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In New Book, Novelist David Treuer Explores Past, Present and Future of Reservations

When anthropologist and novelist David Treuer heard that 16-year-old high-school student Jeff Weise had killed nine people and then himself on northern Minnesota’s Red Lake Indian Reservation on March 21, 2005, he was utterly dismayed—and not only because this was the worst school shooting since the 1999 tragedy at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. He was also appalled at how the story was being told.

“When you compare it to Columbine, the story was presented in such a different way,” recalls Treuer, an Ojibwe Indian who grew up on the nearby Leech Lake reservation. “No one evoked race, class or geography with Columbine. When I talked to my editor, I was so angry…as if [those three factors] explained what happened! The way the story was told, it didn’t begin to explain Red Lake. My editor said, ‘Then what’s the story? And who will write it?’

“I said, ‘I’ll do it. I don’t know what the story is, but it’s not that.”

So began Treuer’s road to Rez Life: An Indian’s Journey Through Reservation Life, which Atlantic Monthly Press published in February. The book, which took him five years to research and write, blends history, journalism and memoir as he explores—and celebrates—the complexity of America’s reservations, delving into issues such as tribal sovereignty, treaty rights, gaming, public policy and the relationship between Native peoples, the states in which their reservations lie and the U.S. government.

“Writing this book was hard,” he says. “I’m not interested in platitudes. I want to tell the real story; [life on the reservation is] no single experience. I’m so sick of poverty porn…rez porn.… And it really makes me mad to watch people ‘cathart’ about how awful it is.

“We [Native people] are not exempt either. We’re all trained to see one thing. I wanted the book to look at things differently.”

With a Ph.D. in anthropology, three well-received novels and a book of literary criticism to his credit, Treuer may have seemed perfectly poised to tackle the Herculean task that became Rez Life. Yet he said he scarcely could have imagined his current life and successes while growing up with his parents—Robert Treuer, an Austrian Jew and Holocaust survivor, and Margaret Seelye Treuer, a tribal court judge—and siblings on Leech Lake.

In fact, he says he lays the credit for much of what he has accomplished at his brother Anton’s feet. “Against everyone’s advice, even the counselors at his high school in Bemidji, [Minnesota,] he applied to the Ivy League,” Treuer says. “He really went against the current; no one else had done that. I had no idea who I was [then], but I didn’t want anyone else to think I wasn’t as good as my brother.”

Both brothers attended Princeton University in New Jersey. David acknowledges that going from the Leech Lake reservation to the halls of an Ivy League school wasn’t easy. In the beginning, he says, he felt outclassed and out-educated by his classmates. “I felt like a hick. I mean, I never lacked for anything growing up; my parents were doing all right. But I was from a poor area, [and] by comparison, Princeton was so exotic. I felt like I was from no place.”

As so often happens when young people are away from home for the first time, he soon began to appreciate what he had left behind—the land, the people, his heritage and the richness of Ojibwe culture. And he came to feel proud of being from Leech Lake. “My classmates couldn’t even begin to comprehend it,” he says. “They might have [had] more travel and more money, but they were not better than me.”

His original goal was to be a composer, but after two years of studying music at Princeton, he changed majors and studied anthropology. Creative writing had yet to appear on his academic radar. “I grew up with writing in the house. I’d hear the hum of my father’s typewriter at six in the blessed morning. And my best friend’s father was Gary Paulsen, who wrote Hatchet, which is in every grade-school curriculum. I was always around it,” he says. “But for me, it really started as a bet.”

David Treuer with his wife and children

David Treuer with his wife and children

A fellow student in his dorm was a member of Princeton’s creative writing program, into which it was difficult to be accepted. At the time, the well-known faculty included Paul Muldoon, Joanna Scott and Toni Morrison. The young Treuer didn’t know who they were, but when he read some of his friend’s writing, he decided that he could do it, too. “He said, ‘No, it’s really hard,’?” Treuer recalls, chuckling. “And I said, ‘I bet I can do that.’?”

With a burst of laughter, he adds, “And my first story was rejected! So I lowered my head and kept charging ahead. I learned that writing stories that worked well in class was not that hard. But writing stories that would do well outside of class? That was hard.”

Treuer says Princeton was an exciting place to make art during his undergrad years of 1988-1992, but he still didn’t have ambitions to pursue a writing life. Then Toni Morrison asked if he was planning to write a creative thesis. “She said she’d be happy to be my advisor,” Treuer says. “I said, ‘No, that would take away from anthropology.… Can I think about it?’ She looked so surprised!”

His girlfriend was equally surprised when he told her about his conversation with Morrison. “She looked at me like I was an idiot!” he says, laughing. “I realized she was right. I jumped up from lunch, ran from the cafeteria to the anthropology department and asked the chair if I could write two theses. He said, ‘Of course, if you’re crazy!’?”

That was 1991. Treuer’s first novel, Little, was published four years from that day, followed by The Hiawatha in 2000; The Translation of Dr ApellesandNative American Fiction: A User’s Manualwere both released in 2006. He is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, the 1996 Minnesota Book Award and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Bush Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation.

But he never gave up on anthropology, although he did leave his graduate program for two years. “I was homesick, and I didn’t see how my academic life and my life at home fit together. So I focused on not-for-profit work, grants, language immersion—and then I realized that grad school wasn’t so bad!”

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Treuer returned to graduate school in 1996 with that first published novel, Little, under his belt. When he earned his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in 1999, his second novel, The Hiawatha, was rolling off the presses. And then he went back to Minnesota, spending the next 11 years teaching at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, writing and maintaining a home on the Leech Lake reservation.

During those years, he and his wife, Gretchen Potter, and their three children spent plenty of time with his family on Leech

Lake, as well as with Potter’s family, who are members of the Tonawanda Band of Seneca Indians in New York. Although the Treuers moved to Los Angeles in 2011, they still have a home on the reservation so that their children stay connected to their roots. Treuer says those connections are vital. “Having that experience of extended family and an active experience with the land—fishing, ricing, sugaring—is a priority,” he says.

Through his own connections to reservation life, and through his exhaustive research, Treuer says he uncovered an important truth about reservations, one that is not often addressed when the mainstream media remains focused on poverty and social ills. “The thing about reservations is that they creatively and chaotically continue to live, and that is no small achievement. That our communities continue to survive is miraculous. The story is not what we have lost, but what we have maintained.”

Yet there are threats. Treuer says one of the largest is assimilation. “No one wants to have a frank discussion about it. It’s divisive. [But] a lot of our real-world issues stem from our families becoming weak, from losing our language and culture. We didn’t have control for so long, and that’s still ongoing. We need to frame ourselves and our problems in our own language.”

In other words, taking control means more than fighting for better government representation and building successful local economies. It means reclaiming a sense of self and of community that lies deeper than race. Cultural identity, Treuer notes, is not the same as ethnicity.

A related threat is how Native people define themselves. According to Treuer, the current popular definitions aren’t working. “Everyone thinks poor equals Indian. As a middle-class Indian, I don’t agree. And people think rez equals Indian, but…there’s a diaspora. It’s ridiculous.”

Then there is the issue of blood quantum and tribal enrollment. Treuer waded into that debate with a New York Times op-ed piece in December 2011. “We can’t keep doing what we’re doing, but a great big hug isn’t the answer either. Whatever we do, we need to make our communities stronger. What if we had a community-service requirement? A residency requirement? A citizenship test? Native kids have never had to learn how and why their tribal government works the way it does, and don’t you think they should?”

Despite the threats facing today’s reservations, Treuer sees promising signs. One is the advent of language-immersion schools such as the one operated by the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Ojibwe on their reservation near Hayward, Wisconsin. “I’m glad the issue is on the table, and the number of kids learning their native language is getting bigger. But in Ojibwe, we don’t have the teachers we need; we have more work than the people teaching can possibly do.”

To help address this lack of teachers, Anton Treuer is fund-raising to support a special project through Bemidji State University, where he is a professor of Ojibwe. “My brother is fluent in Ojibwe and has made language his life’s work,” David says.

Improved management of natural resources is another positive development. For example, in Rez Life Treuer discusses the overfishing of Red Lake and the efforts of the Ojibwe nation to bring it back to health. “We decided we’re not just going to take. Instead, we formed a food industry and became a retailer. We addressed the dilemma of how to use resources in a modern context.”

Treuer also sees tremendous promise in Indian gaming. When you consider that tribal sovereignty makes the contemporary Indian gaming industry possible, he says the potential goes far beyond slot machines and blackjack. “Mille Lacs was able to branch out into financial markets with a holding company,” he says. “They’re buying and selling credit. What if Pine Ridge could become the next Cayman Islands? How cool and exciting would that be?”

Treuer says Rez Life is not intended only for Native people and non-Natives interested in the issues affecting Indian country. Rather, he hopes people from all walks of life will read it—and learn from it. In his book, he ponders a powerful paradox: most Americans never will meet an Indian nor set foot on a reservation, yet no one in this country is untouched by Indian country. To start, as he points out in Rez Life, if you live west of the Appalachians, you’re living on land that was ceded in treaty negotiations.

But it goes beyond that. He discusses more recent actions of Native communities that have had a widespread impact, from the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux (Dakota) Community’s philanthropic efforts around the country, to the Seminole nation’s purchase of the Hard Rock Cafe franchise, to the Potawatomi and Ojibwe purchase and closure of the controversial Crandon Mine in Wisconsin.

Treuer says he’ll always write novels, but reports that he has developed a taste for nonfiction and is already thinking about his next book. It will address subsistence living, but not in the way most people think of it. “There are a lot of stories in print and on TV about people living off the land, but that’s not what I want to explore.”

Subsistence living, he explains, is not about scraping bits and pieces together to sustain an individual or even a family. It’s about an entire community harvesting their natural resources and bringing those products to market in a way that will best serve that community and ensure its long-term survival. The Ojibwe, for example, harvested and marketed their local resources for hundreds of years, and their experience allowed them to adapt quickly when the Europeans arrived. Discovering how well wool and cotton worked for clothing, they entered the fur trade; the money they earned from their furs allowed the Ojibwe to purchase the necessities they sought.

“[Subsistence living is] a story about markets,” Treuer says. “A story about economics.”

Treuer is currently writing an article on the subject for Harper’s Magazine, but he advises interested readers not to hold their breath for the new book. “It’ll be a few years!” he says with a laugh.

In that future work, readers likely will find a recurring theme from Rez Life: Indian communities have much to teach, and the primary repository of all that history, wisdom and experience is the rez.