Rez Life: An Indian's Journey Through Reservation Life

BOOK: Rez Life: An Indian's Journey Through Reservation Life
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Also by David Treuer


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An Indian’s Journey

Through Reservation Life

David Treuer

Atlantic Monthly Press

New York

Copyright © 2012 by David Treuer

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review. Scanning, uploading, and electronic distribution of this book or the facilitation of such without the permission of the publisher is prohibited. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated. Any member of educational institutions wishing to photocopy part or all of the work for classroom use, or anthology, should send inquiries to Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 841 Broadway, New York, NY 10003 or
[email protected]

Published simultaneously in Canada

Printed in the United States of America

first edition

ISBN: 978-0-8021-9489-3

Atlantic Monthly Press

an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

841 Broadway

New York, NY 10003

Distributed by Publishers Group West

12 13 14 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

In memory

Ron LaFriniere, Eugene Seelye, Thomas Stillday Jr.,


Art Koch


Elsina, Noka, and Bine

Jesse Seelye at the United States Penitentiary, Florence, Colorado, 2010.

Courtesy Jesse Seelye


In northern Minnesota, not far from the headwaters of the Mississippi River, you may see a sign. From a passing car it is easy to miss: in the summer the trees that march over fields and the ditch grass that crowds the road threaten to overwhelm it; in the winter, when the snow has been pushed from the road and has leveled off the ditches, the sign sometimes blends too well with the snow to be seen at all. Seen or not, the sign reads:
welcome to the leech lake indian reservation home of the leech lake band of ojibwe please keep our environment clean, protect our natural resources no special licences required for hunting, fishing, or trapping

If you’re driving—as since this is America is most likely the case—the sign is soon behind you and soon forgotten. However, something is different about life on one side of it and life on the other. It’s just hard to say exactly what. The landscape is unchanged. The same pines, and the same swamps, hay fields, and jeweled lakes dropped here and there among the trees, exist on both sides of the sign. The houses don’t look all that different, perhaps a little smaller, a little more ramshackle. The children playing by the road do look different, though. Darker. The cars, most of them, seem older. And perhaps something else is different, too.

You can see these kinds of signs all over America. There are roughly 310 Indian reservations in the United States, though the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) doesn’t have a sure count of how many reservations there are (this might say something about the BIA, or it might say something about the nature of reservations). Not all of the 564 federally recognized tribes in the United States have reservations. Some Indians don’t have reservations, but all reservations have Indians, and all reservations have signs. There are tribal areas in Brazil, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, among many other countries. But reservations as we know them are, with the exception of Canada, unique to America. You can see these signs in more than thirty of the states, but most of them are clustered in the last places to be permanently settled by Europeans: the Great Plains, the Southwest, the Northwest, and along the Canadian border stretching from Montana to New York. You can see them in the middle of the desert, among the strewn rocks of the Badlands, in the suburbs of Green Bay, and within the misty spray of Niagara Falls. Some of the reservations that these signs announce are huge. There are twelve reservations in the United States bigger than the state of Rhode Island. Nine reservations are larger than Delaware (named after a tribe that was pushed from the region). Some reservations are so small that the sign itself seems larger than the land it denotes. Most reservations are poor. A few have become wealthy. In 2007 the Seminole bought the Hard Rock Café franchise. The Oneida of Wisconsin helped renovate Lambeau Field in Green Bay. And whenever Brett Favre (who claims Chickasaw blood) scored a touchdown there as a Packer, a Jet, or a Minnesota Viking, he did it under Oneida lights cheered on by fans sitting on Oneida bleachers, not far from the Oneida Nation itself.

Indian reservations, and those of us who live on them, are as American as apple pie, baseball, and muscle cars. Unlike apple pie, however, Indians contributed to the birth of America itself. The Oneida were allies of the Revolutionary Army who fed U.S. troops at Valley Forge and helped defeat the British in New York, and the Iroquois Confederacy served as one of the many models for the American constitution. Marx and Engels also cribbed from the Iroquois as they developed their theories of communism. Indians have been disproportionally involved in every war America has fought since its first, including one we’re fighting now: on July 27, 2007, the last soldiers of Able Company 2nd-136th Combined Arms battalion returned home to Bemidji, Minnesota, after serving twenty-two months of combat duty in Iraq. At the time Able Company was the most deployed company in the history of the Iraq War and was also deployed in Afghanistan and Bosnia. Some of the members of Able Company are Indians from reservations in northern Minnesota.

Despite how
in America’s business Indians have been, most people will go a lifetime
without ever knowing an Indian or spending any time on an Indian reservation. Indian land makes up 2.3 percent of the land in the United States. We number slightly over 2 million (up significantly from not quite 240,000 in 1900). It is pretty easy to avoid us and our reservations. Yet Americans are captivated by Indians. Indians are part of the story that America tells itself, from the first Thanksgiving to the Boston Tea Party up through Crazy Horse, the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and Custer’s Last Stand. Indian casinos have grown from small bingo halls lighting up the prairie states into an industry making $
14 billion a year. No one in America today is untouched by our lives—from a schoolchild learning about the birth of his or her country to the millions of Americans who have lost (and sometimes won) money in an Indian casino.

Whites have not just been captivated by us; they’ve been captured. In 1790, when he was only ten years old, John Tanner was captured from his family’s home in Kentucky by the Shawnee. Later, he was sold to an Ojibwe family as a slave and traveled with this family as far north and west as the Little Saskatchewan River. (My tribe, the Ojibwe, has been called Chippewa, Ojibway, and Chippeway—but Ojibwe is our name for ourselves). He spent his life among the Ojibwe and eventually married an Ojibwe woman. As an adult he was reunited with his birth family, but he was uncomfortable out East and went back to his Indian home as soon as he could. Then there is the story of Mary Jemison. She was also taken captive, along with a neighbor and her brothers, also by Shawnee, in 1758. Her brothers and another captive were scalped en route to Fort Duquesne (in modern-day Pittsburgh). Mary survived. She married a Delaware. But, afraid that she would be stolen back, the young couple moved to the Genesee Valley in what is now upstate New York. Mary’s husband died and she remarried a Seneca and had many children with him. She never went back to “white society.” Many captives didn’t go back, preferring life with Indians.

That is exactly what many people whose lives are intertwined with Indians say today. My father, after escaping Austria and the Holocaust in 1938, fled to the United States with his parents. After much wandering and one marriage and three children he settled just off the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota. Here he felt safe for the first time in his life. More than that, he felt he had found, with his new friends and new family, something that had eluded him all the years before. He devoted his life (and still devotes it) to the community he has come to call his own, and is as passionate today about the rights and respect owed to Indians as he was when he moved to Indian country in the 1950s.

A lot of people (this includes Indians and non-Indians) don’t think of the story of rez life as a story of beauty. Most often rez life is associated with tragedy. We are thought of in terms of what we have lost or what we have survived. Life on the rez is usually described as harsh, violent, drug-infested, criminal, poor, and short. White-on-Indian violence occurs at ten times the rate of white-on-white violence. Indian-on-Indian violence is close behind; in 2006, the police department on the Red Lake Reservation received more 911 calls than Beltrami County, which has ten times the population of Red Lake. The small village where my family comes from once had the highest ratio in the state of felons who had done hard time to people who had not been to jail: it has been said one in six residents of Bena (population 140) had done more than ten years in prison. The average life expectancy for Indian men is sixty-four. When white people turn sixty-five they, on average, retire. Indians are lucky to live long enough to see retirement. The average household income on my reservation is $21,000. On some reservations in the Dakotas the median income hovers just above $10,000; for the rest of America, median income is $52,029, as of 2008. Life is hard for many on the rez.

If the usual story we hear of life on the rez is one of hardship, the subplot is about conflict. More often than not, the story of “the Indian” is understood as a story of “Indians versus whites” or “Indians versus everyone.” This notion is further sharpened by the cherished idea (cherished by Indians and whites alike) that the real story of Indian life is “how Indians, quietly going about their business in the New World, were abruptly and violently screwed by white people against whom the Indians had no defenses and gosh it’s really a pity because Indians
a noble people.” Most treatments of the history of Native America can be represented by a running balance sheet with positive Indian values and contributions on one side and white transgression and crimes on the other. Like this:

Native Americans


Provided food and shelter to Pilgrims

Gave Indians blankets saturated

with smallpox

Introduced Europeans to corn,

Introduced Indians to “firewater”

squash, tomatoes, and chocolate

Love Mother Earth

Hurt Mother Earth

Promote community and

Promote capitalism


Were forced onto reservations

Were forced into the suburbs

Signed treaties in good faith

Broke treaties in bad faith

But this isn’t the whole story. Reservations and the Indians on them are not simply victims of the white juggernaut. And what one finds on reservations is more than scars, tears, blood, and noble sentiment. There is beauty in Indian life, as well as meaning and a long history of interaction. We love our reservations.

My tribe, the Ojibwe, has it good compared with others. We are both vast and underrated. Originally a coastal tribe from the eastern seaboard belonging to the Algonquian language family—which includes Cree, Pequot, Passamaquody, and Delaware, among others—we began a slow migration west before the first white people set foot on this continent. Our language still bears traces of this coastal existence. We have words for “seal,” “whale,” and “bagel,” though these aren’t used very often where we now live. The migration, as it’s called, lasted for many centuries, and according to tribal lore the tribe was following a vision of one member who dreamed that we should move west to where food grows on water. As far as prophecies or directives go, this has to be one of the weirdest. But here we are, in the land of wild rice, where food does grow on water. We occupy the land around the entire Great Lakes, stretching from just east of Toronto westward to Montana and from as far south as Chicago all the way up to the underbelly of Hudson Bay. We are the most populous tribe in North America, though not the most populous in the United States. That would be the Cherokee.

And even though we were ass-kickers and name-takers—having fought and defeated the Iroquois, the Sac and Fox, and the illustrious Sioux—we aren’t really known as such. In fact, the Sioux (perhaps the most famous Indian warriors are Sioux) used to live where we now live—in the northern forests of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and northwestern Ontario. But we pushed them out to the plains, where they made a good living hunting buffalo. And maybe that’s the problem. The Sioux hunt buffalo from horseback and we Ojibwe go out on snowshoes to snare rabbits. The Sioux have cornered the market on Indian cool. This is true for Indian names, too. They had chiefs named Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and Red Cloud. We had chiefs called Moose Dung, Little Frenchman, Flat Mouth, Bad Boy, Yellow Head, and Hole in the Day. But we did have a chief with the name White Cloud, which is almost as cool as Red Cloud. These were tough men, but a guy named Yellow Guts doesn’t sound much like a death-dealer and doesn’t make for good copy. We do have a lot of “wind” and “sky” names, which you might think would be cool. But Big Wind, Downwind, and Fineday (which are names I think of as being among the most beautiful Indian names) don’t compare to Mankiller (Cherokee) or Destroytown (Seneca).

It’s a blessing, I suppose. We have largely avoided being written about by others—who prefer to write about the Apache, Comanche, Blackfeet, Nez Perce, and Sioux. And we have avoided being overrun by wannabes and “culture vultures” because, after all, who wants to be an Indian who doesn’t own horses and lives in a swamp and traps beavers and didn’t evolve striking geometric beading patterns or cool war bonnets? But to the victors go the spoils, as they say, and also to the victors go naming rights. Many other tribes labor under names given to them by us. Sioux is short for “Naadwesiwag” (snakes, a euphemism for enemies). Winnebago comes from the Ojibwe word “Wiinibiigoog” (the “Ones by the Dirty Water”), and Eskimo comes from “Eshkimoog” (“Eaters of Raw Flesh”).

We have reservations in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Montana. We have “reserves”—as they were called in Canada, though now they are called First Nations—in Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. Some are tiny and can be walked across in less than an hour. Others, such as Red Lake, are large, larger than Rhode Island. The result is that there is more variation among our people than in most other tribes: from “bush Indians” in Canada living on reserves that are accessible only by floatplane in the summer and by roads across the ice in the winter to large corporate (and comparatively wealthy) entities such as the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe in central Minnesota. We have people who know and practice traditional Ojibwe lifeways—trapping, hunting, and fishing for sustenance—who are Catholics, and we have lawyers and lobbyists who follow Ojibwe ceremonial traditions. You can travel for days or weeks and still be in Ojibwe country—the woodlands around the Great Lakes, the boreal forests of central Canada, and the margins of the Great Plains and Canadian high country. We live, I think, in some of the most beautiful places on earth.

BOOK: Rez Life: An Indian's Journey Through Reservation Life
3.83Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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