|Los Angeles Review of Books|
Matt Hooley interviews David Treuer
We Are All Related: An Interview with David Treuer
January 14th, 2013
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 percent higher than non-Natives? The old chestnut that Indians always intone — We are all related — that is true. Just not in the ways we usually imagine. We’re not living lives apart, but our lives are embedded in this country, and this country is embedded in our reservations.
MH: One way to think about this book is as a memoir. Has it been received as such?
DT: Rez Life could be read as a memoir, I suppose, but perhaps a particular kind of memoir. Let me explain, if I can. On one hand, only about 15 percent of the material could be considered memoir in the conventional sense (episodes and memories, scenes and issues that derive from my past that I am puzzling out through writing about them). And I had friendly fights with my editor over how much of this kind of material to include. He wanted less and I wanted more, which surprised me: I’ve never really been a writer who feels comfortable writing about himself. But in this case I felt strongly that the book demanded it. One thing that has always struck me is how personal history is for Native people. The great shifts in policy, federal law, and the like is a history that has been written on our skin. So while I thought of the book as a book of history and journalism, it is predominantly a book that tries to show how history is not simply a record written by the victors, but is a force that lives within us, something we carry within us that shapes us whether we know it or not. I wanted to show that we (Native people) are more than hopeless or hapless victims of it. We are not just the products of our own failings or even of white aggression. We are much more than that.
MH: To me it seems like a memoir that is interested in ideas/questions that exceed that (memoir) framework.
DT: I hope so! It’s funny — usually I work my way into a book with a strong stylistic agenda: I am deeply concerned with the how, with the texture, with the sense-making power of words (for good and bad). So for me, style isn’t an excess or an indulgence. Rather, style is a weapon. It provides some chance to undo the received ways of seeing the world, of seeing Native people in particular. But with Rez Life I didn’t have the same drive to reinvent. I was just trying to get the words on the page the best way I knew how. And it seemed to me that I needed to talk to people. I needed to interview them and hear what they had to say. And the more they spoke the more it was clear to me that in order to explain why they were saying what they said or feeling what they felt, I had to dip into history, and literature, and law, and politics — just so the people I was interviewing made sense to the readers (and to me). And so the style — of combining history, personal narrative, culture, literature analysis, law, and all came directly from the people themselves. I didn’t set out to write the book this way. It just happened because it didn’t make sense, it didn’t feel honest, to do it any other way.
MH: One of the ways it’s unlike a memoir is that “I” is not really the narrative center of the book. The place is. Can we think of it as a memoir of a place? Or a community-in-space?
DT: I don’t know about that. I mean — you’re right: the “I” is not the narrative center of the book. But I don’t know if we can think of it as a memoir of place. I try to show in the book that there is no “American Indian community” (that is — no single native community) and no single “rez life” — there are only Indian lives and reservation lives. And my experience as an Indian, growing up at Leech Lake is so vastly different than that of my mother, or grandmother, or grandfather, cousins, other relatives and friends that I couldn’t really speak for them. All I could do was try and pass the voice around as best I could. Not to beat my cultural chest, but: there is an Ojibwe style of speech, of conducting oneself in a meeting that is fairly unique. Someone will get up to speak and they will talk. Round and round and round they’ll go on forever. They’ll lose their own point and find it again and keep going and it might take hours but no one interrupts. No one refutes or contradicts, not directly. You just wait it out. And then you get your turn and then say what you wanted to say. Then it’s someone else’s turn. It can be really frustrating, even (or maybe especially) for me. But when you’re all done you can stack up all the words and kind of see or feel, if not a consensus, then at least a trend of thought, a direction. Maybe the book’s like that.
MH: I’ve heard that this project started out after an editor asked which Native writers are writing good nonfiction. And I know that you’ve said that in some ways, in the course of this project, you felt like you were learning a genre. Has the idea of nonfiction (what it does, how you write it) changed for you?
DT: Yes. It’s changed. I thought it’d be easy. It’s not. So that’s changed. I’ve also gotten a lot more comfortable with declarative language rather than lyrical or very pretty language. I see now how much I used to hide behind a pretty turn of phrase or a fancy locution or an apt simile. I had to unlearn all the fancy stuff I felt comfortable doing. I had to remind myself to get out of the way and let the stories I was hearing speak for themselves. Let the facts speak for themselves. I read a lot of nonfiction (but not a lot of memoir) and I am often disappointed by the fanciness of a lot of it. There is a vogue in nonfiction of pointing out the instability of facts, of language, of memory, a vogue that privileges the blurring of “fact” and “fiction” and while I appreciate that (to a point) it also infuriates me. It infuriates me for the simple reason that Native people have often taken a back seat to the ideas people want to promote about us. Savage, corrupt, gone, drunk, noble, sincere, innocent, pre-modern. Whatever. We have been given (and have given ourselves) the fancy treatment for so long that I don’t think the fancy treatment works for us, at least not in the context of Rez Life. I wanted to say it, and say it straight and say it strong and say it plain and see where that got me. I think it worked out.
MH: You point out that the “usual story we hear of life on the rez is one of hardship, the subplot is about conflict.” If so, is nonfiction the best way to do that? Does nonfiction change, when it’s (at least to a degree) working against a widely accepted reality?
DT: I think nonfiction is a good way to do this. The problem is twofold: a lot has been said about us — in fiction, nonfiction, history, journalism, etc. This is the first part of the problem. The second part is that so much has been said for so long that the ideas most people have about us is more solid than we are. We are largely obscured by the fantasy, the iconography. I’ve always tried to push against this. That fight can be fought in a lot of different ways — film, music, fashion, fiction, poetry, humor. (The 1491s [an Indian sketch comedy group] are doing great work in their own way. So are young designers like Bethany Yellowtail.) In my own area, more people read nonfiction than fiction. Rez Life can reach more people than most novels can. So it can be a potent weapon.
MH: Another, maybe more particular, version of that question is that you’re working with different versions of nonfiction at once, and most of them have some degree of fiction to them. You’re writing personal and family history, which is always shaped by memory and anecdote. You’re writing about the law, which of course depends on too many political fictions to name. You’re writing a geography, whose history is both material and cultural. That seems to put a tremendous burden on the writing itself, to filter or manage these instabilities in ways that end up producing a new kind truth. What about the story you’re telling does this book’s “nonfictionness” try to stabilize?
DT: You really hit it on the head. A lot of my fiction was trying to destabilize our thinking about Native people. The confidence with which people said we meant this or that. I wanted to wreck that confidence (with my novels). But with Rez Life I wanted to see what a good hard look at power would do to our ideas. Why do reservations exist? Why do we have casinos? When exactly did that happen? Why? Where and when did boarding schools exist? Why are there so many Indian kids not living with their parents? What do reservations mean? How did they get to be the way they are? So the nonfictionness of Rez Life is meant to help answer those questions. What can we see if we look closely? What can we see if we look carefully? What happens when I strip away all surface style? What happens to our vision then? Ironically — I think we see much more of the plurality, the multiplicity, the fecundity, the sheer range of Indian life. It isn’t one thing. Or two things. Indian life is blessedly diverse and complex and vibrant. That’s what life is after all — multiplying forms. And that, above all, is what I was trying to show: life gets bigger the more you look at it, the more you live it.
MH: You were saying that confusion is a very present force in the experience of making sense of Tribal and Federal Indian Law. And it seemed an interesting narrative problem to write clearly about confusion. How were you thinking about that as you wrote that chapter?
DT: Yeah. Well, I was really confused. Despite the fact that my mom was first an attorney, and then a federal judge, and then a tribal court judge. Despite that and despite the fact that my sister’s a lawyer (she works at a non-profit), courts and the law weren’t subjects I consciously set out to write about. I knew they were important, but I was shocked at how often the narrative wound up in court. So all trails led to the law in one way or another. But yes, I was surprised that no matter how I was looking at it, I ended up back in court. Then, a lot of it was my own [investigating]. People ask me all the time: why do we have casinos? Okay, why do we? These are questions I never bothered to ask myself! Where was the first one? Who were the first folks to have it? What year was that? How come? How did that happen? And then you find yourself answering a simple question, or trying to, and it gets really complicated so I had to keep my simple questions in mind as I was writing. And if I did, I found that my answers would also be clear, the narrative would be clear. A lot of the best fiction is character driven. The same goes for nonfiction: keep the people in mind, remember the people, remember their lives. To honor someone’s life could be considered a very Indian thing to think, it is also a very writerly thing to think. I knew that the law was complicated, so I constantly tried to keep the narrative simple without dimming the complexities or forgetting the people who labor under the law.
The greatest compliment I got was Kevin Washburn saying, “You write so beautifully about these complicated legal issues. I’ve never read anything that good.” I said: “Kevin, that’s because I plagiarized you!” He wrote an article about Public Law 280, which is about Helen Bryan, and it’s the best article about Public Law 280. I tried to write like Kevin, I guess. I tried to keep the issues and the people who generated them in focus. I think that this might be why I am so hopeful that Kevin is the director of the BIA now: he has a command of the issues but he doesn’t forget about people. This is hugely important.
MH: So tribal law is not something you’re trying to explain, but it’s a theater through which you’re thinking about other stuff. Does that seem right?
DT: Yeah, you’re right that I didn’t really explain, “This is how tribal law works.”
MH: Who could?
DT: Well, maybe Kevin could. I mean people have done that. Felix Cohen has done that, and Kevin has done that in his own way, with teaching. But I wasn’t interested in the law, per se. I was interested in how people have been shaped by the law and how the law has been shaped by people. On the ground: this person’s standing in my mother’s court. She’s been charged with this. Who gets to charge her, and why? Why is she appearing here and not there? Why can the sheriff arrest her? But the tribal cop can’t arrest the guy she’s with. It’s very much inside out as opposed to top down.
Mostly my goal is to understand the controversies and complexities of people’s lives. Complexity, in and of itself, is a beautiful thing to notice. And that was my goal for each of the chapters: What are these reservation lives about? What shapes them? What forces are at play? And where do those forces come from? And how do they grow and change over the years? It’s not very theoretical, but I guess in the end it was.
MH: It’s been 150 years since the Dakota Conflict in Minnesota, the largest mass execution in US history and a moment when peaceful tribal people were legally incarcerated on a huge scale. People in Minnesota are thinking about what it means to remember this. The Minnesota History Center and the radio program This American Life have given special attention to the question: What does it mean to call this history? And how do we confront the urgent presence of Native/Colonial history as writers or educators?
DT: What did Marx say in the 18th Brumaire? “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” That’s true enough. But people also make history by what kinds of interpretive habits they practice. How certain narratives occupy, even colonize, the imagination. And I don’t mean that in a kind of “decolonize now” way. I just mean narratives claim space in your head. Just as in ecosystems, some species are going to crowd out others, and some narratives are going to crowd out others. And one of the narratives that have crowded out others is the one: what all has been done to us. I was trying to create a different narrative that wasn’t about crimes against us; that wasn’t a finger pointing, outward, or backward; that tried to be more explanatory as opposed to accusatory. Which is not apolitical. When we always hit Wounded Knee and we hit Sand Creek and we hit Adobe Walls and it’s the same crap over and over again, it becomes the only crap that we remember. And we don’t remember all that we’ve done. We don’t remember all the work people have done just to live. And we don’t remember our mistakes.
Every time one of our tribal leaders embezzles something, and we’re like, “Ah well, that’s just what they do,” and it is what they do sometimes, then our sovereignty takes a hit. We don’t remember that it’s not what they’re supposed to do. And that person did that, in that particular year, embezzled this much money from this place and that’s wrong. As opposed to remembering how much the BIA stole and only remembering that. So, we try to see more, and try to see all of the effort that has gone into living, and you’re going to wind up with a different narrative, and you’re going to wind up seeing something new and hopefully, something truer.
And that gets us to this whole idea of surplus. It really frosts my ass that Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (which was an amazing book for its moment in time, and remains an important book) only focuses on the plains, and only focuses on what it considers the destruction of Native peoples, and how sad that was. I feel strongly that the bigger struggle, and the bigger story, and the bigger success is everything that happened after 1891. It wasn’t as sexy and it wasn’t as bloody. It didn’t delineate the themes of America as starkly as the plains wars did. But the last 130 years, that’s where the real struggle has been. After the guns were more or less put away and people started working their evil in corridors of power and the board room and tribes were trying to struggle to hold on, not on horse back, and not just on the plains — this is where the real, beautiful, compelling story of American Indians really begins. It is a story that involves tribes people have forgotten about: the Seminoles, the California tribes, the Seneca and Cayuga, and Onondaga. As it is, it gets so frustrating to have the same old stories dominate. To have to go and get teary-eyed about Wounded Knee again, the Trail of Tears, again. And of course we should remember those things, but for example, The Trail of Tears isn’t necessarily the defining moment of Cherokee life; they’ve had hundreds of years of other moments too.
MH: And that would be the danger in remembering Native life in Minnesota? That the Dakota Conflict would be the defining moment of Native life in Minnesota?
DT: Well, yeah — Native life in Minnesota is at least 10,000 years old. In some places longer, depending on where the glaciers went. Been there a while!