Political Matters: Native Issues in the Halls of Government


Contemporary Indian life

In his "Author’s Note," at the end of "Rez Life: An Indian’s Journey Through Reservation Life" (Atlantic Monthly Press), David Treuer writes: "Like reservations themselves, this book is a hybrid. It has elements of journalism, history, and memoir…. It is meant to capture some of the history and some of the truth of reservation life."

Treuer, who has written three novels and a book of literary essays, has penned a worthy book, which illuminates contemporary Indian life on the rez – in particular, Leech Lake, his ancestral home, and other Ojibwe reservations in Minnesota and Wisconsin. "Rez Life," as Treuer notes, weaves together bits of history from Indian country, discursions on federal Indian law, personal commentaries by the author’s friends and informants, and his own experiences on the land. Again, the book is replete with stories from Minnesota reservations, and the Minneapolis urban rez.

I found Treuer’s latest work most compelling in the passages about his own remarkable family. Treuer is the son of Robert Treuer, an Austrian Jew who escaped the Holocaust, and Margaret Seelye Treuer, a lawyer and tribal judge. In one chapter, the author accompanies his mother to the tribal court at Bois Forte, and watches her dispense justice – "It is a strange thing to doff my cap and rise when my mother enters the room," Treuer writes. And the author’s older brother, Anton Treuer, a major figure in the resurgence of the Ojibwe language, is profiled in the chapter about the late revered spiritual leader Archie Mosay, from Balsam Lake, Wisconsin. After finishing college, Anton apprenticed himself to Mosay, who was about 90. "Archie and my brother were friends," David Treuer writes. "During the time of high ceremonies my brother worked for him, sang for him, helped him into and out of his wheelchair, translated for him, and listened to him – every day for at least fourteen hours a day, for weeks on end. Deep affection, respect, and tenderness ran in both directions. And it changed my brother’s life."

I agree with Treuer’s observation that spending time with Indian elders "does something to a person." Over the past 34 years, writing about Indian issues and traveling in Indian Country, my thoughts return to my times, limited though they were, with a number of extraordinary American Indian spiritual leaders, including Mosay, David Sohappy, Phillip Deere, Amos Owen, et al.

"Rez Life" barely mentions the American Indian Movement (AIM), which originated as a cop watch patrol on Franklin Avenue. I thought that the author might drop in for a chat with Dennis Banks, one of the most famous of the Ojibwe in Minnesota; however, at the end of this volume, Treuer holds up those working in the field of Ojibwe language and cultural regeneration as the real heroes. "While AIM might have made a name for itself standing in roads and occupying buildings," Treuer asserts that his brother Anton and "scores of others are making names for themselves standing next to old people, cooking for them, driving them to the store; and joking with them. It not only does something to a person but does something to a community as well."

Another familiar name from the Leech Lake rez, Warren Tibbetts, a charismatic Vietnam vet and AIM activist, appears midway in "Rez Life." I met Warren in the 1980s, and was brought up short by Treuer’s account of his murder in 2005. It was a senseless crime instigated by a drunken lunatic neighbor, who was goading his dog to attack Tibbetts’ beloved dog. The neighbor attacked Warren and stabbed him in the heart. Warren, an amiable and intelligent man, died on his kitchen floor in front his daughter and niece. "All of this came out of nowhere on a typical night," writes Treuer.

This is an unvarnished account of rez life, replete with violence that is increasingly fueled by the presence of gangs and bad drugs. Writing about life on the Indian housing tracts near Cass Lake, Treuer quotes a former Leech Lake tribal chairman: "Tract 33 was bad… At night you can’t sleep around here. There are cars racing up and down the street, and there are gunshots periodically… so I have to stay up and watch my house." Treuer writes about some of the more high-profile, lurid crimes on his home rez; and his litany of predations also includes the 2005 mass murder perpetrated by Jeffrey Weise, a teenager from Red Lake.

I strongly recommend "Rez Life," which will take its rightful place among the significant books about Indian life in this neck of the woods.