Rez Life: An Indian's Journey Through Reservation Life

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Celebrated novelist David Treuer has gained a reputation for writing fiction that expands the horizons of Native American literature. In Rez Life, his first full-length work of nonfiction, Treuer brings a novelist's storytelling skill and an eye for detail to a complex and subtle examination of Native American reservation life, past and present.

With authoritative research and reportage, Treuer illuminates misunderstood contemporary issues of sovereignty, treaty rights, and ...

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Rez Life: An Indian's Journey Through Reservation Life

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Celebrated novelist David Treuer has gained a reputation for writing fiction that expands the horizons of Native American literature. In Rez Life, his first full-length work of nonfiction, Treuer brings a novelist's storytelling skill and an eye for detail to a complex and subtle examination of Native American reservation life, past and present.

With authoritative research and reportage, Treuer illuminates misunderstood contemporary issues of sovereignty, treaty rights, and natural-resource conservation. He traces the waves of public policy that have disenfranchised and exploited Native Americans, exposing the tension that has marked the historical relationship between the United States government and the Native American population. Through the eyes of students, teachers, government administrators, lawyers, and tribal court judges, he shows how casinos, tribal government, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs have transformed the landscape of Native American life.

A member of the Ojibwe of northern Minnesota, Treuer grew up on Leech Lake Reservation, but was educated in mainstream America. Exploring crime and poverty, casinos and wealth, and the preservation of native language and culture, Rez Life is a strikingly original work of history and reportage, a must listen for anyone interested in the Native American story.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Novelist Treuer (Little) offers an ambitious, impressionistic study of life on Native American reservations. His blending in of the history of his Ojibwe tribe and his own family results in a nuanced view of personal and tribal identity. It’s neither definitive nor a work of full personal disclosure, but it is “the story of the paradoxically least and most American place in the twenty-first century. Welcome to the Rez.” Whether he’s describing the central role of fishing walleye, the region’s signature fish; the Ojibwe’s treaty right fights; or the timeless method for harvesting wild rice, Treuer paints a picture of a vital if economically strained tribal life, deftly supplying historical context to explain how the Mille Lacs, Red Lake, and White Earth reservations came to be and survive. If the stand-alone chapters don’t always flow smoothly into one another, the vignettes—of treaty rights fishing activists; of how casinos have changed economic life on the rez; how his mother, a tribal judge, dispensed justice; how an Ojibwe language teacher ensured the viability of the tribal language for another generation; and most powerfully, how Treuer’s grandfather’s suicide left the family reeling—bring the world and personalities of the rez to vivid, heartrending life. (Feb.)
Library Journal
Treuer (The Translation of Dr. Apelles), a prize-winning writer of fiction and member of Minnesota's Ojibwe tribe, has fashioned a compelling work of nonfiction, knitting together his own personal narrative, the perspectives of friends and family, and the complex history of reservations and Native and non-Native relations. The result is at once sweeping in its historical and political scope and deeply personal and engaging. Treuer's prose can be both thoughtful and sardonic, occasionally at the same time, and his treatment of the history and policy that have shaped contemporary reservation life is never academic. Instead, he uses history to illustrate how decisions made decades, even centuries, ago still have an impact on the lives of individuals and families. He introduces individuals who defy the traditional stereotypes of Native people and is at his best when focusing on personal narratives. The book is affectionate, but unsparing, and exposes the beauty and devastation of reservation life while exploring those areas where the personal and the political converge—in treaty rights, hunting and fishing rights, law enforcement, tribal justice systems, among others. VERDICT A look into Native life from a Native perspective, this is recommended for anyone interested in how history has shaped Native people and the ways in which Native peoples are shaping their future.—Julie Edwards, Univ. of Montana Libs., Missoula
Library Journal
Noted for his fiction about Native American life (e.g., The Hiawatha) and himself a member of the Ojibwe, Pushcart Prize winner Treuer here details life on the reservation, explaining sovereignty, treaty rights, and natural-resource conservation while also assessing charged issues from casinos to preservation of Native American culture. An important resource well worth investigating.
Kirkus Reviews
In a book that is part memoir, part journalistic exposé and part cultural history, novelist Treuer (The Translation of Dr. Apelles, 2008, etc.) offers a movingly plainspoken account of reservation life. The author intertwines stories of growing up on the shores of the Lake Leech Ojibwe reservation in Minnesota with those of the Ojibwe people and other Native American tribes. Treuer writes that "[m]ost often rez life is associated with tragedy"; at the same time, he notes that it is also shot through with pride and a profound love of tradition. Alternating between personal recollections of unforgettable "rez" personalities—e.g., tribal police officers, rice-gatherers and fishermen—and sharp-eyed historical analyses of events in Native American history, the author sheds light on aspects of Indian culture closed to most non-Natives. He speaks candidly about the "comforting trouble" he finds at the heart of his own mixed-race family and the perennial problems of alcoholism, poverty and crime facing reservation dwellers everywhere. Treuer also delves into the issues surrounding Native American sovereignty and treaty rights, examining the inhumane—and sometimes genocidal—government policies that have led to the systematic abuse, exploitation and disenfranchisement of Native Americans. The author soundly critiques tribal governments as well, focusing in particular on the corruption and cronyism that characterizes so many of them. For most of these entities, "there is no balance of power; on the contrary power is very much out of balance." That Treuer is one of a few Native Americans to have made it out of the "rez" only adds to the book's poignancy. He examines a culture that is in crisis, but persists, even thrives, with enduring grit and courage. Powerful, important reading.
From the Publisher
"Treuer's account reads like a novel, brimming with characters, living and dead, who bring his tribe's history to life." —-Booklist
The Barnes & Noble Review

David Treuer grew up on the Ojibwe's Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota and continues to spend months there each year, so it comes as little surprise that this sojourn into the world of the reservation — a striking, chromatic blend of journalism, history, and memory — has a backstage intimacy and authority. "What are these places that kill us every day but that we'd die to protect and are like no place on earth?" They are, importantly and in a word, sovereign.

Treuer brings to the writing of Rez Life: An Indian's Journey through Reservation Life a lightly borne awareness, artfully suggestive, steeped in a close reading of history and the lasting imprint of his everyday reservation life, which guide the various elements of his story like the current of a familiar and purposeful river.

Rez Life is, for starters, a bell-clear survey of selected episodes in the many lows and occasional highs of the tribes' relations with the U.S. government, in particular the miseries spawned by the Nelson and Dawes acts; the vibrant consequences of the Indian Reorganization Act; the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 (that date is worth a startle); and a sensitive, refreshing reading of treaty rights — "treaty rights are the rights that the Indians who signed treaties always had, rights they explicitly reserved when they signed their treaties" — including the critical inclusion of rights not specifically surrendered, as in "all rights reserved," which, along with the stipulated reserved rights, were routinely ignored.

The book is also a handful of personal stories, brief living theater–like vignettes from Treuer's life used to set the stage for big issues: well crafted, humanly scaled, and so plainly introduced that when the stories flower into greater complexity they give the pleasure of a magic trick and the thankful sense of having learned something. One chapter profiles Treuer's mother, an Ojibwe judge, with both a dear portrait and a sharp look at tribal law. The gathering of wild rice evolves into a testament to the age-old powerlessness of young American Indian women. Another, about fishing for walleye, burrows deep into tribal rights and symbolism, while the chapter on the Ojibwe language reveals the simple beauty of speaking it each day and its place in the survival of a culture.

There is, as well, a crackerjack chapter on casinos. Casinos have brought a measure of wealth to a few reservations. As Treuer explains, casinos are neither as ubiquitous nor as automatically, hideously profitable as naysayers would gnash their teeth upon, and though they have generated the wherewithal to support schools, medical clinics, elder housing, paved roads, and a decent income to some reservations, casinos are hardly a panacea for nationwide American Indian ills. But the prize of the casino story is when the medicine man sitting next to Treuer's mother at the blackjack table said, " 'Give me the eight of hearts,' and the dealer did, and my mother said, 'Adam, that's not fair!' "

Such cosmic humor is the wild card Treuer holds in his hand, among the aces of family bond, cultural tenacity, and a honed spirit of place. Comedy brings a kryptonic resiliency to the stubbornly mean streets of the reservations, along with the bite and bark of irony, as when "celebrities go to Palm Springs to detox at treatment centers on the reservation," the centers being fruitful fallout from casino winnings. "White people going to the reservation to dry out — no one saw that coming."

Peter Lewis is the director of the American Geographical Society in New York City. A selection of his work can be found at

Reviewer: Peter Lewis

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802119711
  • Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
  • Publication date: 2/7/2012
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 295,155
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

David Treuer is the author of several books exploring Native American culture, including Native American Fiction, The Translation of Dr. Apelles, The Hiawatha, and Little.

A veteran of stage and screen, Peter Berkrot held feature roles in Caddyshack and Showtime's Brotherhood, and his audiobooks include The Woods by Harlan Coben and Country Driving by Peter Hessler. Library Journal described Peter's narration of When the Whistle Blows by Fran Cannon Slayton as "a brilliant job of personalizing each of the men in Jimmy's life."

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 4 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 30, 2012

    I am one of the people who are sympathetic to the plight and his

    I am one of the people who are sympathetic to the plight and history of Native Americans but have never seen a reservation. This book was most educational in illustrating the diversity of challenges and realities faced by people on various reservations and their resilient spirit as they still struggle against thoughtless prejudices and poverty. It was heartbreaking to read about the abject poverty in the midst of the 21st century American society. My hats off to these amazingly strong people, and I hope we can do more to help. I guess the first place to start might be for us non-Indians to acknowledge how little we know about the diverse tribal cultures and traditions and be more sensitive to unthinking racism ingrained in our daily lives. A really good book.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 24, 2013


    Hey whats up

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 27, 2012


    Chi Miigwetch

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 12, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

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