The least -- and most -- American of places: A review of Rez Life

  • Rez Life


Rez Life: An Indian's Journey Through Reservation Life
David Treuer
368 pages, hardcover: $26.
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012.

Accomplished novelist David Treuer turns to nonfiction in his latest book, which combines elements of his own life on "the rez" with a historical look at North American Indian life over the past several hundred years. Since "most people will go a lifetime without ever knowing an Indian or spending any time on an Indian reservation," the author hopes to give readers not only a better understanding of American Indians, but also of the U.S. itself. Not surprisingly, Treuer focuses on his own tribe, the Ojibwe. Found from Michigan to Montana, the Ojibwe Indians are some of the least-mentioned Native Americans in history, despite their cultural contributions: the birch-bark canoe, snowshoes, and words like "moccasin," "moose" and "toboggan."

Rez Life offers an in-depth look at the practical, everyday realities of reservation life, providing detailed descriptions of walleye fishing, harvesting wild rice, and making maple syrup. At times, the reader becomes immersed in painful and even heartbreaking scenes, including the suicide of Treuer's grandfather and tragic accounts of robberies and murders, illegal drug use, alcoholism and extreme poverty. Yet even in the midst of his most personal stories, Treuer keeps the larger picture in mind, offering thorough reportage on the unjust treatment Native Americans have received from the United States government. Although the broken promises and ignored treaties are common knowledge, Treuer's extensive retelling of this history serves to emphasize its lasting effects on the entire Indian population.

But Treuer also shows that "what one finds on reservations is more than scars, tears, blood, or noble sentiment. There is beauty in Indian life, as well as meaning and a long history of interaction." The past and the present are conjoined; one could not exist without the other. "Nowhere more than in reservation life can we see, can we feel, the past shaping the present," Treuer writes. "On the reservation the past is hardly past at all."

Powerful and eloquent, Rez Life offers an exhaustive look at one neglected tribe and its place in Indian history, as well as an analysis of the forces that have shaped and continue to shape the West and the nation as a whole.

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