There are hundreds of Indian reservations scattered across the United States. Some, such as the Navajo Nation and the Tohono O’odham Nation of Arizona, are the size of Connecticut. Others are postage stamps, just barely big enough to fit the by-now-inevitable casino. Some see tourists. Others see barely any traffic at all, Native American or otherwise.
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David Treuer, a professor of literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California, has spent much of his life on the Leech Lake Reservation of Minnesota, not far from the Canadian border. In his memoir Rez Life, he offers portraits of contemporary Native life—the good as well as the bad.
Your book opens with a conflict over water and fishing rights—perhaps better, over property rights generally—on a lake in northern Minnesota. Confrontations such as the one at Red Lake seem to come with the territory, so to speak, in Indian-white relations. Why should that be the case?
It shouldn’t be the case, and these impasses [one sees them in Minnesota, the Southwest, New York, etc.] are largely the result of a misunderstanding on both sides around how reservations came to be and how treaties work.
Both sides often persist in seeing reservations and the treaties that created them as something that was “given” to Indians as either a form of proto-welfare or as a pity payment. But we weren’t “given” reservations. The opposite is pretty much the case: Reservations are remnants of land that has always been ours; non-Indians were the ones given land on which to settle. As soon as we can remember that, the sooner we can stop thinking of reservations and treaty rights as entitlements bestowed on us.
Can you think of an American Indian group that has enjoyed good relations with white America? Or is the very idea something of a unicorn?
I can think of lots of Indian groups that have good relationships with non-Indians. Have you seen my picture? Clearly Indians and non-Indians have been getting along in many ways for many long years!
If that weren’t the case I wouldn’t exist. But seriously, from what I can see in lots of places like Florida and California, two places with incredibly brutal histories, tribes have become, in many ways, so powerful they have saved local and regional economies and are the largest employers in the region.
Likewise, the members of the Iroquois Confederacy [Seneca, Oneida, Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga and Tuscarora] have made overcome a lot of animosity and bad behavior and are truly diplomatic in their dealings with non-Indians in the region, despite the legacy of racism and misunderstanding.
In your book we meet many people who, despite the hardships, are proud of being part of the reservation—for instance, Shaye, who calls herself “Rez Girl,” and the inmate Jesse Seelye, with his “Rez Life” prison tattoo. Is that pride well placed? Does it help in making one’s life there?
You really hit on one of the paradoxes that I wanted to explore in Rez Life—reservations are largely considered (and often are) lethal, and yet the vast majority of the people I talked to were incredibly proud of who they were and where they were from.
Sometimes the pride is misplaced, being proud of how hard life is on the rez, proud of how poor—in comparison—our reservations often are. So after a while, as I was writing the book I realized that I was after something I’ve always been after when writing, whether nonfiction, fiction or even criticism—nothing less than a way to change the debate, to change the very way we see and articulate our experience.
Anything less and I’m not interested. With Rez Life that meant finding a whole new way of seeing reservations and reservation life—not just as something survived but something lived, not just as places of poverty but of wealth, and our task, our job as not merely surviving but of triumphing.
For all those hardships and indignities, are there any pluses to reservation life?
I hope I showed that the book is full of “pluses.” Chief among them that there is rather than poverty, wealth, a surplus—a surplus of pain but also of humor; a surplus of trauma but also of healing; a surplus of difficulty but also of opportunity.
And on a deeply personal level, I hope I showed the savage joy I feel, and know other Indians feel, about having a people. I have a people, a place, a connection that is unconditional, pure and, to me, indescribably beautiful.
Given the statistics you point to on Indian groups that do not have reservations or depend on government aid in any way, does it worry you that a libertarian-minded future administration might seek to cut off that support and move again toward what was once called “termination?”
It is a great worry. I was very surprised while I was writing the book that no matter what string I was following, about health care or land or treaty rights or violence, it almost always led me back to court. State and federal courts exert a huge influence over our lives.
As does policy. Gaming, for instance, is a treaty right, but it needed to be upheld by a Supreme Court decision. It won’t be long before states renew their assault on Indian gaming monopolies, and in some places I think the states will win. However, they tried termination before, and it didn’t work. They tried allotment, and it didn’t work. They tried relocation, and it didn’t work. They tried warfare, and it didn’t work. Indians still exist despite the best efforts of many generations of judges, presidents, Indian agents, missionaries, and presidents, and we will continue to exist. We are very, very good at it and will, as we always have, fight on.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor to and longtime reviewer for Kirkus. His latest book is Aelian's On the Nature of Animals (Trinity University Press).