Indian land makes up about 2.3 percent of the land in the United States, and the Indian population in the US is slightly over two million. And yet, as novelist David Treuer wryly observes in his sobering yet quietly redemptive book, Rez Life, in spite of how involved Indians have been in America's business, most people will go a lifetime without ever knowing an Indian or spending time on an Indian reservation.
There are roughly 310 Indian reservations in the United States, but not all of the 564 federally recognized tribes have reservations. All Indian reservations have signs that welcome travelers, offering acknowledgment that the lands the drivers are about to enter is different from the lands through which they have been traveling. Such signs exist in more than 30 states, and you can see them in areas as diverse as the rocks of the Badlands, the suburbs of Green Bay and the sprays of Niagara Falls. Twelve reservations are larger than the state of Rhode Island, and nine are large than Delaware.
As Treuer points out, most people think of life on the reservation as harsh, violent, drug-infested, alcohol-fueled, poor and short. This story of reservation life is often accompanied by a version of history that lays the blame on Anglo-Americans and their despicable treatment of Native Americans.
Treuer's elegant chronicle of the lives and stories of individuals on his own reservation, Leech Lake Reservation in Minnesota, chips away at the stony structures that embed these views of the reservation in the American consciousness. We meet, for example, Red Lake Nation conservation officer Charley Grolla, who is deeply devoted to protecting the waters and the land on the reservation from outsiders who would encroach upon and destroy it. And we meet Sean Fahrlander, an excellent ricer who can fillet a walleye faster than anyone Treuer knows. Fahrlander continues to fish on the land he has called home all his life, in spite of the state government's attempts now and then to challenge the treaty that the Ojibwe have with the state of Minnesota.
Treuer convincingly and affectionately captures reservation life in order to demonstrate that the reservations are more than scars, tears and blood. Through his stories, he affirms that there is beauty, pride and love in Indian life and on Indian reservations.