Author David Treuer describes reservation life
Just before appearing to an overflow audience at the Bemidji Public Library last Saturday, David Treuer agreed to sit and talk about himself and his newest book, “Rez Life.”
It is his first full length non-fiction book, having had success as a fiction writer with three previous novels and a book of criticism on Native American Fiction. But, it is the publication of this newest tome that brings this Bemidji son back to his home to share it with his family, nuclear and extended, and explain what he feels is reservation life.
Life on the “Rez” as described by Treuer is as varied and nuanced as life off it. He talked growing up on the Leech Lake Reservation. There were elders who sat upfront; dignified and obviously proud of this young man who cared enough to tell the world that they are not just a statistic relating to underprivileged and poor people.
Others came to listen, to validate their impressions – negative or positive – of what it was like growing up on the reservation. Treuer hit hard at stereotypes and misconceptions by those who have no experience with living in a world of traditions, storytelling and spirituality so different from that of the dominant European culture. And, yet, Treuer also showed that traditions, storytelling and spirituality cross the artificial boundaries of mistaken or ignorant preconceptions or opinions.
The idea for the book came from Treuer’s anger at the news coverage of the 2005 shootings at Red Lake High School.
“I was incredibly frustrated by the coverage which hit the same notes, over and over again – tragedy, poverty, pain, tragedy, poverty, pain and I was tired of it,” said Treuer. “I was in New York when the shootings actually took place, meeting with an editor and I said I was tired of the same old story.
“ There’s more there, there is more to us than the sum of our pain. That is not our story and he asked, ‘What is the story?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know but there’s something else.’ And he said, ‘Well write it!’”
Treuer wants people to know his book is not a memoir but is about reservation life in general: what they are, what they started and what they mean. We are used to thinking of reservations in only a few impoverished terms Treuer opined and that these are pre-conceived notions. He and his siblings Anton, Megan and Micah grew up on Leech Lake Reservation and they all graduated from Bemidji High School. Their father, Robert, helped secure the bonding to build Red Lake High School and headed the Gifted and Talented program as well as taught English. Their mother, Margaret Seelye Treuer, is a tribal court judge who also taught at Red Lake.
“There is no single reservation experience,” Truer explained, “there are reservation experiences. There is a range of them and we are not used to recognizing the validity of that range: there are kids that might come from a broken home; they might have parents who struggle with substance abuse; they might be raised by grandparents; there are kids at home right now diligently doing their homework and can’t wait for wrestling season to finish so tennis can begin. There are kids of every economic class so I don’t think that I am the exception, I am part of the range.”
Treuer went on to explain that he didn’t write the book because he was an expert about reservation life, he wrote the book as somebody who was not expert. The public thinks that people write books because they know a lot of things and Treuer admitted that he wrote the book to find out the how and why of life on the reservation.
“My great good fortune is that I knew who to talk to,” said Treuer. “I knew who did know what I needed to learn including my brother (Anton) for information about history and treaties and so on. I mined my sister’s mind (lawyer Megan Treuer) and my mother’s for information about laws and Supreme Court decisions and all the people that I talked to in the book itself. I knew who to ask and how to ask and I felt like I was in school for seven years. I am not an expert but I am willing to figure out the problem.”
“I want people to recognize what to me is the beautiful, complicated and sometimes confusing, complexity of reservations,” Treuer said. “And I wanted to tell the people a different story, not the same old sad story. That the popular accounting of our lives needed a fuller, richer complex look at our lives and I thought that no one is ever going to do it so I might as well do it.
Once again referring to the shootings, Treuer spoke about how the way it was reported hurt the people all over again. The news was “Tragedy strikes remote Indian reservation as opposed to the Columbine shooting which did not say, “Tragedy strikes a white, rich suburb,” the media did not invoke race and class into their story.
“There is this continued emphasis on tragic story telling and we need to change that,” said Treuer. “Not that we need to look at the sunny side, you need to get out of the tragic mode completely and find some other mode. You don’t need to be a Pollyanna and accentuate the positive, that’s just as silly. Neither one is very useful so I wanted to find some other course as writing the book has done.”
The interview ended and Treuer went out to meet his audience and be introduced by his brother Anton who said, “His work in other books has really fundamentally changed and shaped the way that a lot of people think about what is Indian literature and what makes it Indian.
“David is really at the forefront of what is a small group of nationally known Native American intellectuals. His work has been highly celebrated and his first novel won the Pushcart Prize and he is a Guggenheim fellow and was a professor at the U of M. His book uses the lives of several native people and just kind of lets them show, in their own words and their own experiences, their aspects of what it means to live life on the rez. The reading goes fast, it’s vastly entertaining and informative so this is really a great way to get not just one but several insights into rez life. This book will show our face to the rest of the world.”
David Treuer is a professor of literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California. He professes to love teaching and looks back at his years at Princeton University in New Jersey with teacher and author Toni Morrison as one of the turning points in his life.
Treuer’s doctorate is in anthropology, but he quickly learned that he liked to study the subject but not teach it, hence the turn to literature and writing.
As Treuer said to his audience, “It’s fantastic to be home. I’m a Bemidji kid, and I am so proud to be here and to share this book with you. I recently moved to California, and as nice as it is, I’m a little bit homesick. This will always be home and it’s great to be home.”