Arts & Entertainment

Review: 'Rez Life' a grim yet hopeful view of Indian Country

"Recently, the New York Times reported on the Oglala Sioux tribe’s federal lawsuit against liquor dealers in Whiteclay, Nebraska, a town standing a few hundred yards from the boundaries of the Pine Ridge reservation and the South Dakota state line. Merchants there sell an average of 13,000 cans of beer and malt liquor a day, mostly to Indians, who are not allowed to drink on the reservation. At Pine Ridge, four in five families have someone with a drinking problem, and fetal alcohol syndrome or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder afflicts one in four babies.

Somber as it is, the New York Times story paints a familiar picture of life on the nation’s Indian reservations. Pine Ridge and others are among the poorest places in the United States, with health indicators suggestive of Third World nations. It’s easy to conclude that for Native Americans, already burdened by a history of loss, the future might be even worse.

In this context, acclaimed novelist David Treuer’s Rez Life stands as a revelatory portrait of Indians in modern America. Treuer doesn’t shy away from somber realities; indeed, his own life has been touched by them. An Ojibwe Indian from Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota, the son of an Austrian Jew (and Holocaust survivor) and Indian tribal court judge, he opens his book with the suicide death of his grandfather, a veteran of D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge. Along the way he describes the appalling living conditions on numerous reservations; individual horror stories, like the despondent 16-year-old, Jeffrey James Weise, who killed nine people and himself in a massacre at Red Lake Reservation in 2005; and a culture so overrun with substance abuse that children live with grandparents or congregate with peers in places of dubious safety."

Get the Story:
'Rez Life' Is a Humane, Grim and Hopeful Portrait of Today's American Indians (PopMatters 3/29)

Related Stories:
NPR: Interview with David Treuer, Leech Lake Ojibwe writer (02/21)
Review: 'David Treuer's Rez Life' not just a book on Indians (2/20)

Join the Conversation