Somber as it is, the New York Times story paints a familiar picture of life on the nation’s Indian reservations. Pine Ridge and others are among the poorest places in the United States, with health indicators suggestive of Third World nations. It’s easy to conclude that for Native Americans, already burdened by a history of loss, the future might be even worse.
In this context, acclaimed novelist David Treuer’s Rez Life stands as a revelatory portrait of Indians in modern America. Treuer doesn’t shy away from somber realities; indeed, his own life has been touched by them. An Ojibwe Indian from Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota, the son of an Austrian Jew (and Holocaust survivor) and Indian tribal court judge, he opens his book with the suicide death of his grandfather, a veteran of D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge. Along the way he describes the appalling living conditions on numerous reservations; individual horror stories, like the despondent 16-year-old, Jeffrey James Weise, who killed nine people and himself in a massacre at Red Lake Reservation in 2005; and a culture so overrun with substance abuse that children live with grandparents or congregate with peers in places of dubious safety. “These kids are like motor pool cars,” says a law enforcement officer. “No one takes care of them until they’re broken. And then it’s too late.”
Yet Treuer’s broader themes are different: that “there is beauty in Indian life” beyond the poverty and despair; that Indians wish to hold on to their cultures and their deep attachment to place; and that, for all of their problems, they understand what non-Native Americans often overlook—that life is not all about economic advancement.
Rez Life portrays a population little understood by most Americans and sometimes the target of hostility, even today. In Treuer’s northern Minnesota, the tensions arise from treaty agreements, which guarantee tribes exclusive fishing rights in waters within reservation boundaries, as well as “off-reservation” privileges. Many sportsmen, commercial fishermen, and other non-Indians view these liberties as “special rights”. The issue was a hot one in Minnesota in the ‘90s, as the Ojibwe exercised their extensive rights to fish for walleye pike. Politicians and citizens’ groups, including one led by revered Vikings football coach Bud Grant, mobilized in opposition. But the Supreme Court upheld Ojibwe treaty rights in 1999.