his own family. Early in the book, he recounts how he went back to the Leech Lake Indian Reservation on the day his eighty-three year old grandfather committed suicide. Again, this is real – an Indian committing suicide on an Indian reservation.

“Rez Life” is a poignant book that will leave the reader a truer sense of American Indian history that goes way beyond what others are willing to do or are even capable of doing in depicting Indian life on reservations…the leftovers.

To Americans fascinated with American Indian reservations should order this book today.

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