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Real Life On The Rez

The history of Native Americans has been one of conflicting stereotypes. In colonial days the image was of savage or savior; in the Revolution, enemy or ally; as the U.S. expanded westward, guide or militant objector.

And when it comes to Indian reservations, it’s surviving poverty or enjoying casino wealth.

Award-winning novelist, David Treuer, is an Ojibwe Indian who grew up on a Minnesota reservation.  His latest book, Rez Life, looks at the history of these enclaves and what it means to live on one. 

Friday on Up to Date, Steve Kraske talks with Treuer about how the reservation is viewed from both sides of the boundary.   You'll find an excerpt from Treuer's book below his bio.

David Treuer is an Ojibwe Indian from Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota. He is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, the 1996 Minnesota Book Award, and fellowships from the NEH, Bush Foundation, and the Guggenheim Foundation. He divides his time between his home on the Leech Lake Reservation and Minneapolis. He is the author of three novels and a book of criticism. His essays and stories have appeared in Esquire, TriQuarterly, The Washington Post, the LA Times, and Slate.com. The son of Robert Treuer, an Austrian Jew and holocaust survivor and Margaret Seelye Treuer, a tribal court judge, David Treuer grew up on Leech Lake Reservation. After graduating from high school he attended Princeton University where he wrote two senior theses--one in anthropology and one in creative writing--and where he worked with Toni Morrison, Paul Muldoon, and Joanna Scott. Treuer graduated in 1992 and published his first novel, Little, in 1995. He received his PhD in anthropology and published his second novel, The Hiawatha, in 1999. His third novel The Translation of Dr Apelles and a book of criticism, Native American Fiction; A User's Manual appeared in 2006. The Translation of Dr Apelles was named a Best Book of the Year by the Washington Post, Time Out, and City Pages. His novels have been translated into Norwegian, Finnish, French, and Greek.


Excerpt from Rez Life

In northern Minnesota, not far from the headwaters of the Mississippi River, you may see a sign. From a passing car it is easy to miss: in the summer the trees that march over fields and the ditch grass that crowds the road threaten to overwhelm it; in the winter, when the snow has been pushed from the road and has leveled off the ditches, the sign sometimes blends too well with the snow to be seen at all. Seen or not, the sign reads: WELCOME TO THE LEECH LAKE INDIAN RESERVATION HOME OF THE LEECH LAKE BAND OF OJIBWE PLEASE KEEP OUR ENVIRONMENT CLEAN, PROTECT OUR NATURAL RESOURCES NO SPECIAL LICENSES REQUIRED FOR HUNTING, FISHING, OR TRAPPING.

If you're driving — as since this is America is most likely the case — the sign is soon behind you and soon forgotten. However, something is different about life on one side of it and life on the other. It's just hard to say exactly what. The landscape is unchanged. The same pines, and the same swamps, hay fields, and jeweled lakes dropped here and there among the trees, exist on both sides of the sign. The houses don't look all that different, perhaps a little smaller, a little more ramshackle. The children playing by the road do look different, though. Darker. The cars, most of them, seem older. And perhaps something else is different, too.

You can see these kinds of signs all over America. There are roughly 310 Indian reservations in the United States, though the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) doesn't have a sure count of how many reservations there are (this might say something about the BIA, or it might say something about the nature of reservations). Not all of the 564 federally recognized tribes in the United States have reservations. Some Indians don't have reservations, but all reservations have Indians, and all reservations have signs. There are tribal areas in Brazil, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, among many other countries. But reservations as we know them are, with the exception of Canada, unique to America. You can see these signs in more than thirty of the states, but most of them are clustered in the last places to be permanently settled by Europeans: the Great Plains, the Southwest, the Northwest, and along the Canadian border stretching from Montana to New York. You can see them in the middle of the desert, among the strewn rocks of the Badlands, in the suburbs of Green Bay, and within the misty spray of Niagara Falls. Some of the reservations that these signs announce are huge. There are twelve reservations in the United States bigger than the state of Rhode Island. Nine reservations are larger than Delaware (named after a tribe that was pushed from the region). Some reservations are so small that the sign itself seems larger than the land it denotes. Most reservations are poor. A few have become wealthy. In 2007 the Seminole bought the Hard Rock Café franchise. The Oneida of Wisconsin helped renovate Lambeau Field in Green Bay. And whenever Brett Favre (who claims Chickasaw blood) scored a touchdown there as a Packer, a Jet, or a Minnesota Viking, he did it under Oneida lights cheered on by fans sitting on Oneida bleachers, not far from the Oneida Nation itself.

Indian reservations, and those of us who live on them, are as American as apple pie, baseball, and muscle cars. Unlike apple pie, however, Indians contributed to the birth of America itself. The Oneida were allies of the Revolutionary Army who fed U.S. troops at Valley Forge and helped defeat the British in New York, and the Iroquois Confederacy served as one of the many models for the American constitution. Marx and Engels also cribbed from the Iroquois as they developed their theories of communism. Indians have been disproportionally involved in every war America has fought since its first, including one we're fighting now: on July 27, 2007, the last soldiers of Able Company 2nd-136th Combined Arms battalion returned home to Bemidji, Minnesota, after serving twenty-two months of combat duty in Iraq. At the time Able Company was the most deployed company in the history of the Iraq War and was also deployed in Afghanistan and Bosnia. Some of the members of Able Company are Indians from reservations in northern Minnesota.

Despite how involved in America's business Indians have been, most people will go a lifetime without ever knowing an Indian or spending any time on an Indian reservation. Indian land makes up 2.3 percent of the land in the United States. We number slightly over 2 million (up significantly from not quite 240,000 in 1900). It is pretty easy to avoid us and our reservations. Yet Americans are captivated by Indians. Indians are part of the story that America tells itself, from the first Thanksgiving to the Boston Tea Party up through Crazy Horse, the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and Custer's Last Stand. Indian casinos have grown from small bingo halls lighting up the prairie states into an industry making $14 billion a year. No one in America today is untouched by our lives — from a schoolchild learning about the birth of his or her country to the millions of Americans who have lost (and sometimes won) money in an Indian casino.

Whites have not just been captivated by us; they've been captured. In 1790, when he was only ten years old, John Tanner was captured from his family's home in Kentucky by the Shawnee. Later, he was sold to an Ojibwe family as a slave and traveled with this family as far north and west as the Little Saskatchewan River. (My tribe, the Ojibwe, has been called Chippewa, Ojibway, and Chippeway — but Ojibwe is our name for ourselves). He spent his life among the Ojibwe and eventually married an Ojibwe woman. As an adult he was reunited with his birth family, but he was uncomfortable out East and went back to his Indian home as soon as he could. Then there is the story of Mary Jemison. She was also taken captive, along with a neighbor and her brothers, also by Shawnee, in 1758. Her brothers and another captive were scalped en route to Fort Duquesne (in modern-day Pittsburgh). Mary survived. She married a Delaware. But, afraid that she would be stolen back, the young couple moved to the Genesee Valley in what is now upstate New York. Mary's husband died and she remarried a Seneca and had many children with him. She never went back to "white society." Many captives didn't go back, preferring life with Indians.

That is exactly what many people whose lives are intertwined with Indians say today. My father, after escaping Austria and the Holocaust in 1938, fled to the United States with his parents. After much wandering and one marriage and three children he settled just off the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota. Here he felt safe for the first time in his life. More than that, he felt he had found, with his new friends and new family, something that had eluded him all the years before. He devoted his life (and still devotes it) to the community he has come to call his own, and is as passionate today about the rights and respect owed to Indians as he was when he moved to Indian country in the 1950s.

From Rez Life: An Indian's Journey Through Reservation Life by David Treuer. Copyright 2011 by David Treuer. Excerpted by permission of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

Up To Date Native Americans
Stephen Steigman is director of Classical KC. You can email him at <a href="mailto:Stephen.Steigman@classicalkc.org">Stephen.Steigman@classicalkc.org</a>.
When I host Up To Date each morning at 9, my aim is to engage the community in conversations about the Kansas City area’s challenges, hopes and opportunities. I try to ask the questions that listeners want answered about the day’s most pressing issues and provide a place for residents to engage directly with newsmakers. Reach me at steve@kcur.org or on Twitter @stevekraske.
As senior producer of Up To Date, I want our listeners to hear familiar and new voices that shine light on the issues and challenges facing the myriad communities KCUR serves, and to expose our audiences to the wonderful and the creative in the Kansas City area. Just as important to me is an obligation to mentor the next generation of producers to ensure that the important conversations continue. Reach me at alexanderdk@kcur.org.