The college professor-novelist explains his latest text—his first full-length nonfiction work—Rez Life, and how growing up on the margins of a reservation was a metaphor for his life.
Writer David Treuer
Tavis: David Treuer is an award-winning novelist who teaches literature and creative writing here at USC. His latest book is his first work of non-fiction and has been receiving some high praise. The book is called “Rez Life: An Indian’s Journey through Reservation Life.” David, good to have you on the program.
David Treuer: Thanks for having me.
Tavis: You argue in the book, and I think you’re right about this, that Indian reservations are as American as apple pie and baseball, and yet we seem to know so little about life on reservations.
So how do you make the argument that it’s Americana?
Treuer: Well, it seems like we’ve been living together, we’ve been working together, we’ve been intermarrying, we’ve been trading for 500 years, and like you said, there’s this disconnect between us and people’s ideas of us.
I think that part of the problem is that the story that people like to tell about reservations and about native people actually gets in between us and our understandings.
So part of the reason for writing the book was simply to try and find some other way to tell our story, and to bring people’s attention to the fact that we are here, we continue to be here, we continue to do many things – among them, to thrive in our own way.
Tavis: When you suggested a moment ago that there is a distinction between the story that ought to be told about life on the reservation and about Native Americans and the story that people like to tell about Native Americans, what were you specifically referencing on the latter?
Treuer: Well, the story that people cherish about us is a story of tragedy. That is the story that people are most comfortable with. Native peoples, native history, is not something that we have done, as people understand it. It’s something we’ve survived, right?
So the tragic mode is the dominant mode of storytelling about native people, and you know how it is, how you’re trained to tell a story shapes what that story can be.
Tavis: How obstructionist are the stereotypes about life on the reservation? I say stereotypes out of one side of my mouth; out of the other side, some of these facts are real, so they’re not necessarily stereotypical. But you know what I’m getting at.
Treuer: That’s exactly right. Part of the point of the book was to try and tell some story that was true about reservation life, and I ran into exactly that problem, that we do struggle with poverty, we do struggle with high rates of alcohol abuse, we do struggle with a host of health concerns and life expectancy for native men is, on average I think it’s, if I remember correctly, 59. I can’t remember the statistic exactly, but it’s much lower than the life expectancy for most American men.
So these are real problems, these are real issues. So the question of how you get beyond, you communicate those things, but you don’t wallow in them or you don’t sort of get stuck in this tragic mode, was something that perplexed me from the start.
It was really hard to find some other way while at the same time addressing real concerns and real issues.
Tavis: I want to come back to your story of growing up on a reservation in just a second and get to the autobiographical here, but since we’re talking about stereotypes and stories about life on the reservation, I wonder to what extent you believe that the reasons why so many Americans aren’t interested in the story is because we tend to think that all the folk on the reservations are really not that poor, but they’re wealthy, given that what we think about reservations are casinos.
You ask the average American these days, I think, about life on a reservation, and somewhere in the conversation the word “casino” is going to come up, because we think that every casino has enriched itself with a billion-dollar casino on the land. So tell me about the casino connection, because you do discuss that in the book.
Treuer: Yeah, that’s right. So either everyone thinks that we’re all poor or everyone thinks that we’re all rich, and you can’t please anybody, right? We’re kind of in a – I can’t help but feel that in some way, native people are kind of loathed for not living up to people’s fantasies for us – noble people going about sort of moral business in the hinterlands.
On the other hand, people resent the very few tribes that have very successful casinos as though they somehow don’t deserve that wealth, which is an extension of their rights as sovereign nations to open and run casinos.
So you can’t please anybody, right? But what no one talks about, of course, are sort of the native middle class, right? But of any force, as you know, any force in the last 20 years in Indian country, casinos are the most important. They’ve changed the landscape dramatically for a lot of tribes. Not all, but for a lot.
Tavis: Certainly not all, because I was on a poverty tour with my friend Cornel West last summer and we started on, as we should have, a Native American reservation.
Treuer: That’s right.
Tavis: So often, these people and their land and their story is left out of the larger American narrative, and so I said to Dr. West and my crew, my documentary crew, because we did a week-long special here on PBS about this poverty tour, I said, “If we’re going to do this, we’re going to start on a reservation,” and so we did.
When I got to the reservation, I recall asking many of the women on the reservation – women and men, but particularly women and their children. I recall asking them what about the Great Recession, what impact has the Great Recession had on life on the reservation? They looked at me in the eye very steely and said, “What recession?”
Treuer: (Laughs) That’s right.
Tavis: You get this, obviously.
Tavis: It’s always this way. It’s worse – we live with this every day, so the Great Recession, the so-called Great Recession, didn’t even have any real impact on Native Americans, many of them across this country, because conditions are always that bad in so many of these places.
Treuer: That’s right.
Tavis: So I raised all that to ask more about your story about growing up on a reservation, because you seem to be the exception to the rule in the sense that you go to Princeton. You’re taught by Cornel West.
Treuer: Yeah, that was great.
Tavis: You’re taught by Toni Morrison. She’s your thesis adviser, Toni Morrison is, this Nobel laureate. So when I think Native American, I’m not sure I’m thinking that kind of profile. So tell me about your story.
Treuer: Well, one of the points of the book was that there is no rez life, there are just rez lives. There’s a range of experiences, very few of which we recognize as authentic. There’s a range of class attitudes, there’s a range of geographic attitudes and ethnicities. There’s a whole range of different tribal identities, too, from reservation to reservation. So there’s no rez life, there are only rez lives.
Mine, I don’t know, takes the cake. My father is an Austrian Jewish Holocaust refugee, my mother is Ojibwe from the Leech Lake reservation, and I have an older brother who was very ambitious and I think he and I had watched “Risky Business” and decided that we were going to go to Princeton, and we did. (Laughter)
I met and got to work with Professor Morrison. I can’t call her anything other than Professor Morrison to this day; Professor West likewise, among others. It was exciting.
It was exciting, and those two, perhaps, more so than anyone else when I was in college showed me that it was possible to be critically engaged as an artist, as a thinker, and that to be so meant not that you had to give up your origins, your place in your community, but in fact you had to bring the two together. So I think without them, I don’t know that I’d be writing at all.
Tavis: I wonder, though, for those persons on the reservation who didn’t grow up as fortunate as you were on that borderline, whether or not there is a resentment that forecloses on the hopes and dreams and aspirations of folk who grow up on reservations, even today.
Treuer: A resentment of what kind?
Tavis: Resentment against the country, resentment against the poverty, resentment against the way they’ve been maltreated, resentment against the way they are still left out of the American narrative, resentment at – I could do this all night. Can I stop now?
Treuer: Yeah, you can stop. I think I got it.
Tavis: Okay. (Laughter)
Treuer: That is the surprising thing. Now, just speaking of Leech Lake, speaking of the communities that I know well, people are pretty clear-eyed. They’ve been analyzing political discourse and rhetoric for a long time. There are very few fools where I’m from.
That said, you would expect a corresponding amount of cynicism too, but you don’t see it. You see native people serving in the armed forces in incredible numbers in every war since the Revolutionary War, for a lot of reasons, poverty being one of them.
But not foolishly doing this – proudly doing this. You see people engaged in all sorts of creative treatments for the poverty that you point out. Where unemployment runs – at Leech Lake it’s 60 percent. Sixty. Yet people are – I’ve never seen such hustle and such creative solutions to the predicament of the lack of gainful employment, as it’s known.
Tavis: Your fine text notwithstanding, do you think it possible, and if so, how would it happen, that again, back to that word “narrative,” that the narrative about reservation life and about Native Americans in this country, how would, to the extent that it could, the story line change in this country? How would that happen? Given what’s so ingrained.
Treuer: Yeah. It was ingrained in me too, and I experienced a lot of losses during the writing of the book. I lost my grandfather, I lost some good friends. It was hard for me to get out of that tragic mode, even for myself in writing this book and knowing what I know.
But by the end, I was able to see reservations not as places of deficit. That was the thing. Reservations are places of surplus, so if you can shift the mental frame and the narrative frame from one of deficit and loss to one of abundance, it allows you to see everything differently.
If you think of poverty not as a lack of things but as an abundance of lack, I guess, it changes how you can address it, maybe. Likewise for crime, but also for things like the chance to make a difference.
I know that you and Professor West went to Lac Courte Oreilles reservation in Wisconsin and you met with people at the Waadookodaading Ojibwe Language Immersion School.
A few people who are committed to native language revitalization, just three or four or five to begin with, are transforming education in a reservation of I think about 10,000 to 12,000 people. A few people are making a huge difference. You met those people. You were really fortunate to meet them.
Tavis: I was honored to meet them, and honored because it just seems to me, and I know a little bit about this, being an African American, being of African descent, when they take your language, they take a whole lot away from you.
Treuer: That’s right.
Tavis: It takes a long time to ever gain back that ground that you’ve lost, starting with the taking of the language, and that’s precisely why they do that, as we both know.
Tavis: You’re making a good down-payment, though, with this book. A good down-payment on trying to change that narrative.
Treuer: I tried. I asked a lot of people to give a lot of themselves and to talk on the record. I refused to let anyone use a pseudonym or to speak without speaking as themselves. I said, “If you’re going to say something, you’re going to say it on tape, and you’re going to say it with your name and you’re going to take responsibility for what you’re saying, and I’m going to do the same thing.
I’m going to put myself on the line.” I don’t know, I’m pretty happy.
Tavis: The result is called “Rez Life: An Indian’s Journey through Reservation Life,” written by USC Professor David Treuer. Professor Treuer, good to have you on the program. Congrats on the text.
Treuer: Thanks so much. Thank you.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. See you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from L.A., thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
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