Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Nonfiction | The Complexities of the Rez


David Treuer’s Rez Life is a nonfiction work that examines the histories and complexities of modern day American Indian Reservations. With a style that shifts between story-telling, journalism, and history lesson, Treuer looks closely at issues such as treaty rights and sovereignty, mostly from the perspective of the Minnesota and Wisconsin tribes around which he grew up.

I learned some really interesting things from this book, things such as:

  • There are 564 federally recognized tribes in the US and 310 reservations, 12 of which are bigger than Rhode Island and 9 of which are bigger than Delaware.
  • The Hard Rock Cafe franchise is owned by the Seminole tribe.
  • Native Americans weren’t considered US citizens until the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924.
  • They couldn’t freely practice their own religions until the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978.
  • And they couldn’t legally drink until 1953.
  • Indian gaming casinos bring in $25 billion a year compared to Las Vegas’ $12 billion.
  • Tribal land is held in a trust and cannot be taxed by the federal government.
But beyond these quick facts and figures, Treuer delves deep into the controversy, misunderstandings, and complexities of who American Indians are, trying to find a comfortable place that melds their past and present while both discovering and then fighting for the rights they technically already have.
Sovereignty and treaty rights are the two biggest areas of conflict and confusion, within both native and non-native populations. Treuer credits misunderstanding as the root of issue, wonderfully summarized:

“Neither side understands what a treaty is and how treaty rights work. Indians aren’t ‘allowed’ to hunt or fish. It isn’t a matter of ‘permission. To cast treaty rights as ‘special rights’ is to suggest that they are in some sense an expression of pity or a payment for wrongs done or a welfare system for Stone Age people. But treaty rights were not ‘given’ to Indian people because of past cruel treatment or because of special racial status. Nor were treat rights ‘given’ to Indians in exchange for land…Rather, when Indian bands signed treaties (and no new ones have been signed since the end of the treaty period in the 1870s), they reserved the land, which became reservations, and they reserved rights. Treaty rights are rights that the Indians who signed treaties always had, rights they explicitly reserved in the treaties.” (p. 101)

The issue that Treuer attempts to address in Rez Life is simply that many native people don’t know what rights they reserved over a hundred years ago. And the non-natives don’t know. And the local governments don’t know. And the federal government doesn’t know. And so many small questions that begin as small conflicts lead to bigger battles and monumental rulings once the time is taken to sift through old documents, determine historic intent, and issue a ruling that can end up being completely groundbreaking.

For example:

  • Do non-natives have rights on native land?
  • Do natives have rights both on and off the reservation?
  • Is tribal law sufficient to handle Indian conflict?
  • Is tribal law sufficient to handle conflict involving both Indians and non-Indians?
  • Can homes, businesses, buildings, and consumer goods on reservations be taxed?
  • Who, if anyone, has power over tribes? State government? Federal government?
I know that describing a book as both fascinating and boring sounds like a total contradiction, but that’s the most honest way I can describe this one. As I mentioned, the narrative’s style is varied, and sometimes, a history lesson is just not an interesting read. And sometimes you don’t want to hear anecdotes about people you don’t know. Or read an in-depth profile of something that doesn’t personally affect you. But all of these things together paint a much clearer picture of the bigger issues than any single one of these narrative styles would be able to do alone. Even though you may get bored after five pages of history, Treuer has given you the background details to understand where these people you’re now reading about are coming from and what exactly they’re dealing with. It’s actually quite a brilliant way to present a complex issue.

I could go on with the notes I took, but those really aren’t going to be of any interest to you. This book, though, should be if you’re a nonfiction or history fan. You’ll definite feel like you learned something by the end.


softdrink said…

Fascinating and boring just about sums it up. And unfortunately, kind of forgetable. I have a lousy memory, but all of the treaty history has since exited the brain.

Aarti said…

Ooh, I've been waiting for this one! I weirdly understand exactly what you mean by fascinating and boring at the same time! Sometimes authors get so INTO a certain topic they don't realize that not everyone else needs to see all that research, too…

Kari said…

Ha awww, bummer! Maybe this review served as Cliff Notes for you. 😉