Book review: On the Rez
On the Rez by Ian Frazier. Highly recommended.
If you are looking for structure and pat solutions to contemporary Native American problems, you won’t find them in On the Rez by Ian Frazier. Like the reservation life and stories it reveals, On the Rez is rambling and spontaneous.
Frazier uses his sometimes problematic friendship with Le War Lance, a Sioux from Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota whom he meets in New York City, to explore Pine Ridge life today along with past and present injustices. Le seems to have no home, no permanent job, no wife, and no children. He does have family on the reservation — as well as a bottomless taste for inexpensive beer. Frazier recounts their many days spent together, whether it’s watching TV while drinking beer, driving around the reservation looking for people, or facing a propane leak and potential explosion — and death. Frazier is genuinely fond of Le, but not of his drinking, and he repeatedly says how much easier it is to be around Le and his brother Floyd John once Floyd John undergoes rehab and gives up drinking. Alcoholism, diabetes, fatal car accidents, and more are part of day-to-day life on Pine Ridge.
Frazier also devotes several chapters to the life of SuAnne Big Crow, an Indian high school basketball star who led Pine Ridge’s Lady Thorpes basketball team to a state championship and traveled to Europe and Australia as part of an Indian all-star team before her death in a car accident. SuAnne serves as a uniting force between Indians and their often-prejudiced white neighbors, between the lingering Red Cloud and Crazy Horse factions, and between American Indian Movement (AIM) traditionalists and “goon” progressives on the reservation. Through her athletic feats, fame, and sheer force of personality, she becomes bigger than life.
Between describing the day-to-day adventures he has with Le, Floyd John, and their family and friends and SuAnne’s career and influence, Frazier turns to history in a broad sense to put life on the rez in perspective. He discusses the rivalry between Red Cloud and Crazy Horse (which lives today); the conflict between AIM, led by Dennis Banks and Russell Means, and then-tribal chief Dick Wilson and his “goons” (which Wilson turned into “Guardians of the Oglala Nation”); and the U.S. government’s still-unresolved theft of the Black Hills from the Sioux. He covers topics as wide ranging as Iroquois history and Mohawks as high-rise construction workers to the storied past of famous Indian bars. He covers the rise of Indian casinos and their current status in legislative limbo.
While many Americans comfort themselves for the wrongs perpetrated against Indians — from physical violence and culture destruction to land theft — with the idea that the white man rescued the Indian from primitivism and stagnation, Frazier points out Native contributions to Europeans, such as a host of agricultural riches (failing to mention the medicinal wonders being mined in South America by ethnobotanists such as Dr. Mark Plotkin).
More importantly, Indians passed on to settlers seeking escape from European political, religious, and economic tyranny their “all-around skepticism about who and who was not great” along with some basic principles of democracy. Today, however, Frazier says, “The freedom that inhered in Powhatan, that Red Cloud carried with him from the plains to Washington as easily as air — freedom to be and to say, regardless of disapproval — has become a luxury most of us can’t afford.” The Indian influence could not prevent the reinvention of Europe — “early American was European culture reset in an Indian frame.” Frazier quotes Thomas Jefferson: “It will be said, that great societies cannot exist without government. The savages, therefore, break them into small ones.” Where Frazier errs is in being too broad — while the free-ranging Sioux of the plains valued individual freedom, less nomadic groups such as Powhatan’s and the tribes of the Iroquois confederacy placed more emphasis on leadership. Powhatan’s freedom was that of a leader, while Red Cloud’s was that of a Sioux.
Today, there is Le War Lance, representing Trickster — cunning, dishonest, unpredictable, selfish, manipulative — a freedom-loving survivor. There is, or was until her death, the Indian hero SuAnne Big Crow, to whom nearly every inner-city and suburban teenager and adult alike can look — sports legend, academic star, role model for peers, and point of unity among a disparate people, even today through “Happytown, USA” — the SuAnne Big Crow Health and Recreation Center founded in her memory by her mother, Chick Big Crow.
Then there are the rest of the Sioux — struggling with poverty, unemployment, alcoholism, disease, and a host of social ills that cannot be fixed through this program or that legislation. They, like Le, are survivors.
I recommend that you read On the Rez in conjunction with American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other Writings by Zitkala-Sa and edited with an introduction and notes by Cathy N. Davidson and Ada Norris. Zitkala-Sa was a turn-of-the-century Sioux educator, musician, writer, and activist who addressed many of the same issues Frazier raises — nearly 100 years ago.
13 September 2003
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
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