On My Bookshelf: “On the Rez” by Ian Frazier


As meandering and unpredicable as the White River itself, “On The Rez” by Ian Frazier is a rugged, honest and brutal portrayal of the life and personalities on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.  From the beginning of the book, Ian challenges his readers to look past the iconic image of native life, to look past the stereotypes and usual descriptions.  To drop the labels of noble and proud to describe the people of Pine Ridge and stark to describe the environment.  Instead you follow Frasier’s relationships and explorations into a culture he respects but can never be a part of.  The reader begins to see how simplistic those descriptions are as Frazier teases apart our false sense of humility and reverance and causes us to look directly at reservation life, both the common and the disparate. 

The book consists of loosely connected images and stories of native life:  Of powwows and car crashes; victories and deaths; basketball stars and veterans.  Frasier unabashingly presents life on the reservation – descriptions of poverty and family, alcoholism and revolt, struggle and uncertainly.  But throughout it all, the book is peppered with a constant undercurrent of heroism.  From his youthful admiration of Crazy Horse and his grown appreciation of Red Cloud to more current heros, the author sits in fields, walks down unmarked streets and searches out the significance of the names of convenience stores and communities centers rather than reading roadside historical markers.

Sometimes an ass, Frasier spends the first half of his narrative discussing his interest in native culture and expounds on his friendship with Le War Lance, an Oglala Sioux native and traveller he befriends on the streets of New York City.  Le’s, often unbelievable stories, flow about as quickly as the Budweisers he is constantly drinking.  One Part Medicine Man, one part philosopher and two parts drunk; Le is constantly pushing the reader’s belief.  In the second half of the book, you begin to see Frazier’s fascination with native culture begin to mature as he delves into the life and death of Pine Ridge High School basketball star, SuAnne Big Crow.

More stark than even the of vistas on the reservation; the racism of many Black Hill’s communities is exposed, explained and discussed.  Buffalo Gap.  Lead.  Rapid City.  Chadron.  White Clay.  Each with a different relationship and understanding, each with a different story.   At a recent event that I attended, a local Native American advocate stated that far and wide, Rapid City is recognized as the most racist city towards Native Americans.  A comment that sent a tremor through the crowd.  The speaker then ran through a list of local occurances to punctuate the point.

The words of Wendy Kindle, an aquaintance of Le who died when hit by a drunk driver, summed the book up well when she describes the night vista of the village of Pine Ridge.

It looks pretty, but its just a slum.

Bottom Line:  Frazier does not just describe the bleakness of the Plains and of Pine Ridge.  Instead he walks right up to it and shakes its hand.  Gets to know it.  Travels with it to White Clay to get a case of Bud.  Sometimes he is subtly mocked or shunned by it.  He provides a view that is more expansive than a Bad Lands postcard or a 19th Century photograph.  He presents an living picture of people, places and events that were never known outside the reservation but whose echoes are still heard there.  While truthful and blunt, the book is myopic in that Frazier focuses on the imagery of struggles and heros.  I think reading this in conjuction with Surviving in Two Worlds:  Contemporary Native American Voices by Lois Crozier-Hogle & Darryl Babe Wilson or Keeping Heart on Pine Ridge: Family Ties, Warrior Culture, Commodity Foods, Rez Dogs and the Sacred by Vic Glover  would provide a more even-handed account.