On the Rez
BY IAN FRAZIER
Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 295 pages; $25
Among the countless dubious promises made by white men to American Indians, one remains unbroken to this day: We, the whites, will take all your wealth and power, isolate you on shrunken reservations, kill your leaders, and cashier your future, and in return we will hold you in phony awe. Such is the last resort of a bad conscience: to revere the victim's soul after making away with his material substance. And so, as the great thefts continue apace (at this moment in Washington, a lawsuit rages over the Treasury Department's loss of hundreds of millions of Indian trust-fund dollars), so do the self-serving shows of respect for Indian "wisdom" and "spirituality." We'll get the actual land, in other words, but you'll get credit for having lived in harmony with it.
What a way to romance away your guilt. Luckily, Ian Frazier doesn't buy it. His On the Rez, an informal chronicle of daily life on the Oglala Sioux's Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, disperses a lot of the holistic smoke that continues to cloud white people's vision of Indians. It's a book about hanging out and kicking back, about driving around, getting drunk, and chewing the fat in one of the poorest places in America, and it's mercifully free of sweat-lodge revelations and sacred-buffalo-dung mysticism. Because Frazier truly likes the people he meets, he doesn't have to be dazzled by them, too. Mostly, he just sits around and hears stuff, paying his hosts the ultimate respect of not trying to fit the things they tell him into some major statement about their being.
It's a funny book, because Indians are funny, and white guys who like to pal around with them, paying for everyone's beer and riding shotgun in broken-down old cars when they could be at home with the TV, are pretty funny, too. With characteristic modesty and honesty, Frazier confesses right away that what he likes about his Indian friends and their legendary ancestors isn't their alleged oneness with nature but their real-life separateness from society. There's no one they have to impress or suck up to, and Frazier frankly envies that. A laureate of understatement, he boils down his sense of middle-class oppression to an obligation to play kissy-face with the powers that be. "Americans today no longer work mostly in manufacturing or agriculture but in the newly risen service economy. That means that most of us make our living by being nice. And if we can't be nice, we'd better at least be neutral." What attracts him to Indians is that they don't feel this way, and neither does he when he's in their company.
The book is a buddy story at its heart, pairing its relatively straitlaced author with a hell-bent sidekick. It's like On the Road, except the roads are circular, confined to the reservation's scrubby badlands and a repellent Nebraska border town riddled with liquor stores. Frazier's buddy is one Le War Lance, whom Frazier calls Le, a beer-drinking roustabout who, if one believes his vivid tales, conversed with a bear once, spotted a UFO, traversed on foot the California beaches from San Francisco to Los Angeles (charming the actress Kim Novak along the way), and played a role in Pine Ridge's darkest drama, the Wounded Knee standoff in the seventies. More often than not, Le's escapades check out, making him a sort of wandering witness to contemporary American weirdness. He's one of those self-appointed back-roads troubadours, radiating a sense of lost inheritance and impending self-destruction, whom perfect strangers don't mind lending money to. Practicing small-time ATM journalism, Frazier lends him money on every page, it seems -- just enough for another tank of gas, another six-pack, another wild tale.
Like most authentically aimless journeys, Frazier and Le's is made up of countless small missions, originally very simple and clear-cut -- to borrow a rifle, see a relative -- that gradually go to pieces. That's how the book works, too, its structure resembling the branching runoff of a prairie cloudburst. What Frazier wants to show about Pine Ridge is not its fabled poverty (or worse, its "bleakness," that patronizing cliché) but its tangled density, its depth. Almost everybody he meets is related, by blood or some even more significant bond, to everybody else. That goes for the dead as well as the living. History on the reservation is a matter not of books and monuments but of relics dragged out of closets in trailer homes, idle reminiscences over coffee, and accident markers next to two-lane highways. From the days of Chief Red Cloud and Wounded Knee down to the evening a few years ago when the girls' basketball team took the state crown, tribal memory is a jumbled garage, with no one quite sure where to find what he's looking for, although he's certain it's there.
Like a Jesuit compiling a dictionary of a language that's never been written down, Frazier tries to keep order in the book by explaining larger Indian "issues" when the right occasions strike. His usual point is that what we think we know we actually don't know, or we know it wrong. Take the "boom" in Indian gambling. Yes, a handful of tribes have made a mint, but only those that live near major cities and don't mind playing footsie with white government. The largest reservation, the Navajo, is slot-machine-free, and Pine Ridge's own casino is a dreary affair that couldn't make a rat rich. Then there is the matter of the whiskey trade, which goes back to Astor's trading hooch for pelts and carries on in nearby hamlets like White Clay. Frazier portrays it as an evil town: not depressing, not miserable -- evil. The Indians' slavish brand loyalty to Budweiser is lightly sent up (they're as vulnerable to marketing as they are to other white viruses), but the general tone is dark.
Frazier is not in the business of social analysis, though. He's a voyeur. A voyeur in the good sense, who knows he can't be part of something that he longs to be part of nonetheless. The book's touchstone episode describes a visit by Le and some friends to Frazier's Montana home. The Indians are road-weary and half soused, and show up while Frazier is babysitting his kids. He rustles up sandwiches, anxious and annoyed, then sends his guests packing down a snowy highway. It's a tiny, venial sin, but it reenacts much larger, historic sins and haunts his next few visits to Pine Ridge. For a self-confessed Indian-lover such as Frazier, who wears a ponytail to mimic his heroes, it hurts to acknowledge this failure of hospitality, and so, as people will do, he blames his visitors. Their crime: reminding him of his unfreedom, as On the Rez reminds us of our own.
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