Treuer, a young Native American novelist (The Translation of Dr. Apelles; The Hiawatha) offers an informed insider’s view of Ojibwe tribal history and family culture in Rez Life.
What were you trying to depict with these portraits of the people in your life?
Leech Lake reservation and its environs has always been our home and always will be. The love I have for that place and my people is profound and complicated. In a sense, the book was born out of a personal crisis for me and my family surrounding my grandfather’s death. I was desperate to see my reservation clearly and to find some way to think of our lives other than the ways we’ve inherited. I needed to find a way to see our lives as not just desperate or tragic or poor or hard. The book, for me, was an attempt to see beyond tragedy. And I feel very good about the answers I found.
What answers did you find?
Every change of government policy, every Supreme Court case, every act of defiance by a native leader or by a community activist is registered in our currently lived landscape. It’s not a place of poverty in the sense that poverty means there’s less of everything. It’s actually a place of wealth in the sense that there’s more significance and more depth that’s easy to see if you know where to look.
How was the transition from fiction to nonfiction?
It was incredibly hard. In fiction, I get to choose everything, from the design to the materials. If I get stuck, I can just add a new wing, change the layout. But with Rez Life, I felt very strongly that that luxury wasn’t available to me. I really had to be true to the people who shared their lives with me. I felt that the material demanded I couldn’t get fancy with my approach and I had to tell it straight, and I had to get out of the way.
What surprised you, as far as your research about Ojibwe reservations and the general history of Indians in the United States?
Well, in terms of history and the recent past, I was surprised to learn most of it. That’s not a dodge. We’re never taught this in high school or college or in our working lives. We never get tribal or reservation history. It’s not part of our education.
How do you convey a place like Leech Lake, or any of these Midwestern reservations? Outside of Wisconsin and Minnesota, it seems like a landscape that isn’t widely understood in the rest of the country.
I’ve always been keenly aware of where I’m from. I went to Bemidji Senior High School, and I grew up in Leech Lake, and when I went to Princeton, I had the feeling from the people around me that I was from a place that didn’t matter. But I tried to tell myself that it was hugely important, and that drive is certainly alive in my nonfiction. One can see so much of America in this tiny little place. It’s not a seat of power or influence. Nonetheless, it’s the heart of the heartland, so it’s good to take its pulse.