What We Talk About When We Talk About The Rez

David Treuer setting beaver traps with his nephews at Leech Lake. Source: The New York Times (don't sue me, please.)

Suburbia and the rez. The two couldn’t be farther apart could they? One the billboard of American mainstream success, the bittersweet promise of a normal childhood, the grand illusion of efficiency atop a machinery of excess. The other the setting for an eternal tragedy of an impoverished people, the dark secret of America’s bloody settlement ignored, ridiculed, and attacked. Yes, suburbia and the rez may seem like opposites, but they are rather more like two sides of the same American identity. They are as David Treuer, author of Rez Life, notes both the most and least American places of all.

Positioned geographically at the margins and in between legal statuses, the reservation is a paradox of pain and pride, colonialism and sovereignty, death and survival. To explore these tensions, Treuer timetravels between the rez as it is now and the formative moments that made it that way. Whether he is out fishing with his friends at home in Leech Lake, or checking in at the Mdewakanton Sioux’s casino/resort, Treuer constantly has his eye on the past looking at the court cases, battles and protests that made the present possible.

It is an ambitious framework for the book, and the prose often sags under the pressure to explain the historical background for nearly everything with the plodding  narrative  of a textbook. Treuer is predominately a novelist (Little, Hiawatha), and while his historical archeology is admirable, he is most successful talking about the people and settings he has known firsthand.

Such as the “track,” where the connection to suburbia is found in the dismal design of tract housing replete with absentee sidewalks, cul-de-sacs and boredom. The tracks are known as extremely violent places, so-called “red ghettos”, where poor, drunk Indians are struck for the rest of their lives. Or at least this is the image must people associate with the rez– Treuer recalls one white journalist not believing she had crossed the border until the track was in sight. It is another in a long line of images that seeks to connect Indians to an inescapable destiny. Most Americans view Indians as not only stuck in this hopeless place but also in an out-of-synch time.

Take for instance the incident with Robert Kohl, a radio announcer in Bemidji, Minnesota, who suggested on air in 1966 that the American government should “’let disease and malnutrition…weed out those at the very bottom of the heap…[those] so low on the human scale that it is doubtful they will ever climb upward.’”

Treuer sardonically points out that Kohl’s racism probably prevented him from understanding that Native people know how to listen to the radio. In fact, many were listening to Kohl that day and weren’t too happy about what he had to say about them. Within days, the Native residents of Leech Lake, White Earth, and Red Lake, the three reservations surrounding Bemidji, agreed to boycott the town. They refused to spend any money in Bemidji until Kohl was fired and a public apology was issued by KBUN, the local station.

As Treuer puts it “Local businesses, which had haughtily made Indians wait by the back door…began to feel the pinch immediately. And that pinch hurt…” In two weeks, Kohl was sacked, a public apology was issued, and local businesses agreed to hire more Indians. The hire agreement was huge. Before 1966 not a single Indian, besides those white-looking enough to pass, had been hired to work in Bemidji. The people of Leech Lake, White Earth, and Red Lake weren’t going to allow that anymore. Treuer is similarly not willing to allow the same images of poor, tragic Indians to continue either.

Ironically, these days the defining image of the rez is no longer the track but the tribally owned casino and what once may have been considered an oxymoron, the rich Indian. Treuer takes us to reservations in California, Florida and New England to visit the sprawling multi-billion industries that have helped fund scores of tribal programs and created huge disparities in wealth. Treuer is neither completely celebratory nor completely critical of the recent explosion of casino money. He ambigiously mentions feeling “very American” as he walks through the sliding glass door of the hotel lobby and one gets the feeling that isn’t entirely a good feeling.

As always, he is attuned to the irony that allows tribes such as the Seminoles and the Pequots to realize the American dream, by taking advantage of the one thing that makes them different from America– their immunity to state taxes and laws. Treuer is proud of tribal people for fighting the long, hard battle to have their sovereignty recognized and take control of their financial future for the first time in 300 years. But, as he looks at the wealth is has reaped, he and I can’t help but wonder, “Is this what we fought for? Is there something more than simply being rich?”

The response at Leech Lake is, “Yeah, we may not have millions of dollars for golf courses and lincolns, but our kids speak our tribal language and that’s worth a lot more.” The language and the lifeways it embodies, that which makes Indians different from Americans, is what matters most to many. While a large part of life on the rez is still about survival, Treuer also sees it as a fight to stay different, to stay tribal, to prevent Indians from becoming “the worse kind of Americans” concerned only with mainstream success. Either way, whether fighting for economic independence or fighting to keep what they have, it is always a struggle. As Lorena from Red Lake points out, “’They get mad at us for being poor, and then when some folk do all right, they get mad at us for being rich.’”

Setting out to go fishing with his friends at Leech Lake, the past taps Treuer on the shoulder again as he looks back to see the angry white protestors who not so long ago stood at the dock with signs that said “Save a Walleye-Spear an Indian.” In 1985, the US Supreme court ruled that the Wisconsin Ojibwe had retained the right to fish and hunt on ceded land as agreed to in treaties made with the government. The decision angered sports fishermen and those who make a buck on fishing tourism who didn’t want the Ojibwe fishing walleye to eat when they needed the walleye to create a nice vacation for someone.

These white residents saw treaty rights as “special privileges” given to the Ojibwe, rather than ways of life the government agreed to let tribes continue after taking swaths of their land. For several years, an Ojibwe fisherman or woman couldn’t get in their boat without violent rhetoric and sometimes physical objects being hurled at them. Eventually, when the public realized the decision was there to stay, they had no choice but to go home, and the Ojibwe just kept on fishing perhaps a little more proud of their traditions and the struggle to hold onto them.

The confusion over treaty rights and special privileges is similar to how most Americans view reservations in general. The idea that reservations or fishing and hunting rights are something the Americans “gave” to the Indians after defeating them in war is absolutely ridiculous. Reservations are instead usually the one thing the Americans didn’t take after forcing Indians to compromise over endless war or peace. The Ojibwe word for reservation, ishkonigan, also means “leftovers.” The “welfare” the U.S. government gives to recognized tribes every year for healthcare, housing, food, etc. are terms the government agreed to in order to take the land. And they took almost all it. Even on reservations themselves, there are more white residents than enrolled tribal members. Of course, if the Americans are really upset about the terms of the agreement, they can always give back all the land or maybe start paying rent.

Yeah, I didn’t think so.

Book I talked about:

Rez Life: An Indian’s Journey through Reservation Life, by David Treuer, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012.


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One response to “What We Talk About When We Talk About The Rez

  1. Pingback: Breaking Down the Border Town | mixedblood messages

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