Ojibwe Writer Celebrates The Beauty Of 'Rez Life' Stories about life on Native American reservations often focus on alcoholism, drugs, violence and poverty. In Rez Life, David Treuer shows the brighter side: "There might be more hardship, but there's more joy," he says.
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Ojibwe Writer Celebrates The Beauty Of 'Rez Life'

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Ojibwe Writer Celebrates The Beauty Of 'Rez Life'

Ojibwe Writer Celebrates The Beauty Of 'Rez Life'

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Many outsiders look at Indian reservations and see poor, rough towns filled with drunks and criminals. Sometimes the view is colored by a romantic scrim, and we see wise old men and poetic princesses.

In a new book, Ojibwe novelist David Treuer sees all the poverty, the gangs and the alcohol, but he also sees great beauty in some of the last places untouched by commercial development. He hears the stories of his people in the language of his people, and he sees the pride of survivors.

If you've lived on a reservation, what is it that we don't understand? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, "Hell and Back Again" kicks off our annual look at the films nominated for Best Feature Documentary at the Oscars. But first, David Treuer joins us from the studios at Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. He's the author of three novels. His new book is nonfiction and titled "Rez Life: An Indian's Journey Through Reservation Life." Nice to have you on the program today.

DAVID TREUER: It's great to be here. Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: And one of the things you say that might startle people in your introduction is: we love our reservations.

TREUER: We do. We do. And it's something, you know, I notice all the time, that we see all the time. We hear it, but we don't hear it reported out and about in the world. And so there's this great disconnect between, it seems, how we feel and how we seem, and that's one of the reasons why I wanted to write this book.

CONAN: And in - I've read you said just as you think Indian administrators ought to be held to the highest standards, Indian writers ought to be held to those same standards, too.

TREUER: Sure, in particular when I was writing this book, I'd felt that we'd gotten the fancy treatment in print for so long, and I'm one of those people writing his fancy books, and I felt really strongly when I was writing this one that I really needed to stick close to the bone and, I don't know, say something, although it doesn't sound very sophisticated, something true.

CONAN: Something true. Well, one of the things you try to explain, and go to great lengths because it's not an easy concept to get through the head of people who aren't familiar with the concept, is the meaning of the word reservation.

TREUER: Yeah, it's - it's good to remember, you know, that reservations are places, are sort of remnants of our homelands that have been reserved for our use and for us to live on. So these weren't given to us. These are the miniaturized portions of land that has always been ours. And our rights extend to the reservation, but they also extend oftentimes beyond the borders of the reservations. So it's complicated.

CONAN: And the history of the treaties written between the United States government and the Indian nations, often a record of broken promises that nevertheless those treaties are of paramount importance to the Indian nations.

TREUER: They are, and it's funny that, you know, most people, I think, perhaps, write nonfiction books because they're expert on a given subject. And in my particular case, I have to say that I wrote this book not as an expert and actually because I felt like I didn't know nearly enough about the true dimensions and complexities of the place that I was from.

And so I felt like I spent seven years in school, reading books and talking to people and people like my mother, who is a tribal court judge, and she knows very well the importance and - the importance of treaties and - over the years.

CONAN: She is one of the people, in fact, you write about in your book, in stories you tell of people you know, members of your family, extended family, but of course your mother. She is a judge, but this is in a tribal court system where for the first time in generations, Indians are evaluating the crimes of Indians.

TREUER: Yeah, tribal courts are something that not a lot of people have heard of, and people are surprised to learn that we have, of course, our own criminal codes, our own constitutions, our own police forces and our own courts. I mean, these courts are different, you know, depending. They've evolved differently on different reservations. And their scope is varied. But people are surprised to learn that.

CONAN: And the kinds of cases, these are not just simple disputes. These are everything.

TREUER: Well, it's not everything. You know, a lot of criminal conduct, major crimes - murder, rape and so on - you know, aren't within the purview of tribal court. But a lot of other crimes are: domestic abuse, violence, assault, you know, up through some major felonies are treated by the courts.

And it is - it's a glorious thing to have communities where we actually are being judged by not just our own peers but on the basis of our own laws.

CONAN: You tell a lot of stories, as I said, one about your mother, but there's also the story of a - one of those enforcement agents, this is a man who's in charge of - and I'm just fishing for his picture here so I can get his name for you. Charley Grolla I think is his name.

TREUER: Charley Grolla, yeah.

CONAN: And this is a case where he's involved in a dispute with Jerry Mueller - or perhaps it's pronounced Mueller, I'm not sure, but he's coming on to Indian waters to fish in what mistakenly believes is something that ought to be his right.

TREUER: Yeah, he mistakenly believed it ought to be his right, and that goes against, you know, the laws that rule Red Lake. And so he paid the price. And they fined him, and they confiscated equipment, and he didn't feel that he should be fined and that he should have his boat back. And it became heated.

And Red Lake won that dispute, as we have done more often than people realize.

CONAN: Won the dispute because there, again, is that misunderstanding that somehow this is something that is kept away from the rest of us, when in fact it is reserved for the Indians.

TREUER: That's exactly right.

CONAN: There is - you go on to tell these stories, and it became a cause celebre, as there were demonstrations and even a political campaign that was calling for, well, let's change those treaty rights.

TREUER: I know. There's - there was a big movement to try and curve and curtail and even do away with many treaty rights, and that wasn't the first time, and it won't be the last time, and those rights were successfully defended. But I think it stems from a misunderstanding that there is an exchange, you know, various exchanges that took place over the years.

When tribes and the United States government sat down at the table to negotiate treaties, the United States got the right to settle vast parts of the continent, and we reserved certain portions of that land for ourselves. And as I say in the book, if a lot of non-Natives think that those rights are somehow unfair, we'd be more than willing to abrogate those treaties, and there would be kind of a mass migration away from America, I think.

CONAN: There is another aspect of the book, and of course these are important, and you go back through the history of many of these different agreements and treaties and how they were made and how, in many examples, things were left out of the treaty that the Native Americans weren't quite so - should have probably considered: logging rights, for example, that were not covered.

But nevertheless, you also describe the story of Native Americans and the reservation and not simply a story of victimization, not simply victims of the white juggernaut. And there's a long story you tell about the walleye - the fish prized there in Minnesota - that is instructive, I think.

TREUER: Oh, yeah, there have been long disputes about fishing rights. And it comes down to, you know, various constituencies feeling like they have, or they should have, you know, the right to those fish. And this was heated, and it was violent, and Native people were beat up and insulted and spit on at boat landings, this included men, women and children. And particularly the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe in Minnesota, they really stuck it out, and they fought a decade-long legal battle, and they won.

CONAN: Yet this is not simply a story of the Indian versus the white interest. This is a story where Native Americans overfished these stocks themselves. They were responsible for as much of the loss of that fishery as anybody else.

TREUER: Well, to make a distinction, that might have been the case at Red Lake, but that was certainly not the case at Mille Lacs.

CONAN: OK, forgive me.

TREUER: Mille Lacs, it was certainly a case of overfishing by sport anglers. But that was one of the - that was one of the things I wanted to explore in the book, was the ways in which we understand reservations as being places of deficit, where there's less of everything. But that's the story, and it certainly doesn't seem to be the truth.

And the truth to me seems to be that reservations are places of surplus. There's more of everything. There might be more hardship, but there's more joy. There might be more pain, but there's more opportunity. There's more of everything, and that's really - that was a great surprise to me. More laws, too, for that matter, since we've been talking about laws and treaties. More constitutions. Yeah, so...

CONAN: We want to get some callers in on the conversation, and - but I wanted to ask - you begin, or you tell the story of the death of your grandfather, a difficult man, as you describe him, and somebody initially we might see this as just another example of the stereotype, an embittered old man who kills himself in the end, but there is a part at the end of the book where you are describing the cemetery in which he is laid to rest and say that it's not a question of how such little ground can hold so many Indian bodies but how the ground can hold so much personality.

TREUER: Oh, that was one of the true joys of working on this book, was that I got to put this habit to work, this habit of mine of, you know, sitting in a room and just soaking up everyone's stories and jokes and personalities. And the place is so rich in story and so rich in personality. And I feel quite small next to the extravagance of all these people that I got to talk to.

And that's important to remember, too, that we're much, much more than our pain.

CONAN: We're talking with David Treuer, the novelist. His new book is a nonfiction book, "Rez Life: An Indian's Journey Through Reservation Life." He's also professor of English at the University of Southern California. If you've lived on a reservation, call and tell us what it is we don't understand about life there. 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Indian reservations dot the American landscape across more than 30 states, though most are clustered in the Great Plains, the Southwest, the Northwest and along the Canadian border.

That makes them, writes David Treuer, author of "Rez Life: An Indian's Journey Through Reservation Life," as American as apple pie, baseball and muscle cars. But what history does not tell us, he says, is that Native Americans love their reservations. More about that in an excerpt from "Rez Life" at our website. Just go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

If you've lived on a reservation, tell us: What don't we understand about life there? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Our guest is David Treuer, the author of "Rez Life." And let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation, Elizabeth, Elizabeth with us from Oklahoma City.

ELIZABETH: Hi, good afternoon.


ELIZABETH: I actually live on a reservation. I was a health care provider, and I am one at Indian Health Service here in Oklahoma. But prior to this, I was at Pine Ridge in South Dakota. And what impressed me about the people of Pine Ridge was the health care traditions and the health care remedies that they pass on to their children and which I had to discuss with people when they came into the clinic to provide health care with them.

And I see that much differently in Oklahoma, where Native Americans don't live on reservations, and so when I bring up native remedies that people might be using or even the identity of native remedies, people very often don't come in with those. And I think that that separation from living on the reservation and living as a group and that ethnic identity that might be lost, or that is lost, that I find here in Oklahoma.

Certainly it's continued by many people, but there is that sense of disconnect from your tribe. I mean, people identify with the tribe, but I'm not sure that they actually know many of the traditions that go with that tribe. And I found that incredibly refreshing in Pine Ridge, which was, you know, which we all know is one of the poorest places in the country, and yet the traditions that are carried on there were wonderfully rich and I think added a great deal to the lives of the people that live there. That's all I want to say. Thank you for having me on.

CONAN: Elizabeth, thanks very much. And David Treuer, you've written a lot about the concept of cultural death. I suppose that's part of it.

TREUER: I imagine it is. And I think it's something we really need to think about, and I think we need to think about it quite seriously. And it's funny, you know, activism in Indian country in the '60s and '70s was very much of a political kind, looking out, trying to tell the rest of the world to pay attention to us. And that still goes on, but a different kind of activism is afoot on reservations in Indian communities across the country.

And that new activism is facing in and saying to one another, as opposed to outsiders, let's remember this, let's hold on to that, let's help ourselves. It's really a radical shift, and it's something I was really interested to notice when I was researching the book.

CONAN: You write a lot about language. That's your stock-in-trade, you're a writer, but Indian languages, too, 300 or so when white settlers arrived, fewer than 100 left.

TREUER: That's right. You know, there are many ways that culture lives on. It lives on through our sense of kinship, through our political systems, through geography and things like that. But one of the prime movers of culture is language, and when your language is imperiled or threatened, then your culture and the very social fabric of your place is threatened.

And so I think - I can't speak highly enough about efforts across the country to strengthen and to promote the use of native languages.

CONAN: Let's go next to David, David with us from North Fork in California.

DAVID: Yes, I am not a tribal member, but I live south of Yosemite, and at the current time, there's a huge dispute among the local tribal members, and members are being kicked out of the tribe fairly arbitrarily. No surprise, the dispute is over money.

And the most extreme case is where there was a set of twins, one twin was kicked out, and the other was not. And we talked to our friends who are in the tribe. They say they have no recourse. There is nothing they know how to do to resolve this, and politically within the tribe what has happened is two tribal council members were voted out of office. But when it came to the meeting to install them, the new people weren't let in, and anybody who supported them was kicked out of the meeting and eventually kicked out of the tribe.

The DIA says they want nothing to do with this, and I'm shocked that when we talk to - as I say, when we talk to our friends, they say they have no recourse. And I'd like your - I'd like maybe your guest to clarify this or to make any comments that he may have with this - about this story.

CONAN: Well, you wrote about this in an op-ed in the New York Times.

TREUER: Well, I wrote about the issue of enrollment in general. The particular dimensions of the dispute in California are something that I probably don't know well enough to speak about. But, you know, again and again, when there are difficulties in governance in Indian communities, people say well, look, you're messing this up, you're fighting amongst each other, you're fighting over money.

And, you know, if we did away with American government when it fought about money, I don't think we'd have an American government. But, you know, we...

DAVID: True.


TREUER: But we work hard, and we try to do the right thing. And personally, you know, speaking personally, tribes are stronger than we think, but I don't think that we're so strong that we can afford to alienate potential members and potential strengths in the ways that we do. I think we really need to conserve our membership and to think creatively and proactively about how we move forward in the future.

CONAN: There are also sometimes complicated regulations, I guess, as to how much Indian blood you have to have to qualify as an Indian. This makes many people nervous.

TREUER: Oh, it absolutely does. I mean, the problem is that the blood quantum is tied to enrollment, and it's also tied to deep, deep, deep anxiety around identity. And so whenever the issue comes up, it gets very fraught, and it's totally understandable.

CONAN: David, thanks very much for the call. Here's an email from Linda(ph) in Duluth: I grew up in a small Ojibwe reservation in northern Wisconsin and found that many people believe all Indians are rich and lazy because of our enormous per-capita payments, which we supposedly get from our very successful casinos.

I am a recently college graduate, eventually lost track of the number of people who asked me if I went to school for free - I didn't. Some tribes do own and operate very successful casinos. Those are a small minority. Those of us who come from poor tribes aren't swimming in unearned benefits from the federal government.

TREUER: That's absolutely true, and it's an assumption that needs to be exploded, that by virtue of being native, we somehow are entitled to all this free money floating around. It's - what Linda says is totally on-target. There are very few tribes that have done extremely well, and the rest of the tribes that have gambling, the gambling enterprises often simply serve as jobs programs. They provide some infrastructure, and that's about it. So it's important to remember that.

CONAN: Yet there are those who are doing very, very well.

TREUER: There are a few, and more power to them. I mean, it seems like there's some resentment about natives being wealthy. And, you know, you can - when somebody inherits millions of dollars from a rich uncle, they didn't earn that money, but it's - they inherited that money. Well, the modern descendents of natives who signed treaties are the inheritors of the rights they've reserved. And one of those rights is to operate casinos, and if that makes them wealthy, I say, you know, live well, be happy.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Joe(ph), and Joe's on the line with us from Rosebud in South Dakota.

JOE: Hi.

CONAN: Hi, go ahead, please.

JOE: I just wanted to comment about, you know, reservation life. And I think that people don't understand the level of attachment the native people have for not the reservation per se but for what is considered home, for the land. My whole family lives there. Everybody lives there: my aunts, my uncles, my mom, my sisters, my cousins. So it's always home. Even when I'm not there, it's still home.

CONAN: That's interesting. David Treuer, you - I think you have a home near the reservation, and - go ahead.

TREUER: Oh yeah, no, it's on the reservation.

CONAN: It's on the reservation, on Leech Lake reservation, but also live in Minneapolis.

TREUER: Well, I moved from Minneapolis to California, so I'm dividing my time.

CONAN: Oh, I'm sorry.

TREUER: No, yeah, it's OK, between Leech Lake and California. And what the caller just said is absolutely true. We have such fierce attachments to these places. And I can't tell you - or maybe I can I suppose, that's what the book is about to some degree, the depth of affection and feeling we have for these places and to have a homeland.

And being back here in Minneapolis, even though I'm three-and-a-half hours by car from Leech Lake, I still feel like I'm back in my tribal homeland, and I can't tell you how good it feels.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Joe. There's in fact a story you tell about members of an extended family who go to great lengths to come back every year to go fishing and collect wild rice as they - as their families have for generation, but doesn't seem to make a whole lot of economic sense.

TREUER: It doesn't make any economic sense for those particular guys that I write about: Sean and Mike and Mark. They're three brothers, and they're enrolled at Mille Lacs. And they live scattered all over the place, all over the country, and that - they come back. They reconvene every spring to net walleye, and then in - they try to gather in the fall to rice. And it's not about the money. It's about continuing to do the things that their tribe has done for centuries in the place the tribe has done them. And it connects them to their home. It connects them to one another, and it's a beautiful thing.

CONAN: And nice story too. Gary(ph) is on the line with us from Frontenac in Minnesota.

GARY: That's the Fond du Lac Reservation...

CONAN: Yeah. Go ahead.

GARY: ...in the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. The thing that scares me the most on the reservation is that the type of leaders that we end up with sometimes after elections. And, you know, they become dictatorships where they dig in people's lives. And, you know, it's either do it their way or, you know, be excluded from your job, your home, you know, or the reservation, you know? And our leaders swear to uphold the Constitution of the United States and the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe Constitution, which a lot of our people don't even know we have.

But they swear to uphold these. And, you know, there's people that are maybe charged with a felony, and then they're kicked off the rez before they're even found guilty, you know? The way they have it set up here is that they're guilty till they're proven innocent, you know? And then the United States Constitution, you know, you're supposed to be innocent till proven guilty.

And we got young kids being kicked off the rez, and it's off a recommendations from a committee that is formed by the - you know, our business councils. And they shouldn't accept the recommendation if that's going to violate a constitutional right, but yet they still do. And it's just it gets scary because, you know, if you say something wrong, they got it set up, you know, and, you know, they don't even follow their own code of ethics.

CONAN: It's interesting, Gary, because the constitutions of various Indian nations, it's one of the subjects that David Treuer goes into. Obviously, yes, of course, Indian nations had constitutions before the United States did - long before - but in this case many of them drawn up in the New Deal by, well, apparently, very forward-looking bureaucrats in Washington who took a very different view of Indian rights than their predecessors. But nevertheless, David Treuer, you wrote fundamentally undermined a lot of those rights by drawing them up on the basis of municipal ideas rather than those of a state. There's no balance of powers.

TREUER: That's right, and that's what - that's exactly what Gary is talking about. There's often an absence of a balance of power, and there's often an absence of any kind of procedure for filing grievances. And Gary is on the money. A lot of times a new leadership comes into office, and everyone who's been - a lot of people are fired, and the new leadership's family is hired. And nepotism is alive and well in a lot of places.

And, I mean, I can't state strongly enough what - you know, that what Gary was saying is on the money. And so there's a lot of work to do. And we really need to think about how to include our people and how to sort of lead in a healthy fashion. There's been so much - so many negative examples of leadership in terms of what the United States government has done, what the Bureau of Indian Affairs has done and what some of our tribal leaders have done. And I think, given all that trauma, we really need to hold each other to a higher standard, and that's exactly what Gary is talking about.

CONAN: David Treuer's new book is "Rez Life: An Indian's Journey Through Reservation Life." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And we have an email here from Lynn(ph) in Anoka, Mississippi: Where can I get a signed copy of this new book by David Treuer? I live in the Twin Cities - so maybe it's Anoka, Minnesota - listening to NPR KNOW right now.

TREUER: I'll be reading here in the cities on Tuesday night at 7 o'clock at the downtown library. So I'll be signing books then.

CONAN: OK. There's an opportunity. Apparently, your cousin Lynn writing in.

TREUER: Hey. Is that my cousin?

CONAN: Let's see. Let's see. We go next to - this is - let's go to Rob(ph), and Rob is on the line with us. Go ahead, please.

ROB: Good afternoon, sir. I was calling basically about the fact that the Cherokee people really do not have a home that they could call their own since they had that forced march. And we were forced then to Oklahoma, only to have our property taken from us in Oklahoma by the Sooners and the oil people. So it's kind of hard for us to claim a place where we would like to call home.

CONAN: And sadly not the only tribe that's in that situation, David Treuer.

TREUER: Not the only tribe.

ROB: Unfortunately, it is, but I haven't allowed that to sadden me. I work as a long-haul truck driver, so I get the opportunity to travel across all nations.

CONAN: David?

TREUER: Rob, you have one of the toughest jobs I know of, and so I'm proud of you for having that job. And, you know, the Cherokee and other tribes - you know, Ho-Chunk, among others - you know, have suffered through, you know, relocations that have taken them far from their original homelands. But I've always been really proud of the way the Cherokee have stuck it out and dug in. And they've made Oklahoma a place for themselves, Oklahoma and Kansas. And they've really taken a bad situation, and they've made really glorious lives out of it as best they could for so long. I've always been proud of my Cherokee friends for doing that. It's an incredible loss to lose one's homeland in the way that they did.

ROB: Well, every generation of my family served in the armed forces for the United States, so we are a very proud people. We're proud of being Americans. But like I said, I get to travel across all of the nations. I go to quite a few of the first nations across the United States and Canada both.

CONAN: Rob, thanks very much for the call. Drive carefully.

ROB: Have a great day, sir.

CONAN: Bye-bye. David Treuer, thank you very much for your time today.

TREUER: Thank you, Neal, so much.

CONAN: David Treuer's new book: "Rez Life: An Indian's Journey Through Reservation Life." He joined us from the studios at Minnesota Public Radio there in St. Paul. Coming up, we'll launch our Oscar docs series for the year. "Hell and Back Again" director Danfung Dennis is up first after a short break. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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