When I first heard the title of Ian Frazier's "On the Rez," his nonfiction study of the brief time he spent on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, I laughed out loud. A white man using the word "rez" to describe the reservation is the equivalent of a white man using the word "hood" to describe a black inner-city neighborhood. It implies a degree of cultural familiarity that is very rare.
In his role as journalist, tourist and friend to a few Oglalas, Frazier may have earned the right to call the reservation "the rez," but that would only be in the company of those Oglalas who call him friend. When used as the title of the book, Frazier's formal use of "the rez" marks him as an outsider eager to portray himself as an insider, as a writer with a supposedly original story to tell and as a white man who is magically unlike all other white men in his relationship to American Indians.
Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of white men have written books about Indians, and all of those authors surely believed their work to be special, original, even definitive. Frazier certainly displays plenty of self-confidence by beginning his book with this simple declarative sentence: "This book is about Indians, particularly the Oglala Sioux who live on the Pine Ridge Reservation in southwestern South Dakota, in the plains and badlands in the middle of the United States." Notice that Frazier's opening gambit doesn't include possessives or qualifiers. He carefully avoids the more accurate description of his book: "This is Ian Frazier's book containing his ideas and opinions of the Oglala culture, particularly the idea of heroism and public service and its vague influence on the larger American culture." He neglects to mention that his ideas and opinions were formed by his relationships with just a handful of Oglalas and by an unspecified number of visits to the reservation. How much time did Frazier spend on the reservation? I cannot tell you. He is vague about that subject for reasons I don't quite understand.
And why exactly did Frazier choose the Oglala? Mostly because he is good friends with an Oglala man named Le War Lance, a nomadic soul who, according to Frazier's own estimates, lies about 80% of the time. Since War Lance serves as Frazier's primary reservation tour guide, it's safe to assume that a comparable percentage of "On the Rez" falls distinctly short of what might be termed indigenous truth.
For example, Frazier more than once extols the resurrection and rise of the Pequot Indians of Connecticut and their construction of one of the world's largest casinos, but he never mentions the Pequot's controversial position in Indian country. I think of a popular joke on the Indian powwow circuit: "Hey, did you know the Pequots are the only Indian tribe to participate in the Million Man March?" The joke is racist and revealing of the complicated issues surrounding the concept of Indian identity.
Who is and who is not Indian? A tough question, to be sure, but Frazier focuses only on white people's concept of Indian identity. As he writes, "Indeed, the Indians of America are so varied that I think you can find an appropriate tribe for almost anyone." Never mind that these Indian tribes' primary struggle is to establish sovereignty and independence from white government and from white opinion about how tribes should function. Many Indians, myself among them, believe that the concept of tribal sovereignty should logically extend to culture and religion, a concept which Frazier never addresses. Nowhere in the book does he examine his own motivations or question his observations. He writes about the Oglalas without stopping to wonder if the Oglalas want to be written about.
When Frazier attempts to interview an Oglala woman about her family, she rebuffs him by telling him she'd talk it over with her sisters first and that he should ask again in a few months, and he has no clue that he has been thoroughly rejected. He actually comes back a few months later and asks her again for the interview and is once again rejected. This Oglala woman doesn't want to share family stories with a white man. Indeed, Frazier has no idea that many of the Oglala have no interest in sharing their family stories with any white man--or any other Indian for that matter. Again and again, he displays a startling lack of self-consciousness in this book.
Frazier is a talented, sensitive and humorous writer--and he does portray the reservation as a place filled with just as much magic as loss, just as much joy as pain, just as much love as hopelessness--but what does that talent accomplish within the pages of his book? Frazier does a very tricky thing: He almost convinces us that he's writing about the Oglala Sioux, about their rez, when, in reality, he's mostly talking about himself, about his feelings, about his real and imagined pain.