Minnesota Man Explores Rez Life in Writing

By MALCOLM TERENCE, TRT Contributing Writer

Like many who grew up on reservations, David Treuer lives in multiple worlds. His experience ranges from an Ojibwe reservation in Minnesota where he trolled for wild rice and speared walleye, to the halls of universities where he teaches writing.

His experience, so broad if not so unique, positions him well to write his latest book, Rez Life.

It is a history book, a sociology study, a text on tribal courts and governance, and, despite all this, it is deliciously readable.

The author ricochets back and forth between the lofty review and the down-to-earth visits with his relatives and neighbors on the Leech Lake Reservation. Plus, he oozes an ironic sense of humor so familiar to our communities here at home.

His book was just released as paperback by Grove Press, a publisher best known for three landmark free press court decisions for books written by Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence and William S. Burroughs.

Treuer’s book may not prompt censorship but it certainly does not waste much respect on the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the European settlement of the continent, or the  United States Government.

The reservation system began in the early 1700s because the American colonists found it cheaper to negotiate treaties (which it would later disregard) than to overpower powerful tribes militarily. And some tribes were just too powerful, Army or not.

“Paper,” Truer writes, “was cheaper than bullets.”

The Ojibwe word for “reservation” is “ishkonigan” which also means “leftovers.” Not that the treaties were worth that much. He explains, “I think most Indians would be glad to abrogate our treaties. We will ‘give up’ our reservations and our treaty rights, and all the non-Natives can move east of the Appalachians. Or if they don’t want to move, they can pay rent.”

He examines in-depth the history and the present state of tribal courts from an intimate perspective: his mother is a tribal judge. She seems more intent on seeing whether a wrong-doer has changed his or her way, as in stopped drinking or completed drug treatment, than in exacting strict punishments.

Treuer’s father was an Austrian Jew, a Holocaust survivor and a union organizer before he came to Minnesota. All those sensibilities made him an effective sidekick with Ojibwe organizers.

At one point his father was part of a delegation that approached then vice-president Hubert Humphrey to approve a tribal application for federal anti-poverty funding, after it had been turned down at lower levels. The new money allowed the Red Lake Band of Ojibwes to set up staffing that was, for the first time, independent of the BIA.

As part of the flush of community activism in the 60s, tribal members installed a crushing boycott on a nearby town when a local station tolerated a blatantly racist broadcaster. In the end, the broadcaster was fired, apologies were issued and local businesses promised that Indians would be hired for 50 new jobs.

It is not all a white wash. He examines the alcohol and drug abuse in some tribal housing developments, and the boarding school system which ravaged family structures and nearly eliminated the use of Ojibwe language.

He sees the issue of enrollment—who is recognized officially as a tribal member—as a strategy that plays one person’s race against another’s culture. And he sees it as one more government plot to eventually rid itself of it responsibilities to the tribes.

Treuer still speaks his language and visits immersion schools designed to make sure that use of Objibwe language doesn’t disappear.

The strategy Treuer describes is to take back culture, not by asking permission and funding from the government, and not by in-their-face protest in the fashion of the American Indian Movement. Despite this, he is sympathetic to the work of AIM activists, even if he sees their limitations.

And he indirectly raises a great question for us: Who among the local tribes, Hupa, Yurok or Karuk, is going to write the equivalent book about local experience? Start encouraging your neighbors and their kids.

Treuer’s book is welcomed and a local version is the next step.

This book was first rate. I give it at least four-and-a-half acorns.

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February 5th, 2013

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