Rez Life

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.”