Debunking Myths

Anthropologist Renato Rosaldo introduced the term "imperialist nostalgia" in the early ’90s to describe the growing Euro-American interest in cultures our ancestors once attempted to destroy—particularly American Indian and African cultures. Rosaldo implied that this romanticizing—the New Agey interest in Native American spirituality, for example—is one way Euro-Americans now deal with the neo-colonial guilt that comes from still being the economic beneficiaries of centuries of conquest.

This problem of white romanticizing of indigenous culture is an important theme in Ian Frazier’s new memoir, On the Rez. The book takes readers on a decidedly unromantic tour of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, home of the Oglala Sioux and the highest per capita poverty in the nation. "Indians remain the object of fantasy," Frazier writes in the first chapter. He then attempts to undo that fantasy through an inventive narrative that is interspersed with Native American history, extensive observations of reservation life, and dozens of interviews.

On the Rez is as structurally unpredictable as the ill-kept, pot-holed roads and the harsh, mercurial weather Frazier continually negotiates as he winds around the reservation on wheel and foot in search of new material. The book makes frequent skips in time and place, but it is anchored by Frazier’s 20-year relationship with Le War Lance (see photo), a Lakota man he met on the street in New York City. Frazier drinks beer and hangs out with "Le" in New York and later visits him on the Pine Ridge Reservation. War Lance, it seems, was his port of entry into reservation life.

War Lance, like most of his friends, is an alcoholic. He has lived a hard life full of fistfights, prison, and car wrecks, but he oddly emerges as a kind of tragic hero by book’s end. Frazier attempts to make the nature of American heroism one of the book’s themes. Early on he claims heroism has disappeared from modern culture: "Most everyone wants to be rich, millions want to be famous, but no one today wants to be mistaken for a hero." This attitude, he says, is "profoundly unindian. For many tribes, life revolved around heroism."

THE MOST COMPELLING section of the book deals with SuAnne Big Crow, a hero Frazier was unable to meet before she died in a car accident in 1992 as a high school senior. Nevertheless, he deftly reconstructs her life and enduring impact on Pine Ridge through research and an evocative series of interviews with her family and friends.

Big Crow was a supremely gifted athlete and student who led her Pine Ridge high school basketball team to the state championship. She was as well known for her self-discipline, courage, and compassion—her internal gifts—as for her remarkable physical prowess. This is best characterized by a 1988 event that occurred in the mining town of Lead, South Dakota. Big Crow was to lead her team into the small, loud high school gym for pre-game warm-ups. The Lead fans, notorious for their harassment, yelled fake Indian war cries and epithets like "squaw" and "gut-eater." Others waved food stamps. The Lead band joined in with fake Indian drumming. Big Crow ran into the deafening gym, stopped at mid court, removed her warm-up jacket, draped it over her shoulders, and began to do a Lakota shawl dance and sing. The stunned crowd went silent. The only sound was Big Crow singing in Lakota. When she finished the dance she dropped the jacket and took a lap around the court, dribbling. The fans began to cheer and applaud.

This brave act, which would later take on mythic proportions in Pine Ridge, dramatically changed the relationship between the two towns and the two teams; it undid a bit of the conquest and re-imagined history. It was disarming because it powerfully asserted Big Crow’s cultural identity. The dance literally told the hostile white crowd "This is who I am."

It is hard not to contrast this scene with Le War Lance’s last words near the end of the book. "I know who I am," he says. He has been drinking 24-ounce cans of Colt 45 extra malt and was just kicked out of a friend’s house. War Lance is perhaps heroic in his survival, but is that the point? In the first chapter Frazier recounts a number of Indian leaders who bravely refused to bow to white authority, to waiver an inch from who they were and what they believed. This leads to Frazier’s assertion of what he most envies about Native Americans: "That self-possessed sense of freedom.…" The Indian leader he most admires is Crazy Horse, for his "war-like determination to be himself." Perhaps Le War Lance embodies this kind of heroism for Frazier in his struggle to retain his ethnic heritage in a culture of addiction.

But since their relationship drives the book, it seems Frazier missed an opportunity by never addressing the obvious historic irony he represents as a white man giving constant monetary handouts to the Indians on the reservation—money often used to buy beer. He writes, "I felt guilty for my journalistic interest in Le, and for being a chintzy middle-class white guy." I am less interested in guilt than in how a middle-class white journalist negotiates the complex historical borders of race and class. Readers are left wondering where he sees himself on that difficult continuum of cross-cultural relationship that begins with charity and, sometimes, ends in solidarity.

TOM MONTGOMERY-FATE is a professor of English at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, and the author of Beyond the White Noise: Mission in a Multicultural World (Chalice Press, 1997).

On the Rez. Frazier, Ian. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 01/01/00.

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