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Chris ManahanAugust 13, 2012
Rez Lifeby By David TreuerAtlantic Monthly Press. 368p $26

When reading Rez Life, be prepared to have a struggle over what the book is and what you might like it to be. Part history, part social analysis, part memoir and part journalism, the book takes the reader through the reservation life that the novelist David Treuer, who is Ojibwe, has experienced from his days growing up among Minnesota’s reservations to today, when he shares his time between the Leech Lake Reservation in Minnesota and Los Angeles, where he is professor of literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California.

His first full-length work of non-fiction is a “hybrid,” he admits, in his concluding note to the book, and “it is meant to be suggestive rather than exhaustive.” It is this hybrid quality that may cause the reader to find no single part as satisfying or complete as desired.

The lengthy historical and political explanations, summaries and synthesis of tribal relations with the United States are written in an easy-to-grasp manner and remind one of a conversation with a friend who is interested and well-versed in a particular topic. But without the footnotes that one might find in a scholarly, academic work, the reader is left wondering if this is a complete understanding of the nuances of this complex history.

The social analysis of reservation life fostered by first-person stories, conversations and memories is vibrant and raw, bringing the reader into the private tensions within reservation life; but, because of its anecdotal presentation, the reader is left asking whether the same is true for reservations generally and whether common solutions for these social ills can be found?

Finally, the author’s experiences and observations give the work its memoir quality, which stops short of indicating what other people think or feel. So again, the reader is left to wonder about the people to whom Treuer introduces us: “Do I really know what makes them tick?” Treuer writes that he “refrained from speculating or giving them feelings” so as not to blur fact and opinion. This is to his credit, yet the reader wishes he had asked more questions and shared the answers.

Still, Treuer has provided an excellent sense of reservation life, which is what he hoped to do. His stories tell what it is like to grow up on a reservation, live there, leave and return as an outsider.

Focusing on individuals with representative experiences, he deals with tribal sovereignty, taxation and casino gambling while telling the homespun story of Helen (Bryan) Johnson, whose fight over a $147 county property tax bill led to the 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision that is credited with opening the way for casino gambling on Indian reservations. As a 31-year-old Head Start worker raising six children with her husband, Russell, in a two-bedroom trailer on her family’s Leech Lake ancestral land, Johnson was an unlikely force for change, but Treuer reveals through her story the practical aspect of tribal sovereignty. The reader learns about treaty rights, control of land ownership, reservation poverty, housing, politics and governance, the effects of Indian boarding schools, child welfare conflicts and the loss of language and culture in the midst of fighting acculturation within reservation life.

Black-and-white photographs begin each section, stark and unadorned, like figurative road signs welcoming readers to the reservation and piquing their interest in the persons in the pictures. Unlike motorists who pass through without stopping, Rez Life readers have Treuer sitting next to them to tell us who is who and how they fit into the reservation. But, more often than not, he may leave the reader wanting to know more.

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