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.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 2000
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