You spent a lot of time in your old back yard.
For most of the kids growing up in your neighborhood, it was where you gathered to do whatever everybody agreed to do that afternoon. You formed secret clubs, shared comic books, and fought amongst yourselves, pretended to be spies, or played Cowboys and Indians. Good times, those.
But in reality, according to Ojibwe author David Treuer, “most people will go a lifetime without knowing an Indian or spending any time on an Indian reservation.” In his new book “Rez Life,” he writes about his childhood, his people, and his reservation.
No doubt about it, white America has had an interesting relationship with its Native brethren over the last 350 years. Any school child with a history book can recite a litany of wars, defeats, cheats, and tales of Indians being settled on reservations.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs doesn’t keep track of how many Indian reservations there are in the U.S., but Treuer says there are around 300 of them in more than 30 states. Not all of the 564 federally-recognized tribes have reservations; of those that do, reservations vary in size. Some appear like checkerboards, due to several convoluted laws, while others are wide-open prairies.
And until recently, the one thing most of them had in common was poverty.
Treuer’s mother remembers a relatively recent time when many homes on her northern Minnesota reservation consisted of tar-paper and studs, and few had working toilets. The average household income on Treuer’s reservation today is some $31,000 less than it is for the rest of America.
“On some reservations in the Dakotas,” writes Treuer, “the median income hovers just above $10,000… Life is hard for many on the rez.”
And it’s only slowly getting better.
Indians are now U.S. Citizens (which didn’t happen until 1924). Drugs, alcohol, and crime are major problems on the rez, but many reservations have police forces, as well as tribal courts. Casino money brings paved roads, and it pays for legal teams to recover treaty rights (of which, says Treuer, “most Indians didn’t know about… for the first half of the twentieth century”). And Indian children are no longer routinely removed from their homes just because they’re Indians.
There are, I think, two different audiences for this book: Indians, for whom “Rez Life” will be validation of the truth; and white readers, for whom this book will be an eye-opener.
Author David Treuer plays with the emotions of the latter audience. He shocks us, he makes us laugh, then he lulls us with poetry before he wallops us with history. I loved that range in writing. I also loved this book for its harsh beauty, its honesty, and for Treuer’s incredible talent at telling stories that mean something.
For rez residents, there’s not much new here, but I think this is an invaluable book for anyone who’s curious or who lives near a reservation. For you, “Rez Life” explains a lot about the people and culture right in your own back yard.