I called the reigning head of the CRC mission, a white man, a preacher, who let me know in no uncertain terms that he wasn't going to hand over a Navajo because he was, quite frankly, sick and tired of easterners like me coming around and asking to take a picture of some Tonto. Forget it, he said. "What you ought to do," he told me, "is write the story of some Indian from the city." He told me about a Chicago mission for Native folks, I listened, and, back again in the Midwest, wrote a story about a woman, a Pima, from the deserts of Arizona.
"Here's the deal," the preacher told me; "the future of the Indian is not on the reservation." End of story. This from a man who'd spent much of his life on the rez.
That was a long time ago, 30 years ago or so.
A generation later, it seems to me that what that preacher said was flat wrong. Already in 1973 at Wounded Knee and Alcatraz and almost every reservation in America, a movement one might call Red Power arose as if out of nowhere. It scared the dickens out of most white people, even made them angry because it sometimes felt like unrequited love--I mean, haven't we been good to you?--you know, that sort of thing.
But the kind of consciousness-raising that occurred on American reservations gave almost all Native people something they'd lost, self-respect--or at least started them down the road to regaining at least some of what had been stolen, sometimes violently, from their very souls. A Winnebago woman told me she never felt as proud as she did the day in the late 70s, when her father took her along to Washington D. C. to protest.
Today, most palefaces, like me, tend to think of reservations as wasteland battle grounds, dismal, drug-infested hellholes where misery begets a suicide rate beyond imagination. David Treur, a Ojibwa novelist and, now, non-fiction writer, doesn't back away from sad and violent images of reservation life. Horrors abound, and his new book, Rez Life, doesn't pretend that it's some redman's fantasyland.
But most Anglos might be shocked to discover that Treur sings the glories of reservation life without hesitation. "The truth to me seems to be that reservations are places of surplus," he told NPR in an interview. "There's more of everything. There might be more hardship, but there's more joy. There might be more pain, but there's more opportunity. There's more of everything."
It seems to me that the preacher's crystal ball was clouded. It seems to this white man that reservations are, even to those who leave, home.
Treur uses the word reservation to define Native American life in a fashion I'd never thought of, a way that helps--or should--a white guy understand the lay of the land. A reservation is a place that is reserved, he says. Some might think of it as a prison--as the preacher from Navajo land might have; but it's a place that's reserved. When white anglers get incensed about fishing, their ire is understandable--"what blasted rights do Ojibwas have to spear walleye or net 'em by the hundreds, out of season too, when we can't?"
The answer, Treur says, is quite simple: Ojibwas have been doing it for hundreds of years. It's a right reserved for them by otherwise worthless treaties that allow them to continue one custom of an ancient and honorable way of life. The law reserves their right to fish as their great-great grandparents did.
When, just a few years ago, I wrote a book about Navajo families who'd been part of that same Christian mission for generations, I was surprised to discover that all the tribal people I met and interviewed loved their home, their reservation, the sacred land all around. Today, just about half of the Navajo people don't live on the tribe's sprawling reservation, but more than half do, perhaps because, as Treuer says of his own, Red Lake, in Minnesota, "there's more of everything."
There's some history in Treur's look at his home, a good strong helping of American history. There's some fishing here too. And some good yarns, some tributes, some honor.
But David Treur doesn't create a portrait that isn't real; it begins with the suicide of his own grandfather. Some parts will make any reader cringe. He says his own Ojibwa people overfished the lakes so badly that it took years to renew the walleyes. He is clearly uncomfortable with the absurd machinations most tribes, these days, go through to determine who is and who isn't a member. Casinos have made a few Native people ridiculously wealthy, and brought more education and better health care to reservations; but glittering gambling halls aren't heavenly. Those slots don't dispense better lives.
If you honestly don't know much about Native America, if you'd like to know more about life on the rez and get a good, healthy serving of the kind of history that will not only hold your attention but make you sit up and listen, then you can't do better than David Treur's Rez Life. It's a primer, a thoughtful, heartfelt look at the lay of the land.
More palefaces should read this book. In America today Native folks are far too invisible. They're human beings, not object lessons or talking points, but to know at least something of their story will do this at least--it'll make you humble, and, for a white American, that's a small, good thing.