Rez Life: An Indian's Journey Through Reservation Life

Rez Life: An Indian's Journey Through Reservation Life

by David Treuer

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A prize-winning writer offers “an affecting portrait of his childhood home, Leech Lake Indian Reservation, and his people, the Ojibwe” (The New York Times).
A member of the Ojibwe of northern Minnesota, David Treuer grew up on Leech Lake Reservation, but was educated in mainstream America. Exploring crime and poverty, casinos and wealth, and the preservation of native language and culture, Rez Life is a strikingly original blend of history, memoir, and journalism, a must read for anyone interested in the Native American story. With authoritative research and reportage, he illuminates issues of sovereignty, treaty rights, and natural-resource conservation. He traces the policies that have disenfranchised and exploited Native Americans, exposing the tension that marks the historical relationship between the US government and the Native American population. Ultimately, through the eyes of students, teachers, government administrators, lawyers, and tribal court judges, he shows how casinos, tribal government, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs have transformed the landscape of modern Native American life.
“Treuer’s account reads like a novel, brimming with characters, living and dead, who bring his tribe’s history to life.” —Booklist
“Important in the way Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was when it came out in 1970, deeply moving readers as it schooled them about Indian history in a way nothing else had.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“[A] poignant, penetrating blend of memoir and history.” —People

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802194893
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 02/01/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 19,945
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

David Treuer is the author of several books exploring Native American culture, including Native American Fiction, The Translation of Dr. Apelles, The Hiawatha, and Little.

A veteran of stage and screen, Peter Berkrot's career spans four decades, and his voice can be heard on television, radio, video games, and documentaries. He has been nominated for an Audie Award and has received a number of AudioFile Earphones Awards and starred reviews.

Read an Excerpt


It was a hot day in May 2006 when two Red Lake tribal conservation officers sped across the mirror-smooth waters of Upper Red Lake, uncased M4 assault rifles and shotguns leaning against the bow of the reservation conservation boat. Officers Nelson and Grolla never left the guns onshore — someone could break into their vehicle and take them. They had been on routine patrol when they saw two white men fishing on reservation waters. Grolla is a big man, an intimidating man if you don't know him, or, for some, even if you do. He laughs a lot. He weighs nearly 400 pounds. His Ojibwe name is Ogimaa-giizhig (literally "Head of the Sky" but, more figuratively, "Head Thunderbird") and he belongs to the Caribou Clan, just as his great-great-great-grandfather the famous Ojibwe war chief Waabojiig had. "When I was at the police academy in New Mexico," Grolla said, "it was like boot camp, you know, like that movie Full Metal Jacket. It was tough. You got yelled at a lot. I saw a few girls cry the first day. A lot of those guys had never been yelled at before, they didn't know how to do anything for themselves. I was glad I was raised the way I was. I grew up hauling wood, doing chores. At the academy all that work I did growing up helped. A lot of guys didn't know how to do laundry or how to press their clothes. I knew all of that. When I got back from the academy I got my class number tattooed on my shoulder: IPA 71. I was half the size I am now. I was about 235 pounds. I could bench three hundred-something. Now I eat all the time. Because of the stress, I think." Grolla used to work for the Red Lake police force, but he switched over to conservation in 2000, largely because of the stress. "A lot of guys quit this job. They do it for a few years and get tired of it and become what's called being 'retired on duty.' They just don't care anymore. I was getting to that place. I just didn't care anymore and I didn't want to be like that. It got to be too much. So I switched to conservation. I like being in the woods more." Grolla's partner, Corporal Tyson Nelson, is also imposing: dark, six feet tall, 235 pounds. Nelson is a boxer, one of the best from Red Lake, a place that has produced many good Golden Gloves.

Grolla's shoes and socks were on the floor of the boat. He raced across the water wearing only his pants and shirt. His gun belt was off. Later, during the trial in Red Lake Tribal Court, his manner of dress would become an issue. "You looked like you were ready to tango, like you wanted to fight," said Jerry Mueller, one of the fishermen. "No. You learn pretty quick not to go on the water wearing heavy boots. If you go over you could drown," says Charley.

Grolla and Tyson had been watching as the boat with the two white fishermen neared the reservation boundary, marked onshore with a sign and on the water with white plastic buoys. Sport fishermen often ripped down the signs and cut the buoys. Only a road remains as a reminder of where the reservation boundary lies. Even though Jerry Mueller and his son-in-law were close to shore and could see the sign, they did not turn around; they continued fishing on Red Lake waters until they were a mile inside the reservation. When Mueller saw the conservation officers approaching he started his boat, gunned it, and then stopped — clearly the officers had the faster boat. "He knew where he was," recalled Grolla. "We took him in and he was cooperative at first. He played stupid. 'We didn't know,' he said. 'We didn't know.' But we were really respectful, professional. Even though they saw the signs down everyone knows where the boundary is. You can see it on the shore. And it was totally calm. How could you drift a mile over the boundary when there's no wind at all?"

Grolla and Nelson powered up alongside Mueller and his son-in-law (the case is referred to as the Mueller case although the boat actually belonged to the son-in-law), took hold of the 1984 Forester seventeen-foot fiberglass boat, and said that they were fishing on Red Lake Reservation waters and that the boat, motor, and fishing gear were being confiscated.

"If I'm on the reservation, I'm real sorry for this," Mueller recalled saying. "I had no intention of fishing on your side of the lake."

Mueller claimed later that Grolla said, "Your apology don't hold no weight with me."

The officers moved their assault rifles to the stern and commanded Mueller and his son-in-law to get into the bow. With the boat in tow they proceeded back to the boat landing. The son-in-law was polite, even contrite. He paid his fine and got his boat and trailer back without complaint. Mueller was a different story. When he returned home he received a summons to appear in Red Lake Reservation tribal court or to pay a fine of $250 for fishing illegally in Red Lake waters. He said that he would not obey the summons, and that the fine was unfair. Many other whites agreed with him. He received pro bono legal representation to help him fight the fine in tribal court. A nonprofit citizen action group called Citizens for Truth in Government, based in Bagley, Minnesota, was formed in part because of the issues of water rights and fishing rights stirred up by the Mueller case. The action group argued, among other things, that Red Lake Reservation shouldn't have sole jurisdiction over the waterways inside the reservation, that it had no right to fine non–band members or confiscate their property, and that the reservation shouldn't receive any money from the state for schools on its land. "The reservation is set up to fail," says Terry Maddy, the secretary-treasurer for Citizens for Truth in Government. "I want to be clear: I'm not anti-Indian. I'm pro-Indian. I've got a lot of Indian friends. And let me tell you — when they come visit me they don't want to park out front. They're scared to be seen with me because Buck Jourdain [the chairman of the Red Lake Tribe] has got spies. They're scared to death of him. He gets a cut of everything up there," contends Maddy. "Like a kingpin. If people speak out publicly, they'll die. We're not anti-Indian, we're anti-reservation, because reservations are keeping people down. No one's happy up there. And it's because people feel entitled. They get special treatment, special rights." A coalition of sport fishermen vowed to form a floating blockade of Red Lake waters with their fishing boats. What might have been an instance of willful trespass or simply a navigational blunder looked as if it would become a serious challenge to the sovereignty of Red Lake Reservation.

Doug Lindgren, a Republican candidate for the state legislature in 2006, made Red Lake his main campaign issue. "It's been upheld in the highest court in the nation," said Lindgren, "that Red Lake belongs — and this is from the U.S. Supreme Court — is that they are saying that the navigable waters belong to the state of Minnesota. If Minnesota has the right, through the laws, then yes, Minnesota should step in and have all control over what goes on on the Red Lakes." Michael Barrett, a Republican running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, said, "This is not meant to be racist in any manner. In fact, the opposite is true. This is a statement that identifies that we're all Minnesotans, that we should all have the same opportunities and we should all live by the same rules. We have to have a state and a nation that embraces equal rights and equal access for all, not special privileges for a few."

It's the idea of "special privileges" that upsets people so much. But what Barrett, Lindgren, and Maddy don't realize is that tribes and tribal sovereignty allowed there to be a state of Minnesota in the first place. Without the concessions made by tribes during the treaty process there wouldn't be anyplace for white people to settle. Be that as it may, Terry Maddy, the treasurer for Citizens for Truth in Government, summed up Red Lake's position by saying they've "long had a tradition up there of having their cake and eating it, too."

Red Lake Reservation is mostly water. It is a beautiful place, unlike any other in America. For starters, Upper and Lower Red Lake are almost completely undeveloped. Elm, ash, and maple march down to the water's edge. In a time when lakeshore property on sandy lakes in Minnesota and Wisconsin with good fishing has been almost completely divided and developed, sand beaches stretch for miles on Red Lake without interruption. Red Lake is actually two lakes — Upper and Lower Red Lake — connected by a narrow channel. The southern Lower Red Lake is sandy and shallow, and its 152,000 acres sit completely inside the reservation. Upper Red Lake is divided more or less in half — the 48,000 acres of the northern portion of Upper Red Lake are off the reservation; 60,000 acres of the southern half are within the boundaries of Red Lake.

There aren't really any farms on Red Lake Reservation, and there are only a few backwoods businesses advertising welding, small-engine repair, or logging. There are only four convenience stores I know of on the rez — one each in Little Rock, Red Lake Village, Redby, and Ponemah. The village of Red Lake has a grocery store and a Laundromat. Other than these small convenience stores, there is no place to buy gas or food. There were no hotels until the spring of 2010, when Red Lake opened a casino on the southern boundary, far from the lake. There are no hair salons, Starbucks, Einstein Brothers Bagels, cell phone stores, RadioShacks, Jiffy Lubes, McDonald's, Arby's, Rent-A-Centers, car dealerships, Gaps or Old Navy Stores. There aren't even any real billboards. What signs do exist are often small, hand-painted on plywood, and as often as not propped against a tree rather than planted in the ground. The first sign you see upon driving into thevillage of Red Lake on Highway 89 is nicely painted and reads "Don's West-End Video," in red block letters written freehand on whitewashed half-inch plywood. All of this ... this nothing, on a reservation the same size as Rhode Island. Until the new casino was built in 2010, the biggest building on the rez (except for the hospital) was the BIA jail.

The reasons for this apparent nothing are varied. Red Lake suffers from some of the most crippling economic conditions of any community in the country. Unemployment stands at 60 percent. The average income at Red Lake is well below the poverty level. High school graduation rates are the lowest in the state.

The village of Red Lake, arguably the capital of the rez, since that's where the high school and government offices are, doesn't offer much to look at. There is the former Red Lake Trading Post, which is now called Red Lake Foods. It is a combination grocery store, gas station, convenience store, Laundromat, and check-cashing place. There are government buildings, a few houses, a small casino, the grade school, the high school, and the powwow grounds next to the old casino. All in all, the village has a meanly municipal feel to it.

All land is held in common by the Red Lake Band, so no non–band member can own or rent out any house on tribal land. Charley Grolla, the officer who arrested Jerry Mueller, is an enrolled member of a different reservation, the small backwoods community of Nett Lake in northeastern Minnesota. "When I was real little my ma was going to go to an AA meeting in the Cities. So she dropped me and my brother off with Dale and Sandy [Johns] at Red Lake. She didn't come back for a few weeks. When she did come back she was kind of drunk. Dale said, 'You can stay if you want. You got to do what you've been doing, work hard, work around the house, take care of yourselves.' So I went out and told my mom I was going to stay. She said OK, and I didn't see her again for three or four months, maybe." Grolla went back to his biological family at Nett Lake later, but life was much the same. More chaos. More drinking. "My mom had been drinking and stuff. I was fourteen. The uncle I was going to stay with, my favorite uncle Ike Leecy, he happened to do some time in jail. I was going to stay with him but I couldn't. So I hitchhiked back to Red Lake. A couple of weeks later the social workers came over. I told them I'm not going to go back. I gotta live my life, too. So I showed up at court and told them why I didn't want to live with her. It was a good life at Red Lake. A forest life. Set nets, did sugarbush, picked blueberries. And that's where my Ojibwe stuff started, with my grandmother Fannie Johns. When I first learned my trees I learned them in Ojibwe. I didn't even know the English words for the trees. Birds, too. There's that one, she called it 'manoominikenshiinh.' It runs on the water in the rice. I still don't know what it is in English." So Charley grew up with a prominent Red Lake family, living a Red Lake life. He got married to a member of the Red Lake Band and they lived there and raised their kids there. But when he and his wife divorced, he couldn't live at Red Lake anymore. He is engaged now to a Red Lake tribal member.

While non–band members can't, as a rule, live on the rez, there is an exception, which has led to perhaps the strangest sight in the village: the Compound. Situated alongside the main highway, number 1, the Compound houses the Indian Health Services Hospital, the Jourdain Perpich Extended Care Facility, and all the "foreign" workers — government officials, doctors, teachers, and so on — who have jobs on Red Lake but are not band members. Some of the houses, known as "Walking Shield" houses, were moved here from an abandoned air force base in North Dakota. There are two batches of them, and after they were moved from North Dakota all of them had to be stripped and abated because they were insulated with asbestos. Some of the other houses were built on site. The HUD planners who designed the arrangement were smitten with the winding streets and culs-de-sac of American suburbia, and they let their love show: the Compound's ramblers and split-levels grace curving streets with curbs and streetlights, but no sidewalks. And until recently the whole thing was encased in an eight-foot-high Cyclone fence. Some people joke that the fence was there to keep Indians out. (And this is possible. When the old agency building and hospital were on the other side of the creek, they too were enclosed in a fence and referred to as "the compound"; but when the hospital and other facilities moved to where they are now, the old compound became known as "Pill Hill" because that's where everyone used to go to get medical care.) Clearly, outsiders have a complicated stake in Red Lake.

The high school sits just past the compound on the other side of the creek. It is a large, modern affair, built with bonded state and federal money in the early 1990s. Despite all the troubles that plague the reservation — crime, gangs, unemployment, suicide, and low graduation rates — the whole community is very proud, especially proud, of this school. It is the most important, most central, most conspicuous building on the reservation.

To an outsider Red Lake could look like a great nothing. But what appears as a great nothing, an economic disaster, is linked to a particular Red Lake phenomenon of independence. The "nothing" is the result of character and leadership stretching back over 150 years. Red Lake Reservation, unlike nearly every other reservation in the United States, is a closed reservation. No one can live, work, travel, or fish anywhere within the reservation boundaries without the tribe's blessing. Mueller and his son-in-law were fishing on the wrong side of the rez.

When Terry Maddy said that the Indians at Red Lake were used to having their cake and eating it, too, the "cake" he was referring to was sovereignty, and it had been baking for more than 400 years before Jerry Mueller's boat was confiscated by the sovereign nation of Red Lake. There is probably no aspect of Indian life more misunderstood by Indians and non-Indians alike than sovereignty.


Excerpted from "Rez Life"
by .
Copyright © 2012 David Treuer.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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"Treuer's account reads like a novel, brimming with characters, living and dead, who bring his tribe's history to life." —-Booklist

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