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On the Rez
by Ian Frazier
Picador  ISBN-10: 9780312278595
 

In his book, On the Rez, Ian Frazier takes his readers to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Here, he introduces them to the descendants of the Oglala Sioux, to those directly related to Crazy Horse, one of the greatest Native American leaders of the 19th century.

Much of this book revolves around a Oglala Sioux named Le War Lance, whom Frazier first met researching his best-seller Great Plains. This yarn-spinning, beer-swilling figure, introduces Frasier to the hard facts of reservation life. In fact, their friendship, with its deep affection and dependency, anchors the entire narrative.

Throughout the book, Le introduces his brother and sisters, uncle and aunt, even the graves of his parents and other brothers, endlessly spinning wild yarns that Frazier reproduces without judgment. Elements of tragedy—a drunk driver kills the girlfriend of Le's brother—mingle with near-misses—a hose breaks, enveloping the family in a cloud of propane gas—but all this is the normal state of affairs at Pine Ridge.

In this in-depth portrait of a forgotten people, Frasier shows that while Native Americans today should be treated like any other ethnic group, in many cases, they’re not. Life on this reservation isn’t much different than life in poverty-stricken urban ghettos, with one exception. Here, many of the Oglala Sioux continue to practice their ancient traditions, keeping alive the spirits of their ancestors. In doing so, they’ve forged a strong connection to their past.

This book isn’t so much about a place, but more about those who inhabit it. On numerous trips to Pine Ridge and the small communities contained within its boundaries, Frasier meets an assortment of characters.

Frazier's visits to Pine Ridge and Wounded Knee, and to the descendants of Red Cloud and Black Elk, frame a broad meditation on American history, myth and misconception. Funny and sad, but never bleak, his meandering narrative is, in fact, the composite of many voices and many kinds of history.

Some early chapters are about the state of particular tribes today, including statistics. Much of this information will be new to most readers.

After starting with an uncharacteristic rant about modern American culture, he settles into his quietly observed adventures with Le War Lance and his friend, Floyd John, whom he fascinatedly and exasperatedly follows—and often drives—around their reservation. He follows up the reputations of local heroes like Crazy Horse, Red Cloud, and a high school basketball star named SuAnne Big Crow by visiting and talking with their relatives and ancestors. While also making sidetrips into the Lakota language, Wounded Knee, Sioux political history, and the national disappearance of Indian bars, Frazier's broader interest is in the influence of Indian ideas of bravery and human freedom on the American character. But the story always veers back to details about living on the reservation, a landscape "dense with stories." He describes the junk he sees along the side of the road, what it’s like to be caught in a sudden snow squall, and the joy of attending a summer powwow in a field.

Frazier enlivens accounts of his own travels through a keen eye for detail. On the Rez may be the best and most truthful book about the American Indian available today.

Buy this book...

 

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