Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Ian Frazier, On the Rez

Dakota Territory Week continues today with Ian Frazier's account of life on the Pine Ridge Reservation, near Rapid City in southwest South Dakota. Opinions differ about this book. I happened to like it. Reading and sometimes rereading its 275+ pages, I felt immersed in a culture as foreign to mainstream white America as life on Mars.

We don't get the easy generalizations to be found in the superficial coverage provided by the news media (and Frazier uses a Tom Brokaw report on NBC, "Tragedy at Pine Ridge," as an example). Instead, Frazier offers a richly complex portrayal of a single community of modern-day plains Indians, the Oglala Sioux.

His book doesn't deny their overwhelming problems, including poverty, unemployment, widespread alcoholism, violent crime, and an alarming rate of highway fatalities. In fact, it explores them at length. But he also demolishes the stereotypes and clichés that prevent Indians from being understood as people with hopes, fears, loves, desires, humor, and all the rest that is human.

He does this in part through an appreciation of historical figures like Crazy Horse and Red Cloud, a profile of AIM leaders, Russell Means and Dennis Banks, and a moving tribute to star high school basketball player Suanne Big Crow. More intimately, we spend time with Le War Lance, a friend of the author for many years, who introduces Frazier to the lesser-known aspects of reservation life and the many residents he knows.

Chief Crazy Horse
Like much New Yorker writing (Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief comes to mind) Frazier's book digresses at the drop of a hat into subjects that take on a life of their own - the history of Indians in Hollywood movies, for instance, the stealing of the Black Hills from the Indians, an explanation of how to make fry bread, a laundry list of summer visitors trooping through the reservation's one convenience store and café.

And Frazier appears himself as a character in his narrative. At times he's patiently generous and at others a self-conscious and comical fish out of water. For all the social ills he turns his attention to, he is never preachy or openly guilt inducing, and he doesn't diminish his subject with political correctness.

When you turn the last page, the ending seems abrupt and incomplete. But the reason you understand is that the lives of the many people you've met through Frazier go on and the cycles of seasons continue. And you understand why he returns to Pine Ridge again and again. I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in American Indians, reservation life, and Native American social history. Frazier makes them all come humorously, sadly and always vividly to life.

Picture credit: wikimedia.org

Coming up: Kent Meyers, The Work of Wolves


  1. I know so little about this culture. SOunds like a book I should read.

  2. I don't know the book, but I like Frazier's style of writing. Sounds like a good read

  3. I'll have to revisit this later when things calms down around here.

  4. Looks interesting, I once taught in a school that bordered the Rose Bud Reservation in South Dakota. I have a fair collection of Indian history and Indian culture books, this looks like one I may want to add.

    There is also some interesting controversy as to whether Crazy Horse was ever photographed. Most is based on the fact he had powder burns and a scar (after being shot in the face—a long story, but over a women) on the left side of his face.

    I am enjoying your reviews—good stuff.

  5. I have wanted to get this one for some time now. I read his book on the great plains.