VINE DELORIA JR. WROTE facetiously that “Indian life, as it relates to the real world, is a continuous attempt not to disappoint people who know us.” In Rez Life, David Treuer’s first long work of nonfiction, it’s clear that the problem is not just what people think they know about Indians, or even what they don’t know. It’s how they know, or think they know. The stories “we” know about Native people are overwhelmingly tragic, the historical yarns designed to make people shake their heads, slowly, and then shrug their shoulders. They are typically not stories that speak of the richness of Native lives or the way they are already entangled with those of non-Natives. Rez Life is about Native Americans as they not only relate to, but actively shape, interrupt, and invent “the real world.” It’s a book that defies expectations of tragedy and colonial fantasies. Treuer, a Leech Lake Ojibwe tribal member and a Professor of English at USC, insists that “Indian life” is an American story and that to know America is to know an Indian story.
Matt Hooley: Rez Life begins with the sign demarcating the border between Leech Lake and Minnesota, a boundary between nations. As you tell us, “Something is different about life on one side of [the sign].” But the chapter ends with a statement that is true (I think) in ways that most people are not willing to face: “To understand American Indians is to understand America.” This suggests an intimacy, a domesticity. Do you feel like at the end of this project the foreign/domestic framework remains intact?
David Treuer: When I was thinking about the book I never thought in terms of domestic and international or domestic and foreign. The concepts (you’re right to notice) are in play, but basically, I wanted to explore the notion that Indian and non-Indian people live lives apart: that there’s Indian and there’s white and never the twain shall meet. That’s the prevailing attitude among non-Native and Native people alike. And I really wanted to destroy that idea. To me, the real story of reservations is one of constant contact and tension. And to have tension means that you are relating to other people, other cultures. So the big thing I wanted to explore was the ways in which we are wedded to the American project. That’s why I said in that introduction: you cross the reservation boundary and it’s hard to say what’s different. And then in the same section to say “to visit reservations is to visit America.” So, a contradiction. I wanted to keep that contradiction in play. Because we’re not just American, obviously. We are connected to America, but we’re very different at the same time. And that tension is the one I wanted to preserve and explore.
MH: And in the book you use words like “tension” and “wedded,” rather than foreign or domestic. So is there an entanglement — a knottedness — at work?
DT: Yeah, well, again. It was mostly the idea that people think of reservations as these exotic places where you can read life’s most extreme stories. There are extremes on reservations — extremes of geography, class, trauma. But there’s much more than that. Did you know that Indian people use social media at a rate 30 ...read more