The National Catholic Review
Chris Manahan

Heroes populate Ian Frazier’s book about the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Some of the heroes are of his own making, others we recognize by name, and still others are unique to the Oglala Lakota, who live on the reservation. All of them are cast against a backdrop of problems, troubles and difficulties of everyday living on the reservation.

His relationship with Le (pronounced leh or lay ) War Lance from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which began with a chance meeting on New York City streets, provides Frazier entrance into a world that he previously knew only through books. In fact, he knew almost nothing of the world he was to enter.

Frazier attempts to decipher when Le is telling the truth about his days in Hollywood, his days in the music world and his days with the American Indian Movement at Wounded Knee. Sometimes successful, sometimes not, Frazier is honest as he comes to grips with his own fallibility as an author, a friend and a human being trying to understand another person and culture. The reader senses the tension Frazier experiences between the immediate reality in which he finds himself and the heroism that had attracted him to the Oglala Lakota.

Frazier laments that "no one today wants to be mistaken for a hero"; instead people spin dreams of fame and fortune. This saddens him, because such dreams don’t include his number-one hero, Crazy Horse, nor his newly discovered hero, SuAnne Big Crow. Both are Oglala Lakota, but in Frazier’s eyes neither Crazy Horse nor SuAnne Big Crow is heroic because of simple fame or fortune. One hero appeared in the last days of the Great Sioux Nation. The other appeared in the form of an amazing high school basketball player who led Pine Ridge to the 1989 South Dakota state championship.

"Good appears most vividly in resistance to its opposite," Frazier writes; "that’s what heroism is all about, after all." For Crazy Horse it was his resistance to U.S. government encroachment onto tribal lands. For SuAnne Big Crow it was her resistance to the outside world’s view of Pine Ridge as a "tragedy." The resistance, or tension, between the immediate reality that surrounds us and the heroic that transcends it becomes the driving force in Frazier’s writing.

Frazier’s book expertly intertwines everyday life on the reservation with the biographical, historical, sociological and political forces that have influenced the Oglala Lakota. He writes about the people whose names grace public buildings on the reservation, about the accident that led to the eight "fatality markers" placed in a row along Highway 79 to Rapid City and about Chief Red Cloud and his present-day descendants. Frazier moves easily from telling a personal story about drinking on the reservation to an analysis of the history of bars that hug the borders of the dry reservation. He writes, too, of U.S. treaties with the Oglala and the land taken from them, a history of the Wounded Knee occupation in 1973 and the subsequent trials of AIM members, and he spends a chapter sketching for the reader the demographic profile of the reservation. None of these passages are plodding recitations of facts. To Frazier’s credit they are conveyed in the same conversational tone as the rest of the book.

Frazier’s depiction of the immediate reality of one of the poorest places in the United States, based on U.S. Census Bureau statistics, nearly blots out his heroism theme. Even his lengthy ode to SuAnne Big Crow contains enough jealousy and pain to make one wonder if the good successfully resisted its opposite in her story. Frazier believes it did. Whether it is through the youth recreation center started in SuAnne Big Crow’s honor, or through the sobriety of Le’s old drinking buddy, or through Charlotte Black Elk’s recitation of the Oglala Lakota’s claims on the Black Hills, the heroism of Frazier’s world exists "on the rez." Near the book’s end, Frazier concludes, "Great good does exist here, too, in the lives of the people who hold fast to it and serve their neighbors without much encouragement or reward, and in the steadfastness of the old Oglala culture that endures." It is in this great good that the heroic takes place.

Chris Manahan, S.J., teaches civics and geography at Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.