REVIEW: “Rez Life: An Indian’s Journey Through Reservation Life” by David Treuer

  • Posted on: 23 June 2013
  • By: TedG

While on vacation one summer many years ago, I was standing with my dad near a beach, talking to a local man who sat in his pick-up truck. We were looking out onto Lake Michigan at a fishing tug steaming out into the lake, probably to retrieve the nets that had been set out earlier in the day. It was late afternoon/early evening­­, maybe 5:00, and the sun was setting in the west. The man in the truck motioned toward the distant boat and grumbled something about “Indians” and fishing, suggesting they had some special rights that he did not.


It’s odd that I remember this so vividly. I had no idea what he was talking about at the time, but I was old enough to understand he was not happy about the situation, and I remember a general sense of animosity in his tone. Over the years, as my childhood fascination with Indians has grown into an abiding interest in Native Americans, I think back on that experience and realize that it was my first glimpse into the racial divide between whites and Native people. It is a perfect example of whites not understanding treaty rights––rights to hunt, fish, and gather that were negotiated by tribes and agreed to by the U.S. government many years ago. They are not “special rights,” they are fairly negotiated rights.


I suppose this experience often came to mind while reading David Treuer’s Rez Life because it is my most personal experience with the racism and injustices that Native Americans have endured since the arrival of Europeans. But that is just my view. Rez Life, on the other hand, is not a rant against those things, but instead is a balanced look at these problems through Treuer’s own experience growing up Ojibwe in central Minnesota.


The book was an eye-opener for our group. Some did not know the history of boarding schools in the attempts to assimilate Indians to Euro-American life. Some were unaware of how many tribes there are in our region. None of us could fathom how difficult it must be to grow up as a Native American and the sometimes brutal reality of life on the reservation. Clayton––a member of our group who was unable to attend––noted that Treuer’s “access to people and the gentle reminder of the history are well done. It’s a view we would seldom have access to and it might take a lifetime to make those connections and gather those insights on my own.”


The group did note Treuer’s equal treatment of who is to “blame” for what’s going on. Non-natives (whites) bear a large part of the responsibility, but Treuer also shows how Native people are not immune to shooting themselves in the foot. Perhaps the best example is in casinos and how some tribes will deny a person enrolled membership in the tribe, using blood quantum rules derived by the U.S. government to justify their claims but with the ulterior motive of limiting the number of people among whom casino profits will be divided. (Many, if not all, tribes use casino revenue to provide annual dividends to all registered tribal members.) Apparently, greed knows no boundaries. Indeed, we recognized the other side of that problem, as states have tried to tax tribal casino revenues, effectively trying to claim a portion of profits they do not deserve.


The only common criticism that arose was that the stories seemed to be disjointed. Treuer would raise one question, suggesting an answer would come later in the book but never materialized. It was recognized that this seeming disjointedness may reflect a cultural difference––Euro-Americans tend to be linear thinkers, perhaps more so than Native Americans.


There is a great deal about Rez Life that is troubling and sad, but Treuer suggests there are also examples of change for the better. Opportunities are growing for Native people to gain an education and to move beyond the violence and oppression that seem to be the all too common future for many on the rez. But even as individual futures may improve, the future of Native cultures is in question. Perhaps the biggest of the cultural losses is the language. Treuer writes: Linguists estimate that when Europeans first came to North America, more than 300 Native American languages were spoken here. Today, there are only about 150. Of those languages, only twenty are spoken by children. Only three languages––Dakota, Dene, and Ojibwe––have a vibrant community of speakers. The loss of a language represents more than just how people speak; it represents the loss of a medium for expressing a world-view. Native words describe a world with colors and descriptions that non-Natives cannot know. The sad part is, the loss of those words also means the future generations of Native people will also never know that perspective. As my friend, Clayton writes in his comments about this book, “Language and culture are essential. What can I do, what can any of us do to promote the revitalization of language and the perpetuation of culture? Whatever we can do, we must do!”


The six of us in attendance, plus Ron, who could not attend but sent his comments by email, gave the book an average score of 4 out of 5 for both Interest and Readability. All but one of us would read another of Treuer’s book, and Chuck mentioned that his other books are fiction stories and quite good. [Bev noted back in May that Rez Life, Treuer’s first major work of nonfiction, was awarded the Minnesota Book Award for General Nonfiction.]


After finishing the book, Ron suggested “another good read is [Kent Nerburn’s] Neither Wolf Nor Dog, about rez life in North Dakota.” I would also suggest, as I did in my review on 20 April, Timothy Egan’s Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, a biography of photographer Edward Curtis, who set out to document the cultures and lifeways of all the living Native tribes in North America in the 1900s. In addition to being a fabulous story of Curtis, it is a fascinating glimpse into the lives of Native Americans at the turn of the 20th Century.



Our next book is Peter Geye’s Safe From the Sea. We will meet on Thursday, 18 July, to discuss it (6:30 at the Rivers), and Art is on the schedule to moderate the discussion.