Writing From the (Indigenous) Edge: Journeys Into the Native American Experience

Two classic books apply the tools of literary journalism to render Native American life in personal, culturally nuanced, and deeply observed narratives.

This essay examines two books about Native American life in the United States. The first book, The Good Red Road, published in 1987, was a collaboration between University of California–Los Angeles professor Kenneth Lincoln and his Cherokee graduate student, Al Slagle. The second book, Rez Life, by the Ojibwe novelist David Treuer, was published in 2012, 25 years later. Both books are presented as journeys into Indian Country in the United States; both are long-form, non-fictional efforts to document and explain Native Americans and Native American culture to non-Native readers. In the following paragraphs, the two books are described and critiqued in an effort to understand how these writers investigated and made sense of Native people and Native culture at these two points in time.

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The inquiry was guided by several research questions. How did these writers approach Native Americans and Native American life? How did they portray Native Americans? What stories did they emphasize or ignore? Finally, how successfully did these writers make sense of the Native American people and life? One way or another, these questions reflect four centuries of fraught relations between Native Americans and Euro-Americans in the U.S. To put it more plainly, non-Native Americans have been mostly wrong about Native Americans and Native American lives since the English settlement of Jamestown in 1607. From then to now, Euro-American ideas about Native Americans have been shaped by racial myths and misinformation, most of which have been produced and perpetuated by media and popular culture. In the 18th and 19th centuries, ideas about Indians were shaped by newspaper stories and illustrations, captivity narratives, dime novels, popular literature and poetry, art and advertising, and Wild West shows. In the 20th century, Indian stories were dominated by romantic, action-packed Hollywood westerns, a genre that later migrated to television. These stories and images helped make the armed and dangerous Sioux warrior — his feather headdress blowing in the prairie wind — the most popular Indian of them all. These distorted stories also explain the continuing need for the kinds of thoughtfully produced examinations of Indian life presented in The Good Red Road and Rez Life: in-depth reports that emphasize the Indian voice in the centuries-long debate over the place of Indians in the U.S.

Field Studies, Literary Voice, and Narrative

The Good Red Road grew out of an “on-the-road seminar” that Kenneth Lincoln taught on the northern plains where he grew up. More formally, Lincoln describes his journey as “autobiographical ethnography,” a fusion of “interdisciplinary scholarship, field studies, literary voice and narrative structure in a text addressed to specialists and general readers alike.” In fact, Lincoln’s Red Road journey was an extended trip, starting with the original on-the-road class in 1975 and continuing with Slagle through five more years. The final text weaves together all of these trips into one journey and a single narrative voice, a literary construction that simplifies the story but alters the time line of these experiences and sacrifices some of the story’s literal accuracy.1

For Lincoln, an English professor who specialized in Native American studies, the class was a way for him to reconnect with his Nebraska roots and introduce his students and readers to the Native people and places of the plains. Although Lincoln had a long-standing connection with a Lakota family in his Nebraska hometown, he was well aware of his outsider status among the Native people.2 This was one reason he collaborated with Al Slagle, a Cherokee graduate student who brought a Native identity to the project.

The result of Lincoln’s traveling classroom is a highly personal narrative into the lives of Lincoln and his students, including personality conflicts within the group and Lincoln’s confession of an affair with one of the women in the class. More to the point, The Good Red Road offers detailed descriptions of the group’s encounters with the Native people of Pine Ridge, Rosebud, and other reservations. The strength of this method is immersion, which allows the authors to develop a level of intimacy with their subjects. Lincoln, Slagle, and the other students travel extensively and spend time with a variety of Indians in a variety of settings, observing, listening, asking questions, trying to understand the people, places, and cultural traditions they encounter.

For example, Lincoln introduces readers to Mark Monroe, his Lakota “brother” in Alliance, Nebraska. Monroe runs a community Indian Center in Alliance, where he deals with alcoholism, housing, unemployment, hunger, and health care, as well as local racism. Indians in Alliance, Lincoln discovers, have struggled for years to live as Indians in the white world. Lulu Lone Wolf tells Lincoln: “We lived 22 years in L.A. … It took me a long time to get over feelin’ Indian in a bad way, y’ know? When I came back here, then I got to go the opposite way, be a dirty Indian again.”

Later, Lincoln and his students spend time in the home of a Lakota elder named Luther Clearwater and his family, a visit that reveals a generational dispute about traditional Lakota ways, including the powers of a sacred pipe. The students also meet with Benjamin Crow, director of a Rosebud alcohol rehabilitation center and himself a recovering alcoholic. Crow described alcoholism on the reservation in stark terms. “Probably 90 percent of all deaths here are alcohol-related,” Crow tells the class.

At another point, Lincoln is invited to participate in a sweat lodge ceremony, an invitation that causes him to reflect on his role as a scholar and as an outsider: “I come as they asked me, a white man, asking for brotherhood. I come with my own pipe for blessing and instruction….” As the ceremony continues, Lincoln shifts to an insider perspective, becoming a spiritual participant alongside his Lakota brothers. Lincoln prays: “May we cross the desert between us and find the courage to heal ourselves. I ask that we help bring this land, the body of our people, back to life.” Lincoln is deeply moved by the experience. “I seemed to drop down beneath thought, to let my mind focus on nothing, interrupted by the blend of prayer and play, of communal support and the spirits’ abandon,” he writes. “The people prayed with me, I sang with them; we were in accord under this dark Dakota night.”

Lincoln’s achievement in this scene is based on physical access — his invitation to participate — as well as his deeply felt spiritual connection that allows him to shift from outsider to near-insider. That is, Lincoln is able to shed his detached, academic self in favor of a more open and responsive presence within the ceremony. This shift is useful for his readers, providing them with a first-person account of a Lakota spiritual experience usually closed to non-Indians. This and similar situations in the book render Lakota life in evocative and dynamic ways, revealing its spiritual beauty as well as its fragility.

To their credit, Lincoln and Slagle are sensitive to the dangers inherent in their telling of Lakota stories. Their literary method, Lincoln writes, involves “dialogical” anthropology, which “requires letting ‘others’ speak among themselves and with us in print.” This effort gives them a way to “dispel [Indian] stereotypes, often the cultural baggage of out-dated or faulty ethnography.” Lincoln and Slagle also worked to protect cultural and tribal knowledge, and insist that their narrative “invades no tribe’s secrecy nor any person’s privacy.” This is possible, they note, because they published with the permission of their sources and allowed a variety of readers to review the manuscript before publication. All of these efforts lead to a nuanced and deeply felt portrait of Native life on the northern plains, warts and all. In The Good Red Road, Lincoln and Slagle open a pathway into Native American life in the last quarter of the 20th century that is by turns insightful, troubling, and ultimately hopeful.

The Personal Grounded in Reporting

Like The Good Red Road, David Treuer’s Rez Life is a highly personal narrative, a memoir grounded in Native history and extensive on-the-rez reporting. Starting with his friends and family around Leech Lake, the Minnesota reservation where he grew up, Treuer sets out to dispel stereotypes, explain the love/hate relationship many Indians have with reservations, and investigate the convoluted history and disastrous consequences of federal Indian policies. “Most often rez life is associated with tragedy,” he writes. “We are thought of in terms of what we have lost or what we have survived.” That’s a mistake Treuer intends to correct. “[W]hat one finds on reservations is more than scars, tears, blood, and noble sentiment. There is beauty in Indian life, as well as meaning. … We love our reservations.”

Writing about contemporary Ojibwe life as an Ojibwe, Treuer qualifies as an insider, an Indian who knows rez life because he grew up there. But Treuer is also an outsider of sorts. His parents were not typical on the rez — his father was an Austrian immigrant (and Holocaust survivor); his mother, a Leech Lake Ojibwe with a prestigious law degree. Treuer himself was well educated, first at Princeton, where he studied anthropology and creative writing (and worked on a senior thesis with Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison), and later at the University of Michigan, where he earned a Ph.D. in anthropology. Treuer’s insider/outsider position allows him to locate and tell intimate stories of the Ojibwe and other reservations using local knowledge as well as his deep reservoir of legal, political, and anthropological information. Moreover, Treuer uses his novelist’s gift for storytelling to make Rez Life a compelling read.

Treuer takes an unsentimental approach to reservation life. One of the book’s opening scenes, for instance, recounts his grandfather’s suicide. A veteran of D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge, Eugene Seelye was “a hard-ass,” as Treuer puts it. Treuer continues: “He was not one of those sweet, somewhat bashful elderly Indians you see at powwows … willing to talk and tell dirty jokes; not the kind of traditional elder that a lot of younger people seek out for approval and advice….” More grimly, Treuer describes his sudden, intense anger at the blood-stained bedroom carpet he finds himself cleaning after his grandfather’s suicide. “That carpet,” he writes, “that cheap cheap carpet, that carpet the same color as the reservation is colored on some maps of northern Minnesota. And just as torn, dusty, and damaged. Just as durable. Just as inadequate.”

Treuer is equally unsentimental about the challenges of growing up on the rez. He writes, for instance, about the chaotic life of Jeffery Weise, the teenager who killed his own grandfather and eight others before killing himself on the Red Lake Reservation in 2005. Treuer reports that Weise’s father committed suicide when Weise was a child. “Two years later his mother, Joanne Weise, went out drinking, crashed her car into a tree, and suffered massive brain damage,” Treuer notes. Neglected and depressed, Weise fell apart. Treuer quotes one of Weise’s Internet postings: “I’m living every mans [sic] nightmare and that single fact alone is kicking my ass. … This place never changes, it never will.”

Treuer follows this story with a more uplifting report about Dustin Burnette, a Leech Lake Indian whose life was equally troubled. “Yeah, I got all the bad stuff about being Indian and none of the good. I got the bad teeth and the instability and the alcoholism and all that,” Burnette says. Burnette’s mother died of an aneurysm when he was 16; he was raised by his grandmother. He was smart, though he didn’t care for school. One day a new Indian counselor showed up and confronted Burnette, prodding him to get serious and eventually helping land him a full-ride college scholarship. In 2009, Burnette, a college graduate, returned to Leech Lake to teach the Ojibwe language in a tribally run immersion school. “I found a family, at ceremonies, in the language,” Burnette tells Treuer. “I’ve got a purpose, people who rely on me. It feels good, man. It feels great.”

Beyond individual stories, Treuer critiques federal Indian policies, explaining long-running disputes over fishing rights, tribal membership, law enforcement and tribal courts, boarding schools, gaming and more. One of the most misunderstood topics, he writes, is Indian sovereignty, the right of tribes to control their own territory and affairs. Although the government paid lip service to tribal sovereignty and signed hundreds of treaties with Indian nations, most tribes lost much — if not all — of their traditional lands. In addition, federal Indian agents regularly worked against the interests of the Indians they were pledged to protect. “Fraud, cronyism, nepotism, double-dealing, skimming, and outright murder were common,” Treuer concludes.

Treuer’s solution to the problems facing Indians today is something he calls the “new traditionalism,” an idea that combines the old ways of Ojibwe life — ricing, tapping maple trees, fishing, hunting, speaking Ojibwe — with the contemporary world of technology and popular culture. Revival of the tribal language is at the center of this idea. For Treuer, a language activist, “the language is the key to everything else — identity, life and lifestyle, home and homeland.” The new traditionalism, Treuer explains, embraces and reorients the old ways so that Indians can live fully and well in the 21st century. With fluency in the language, Treuer argues, the Ojibwe can choose “to live their modern lives, with all those modern contradictions, in the Ojibwe language — to choose Ojibwe over English, whether for ceremony or for karaoke.”

Much like Lincoln and Slagle, Treuer immerses himself in reservation life and builds his story around a variety of Ojibwe and other reservation sources. This method allows Rez Life to highlight a variety of powerful Native voices from “ordinary” Indians rarely heard in contemporary American non-fiction, a literary achievement in itself. Unlike Lincoln and Slagle, however, Treuer uses no pseudonyms or hidden identities. He writes that he obtained permission from all of his sources and quoted every person exactly as recorded, and not quoting anyone from memory. Treuer also avoids what he calls the “loose historicism” of assigning feelings to his sources, a practice he believes would distort the truth of his narrative.

Treuer’s principal goal in Rez Life is to report the bitter but largely forgotten truth about Indians and reservation life to non-Indian readers and to make the case for the importance of American Indian culture in the 21st century. “To understand American Indians is to understand America,” he proclaims. Indians, after all, were the first Americans and they have something to contribute to the larger American story. But first, Treuer makes clear, they must find a way to thrive in a massive, unrelenting, technologically advanced and homogenous consumer society that easily dominates Native culture and language.

Treuer, for one, is guardedly optimistic. He concludes his book with a scene on a reservation lake in Minnesota: “While spearing walleye on Round Lake that April I felt this [Native] way of life and the language that goes with it felt suddenly, almost painfully, too beautiful to lose. … And I thought then, with a growing confidence that I don’t always have: we might just make it.”

Conclusions

It is almost impossible to overstate the problem of the Indian in the American popular imagination, where knowledge about Native American life — that is, accurate historical and cultural information — has been largely diminished or neglected in favor of stereotypes and clichés produced and perpetuated by the mass media and popular entertainment. Taken together, The Good Red Road and Rez Life provide a powerful response to this misinformation. Both books offer valuable insights into modern Native American life and both books give Native speakers a voice. The books differ in emphasis and tone, but they both succeed in revealing the complicated realities of Native American life. Lincoln and Slagle are more autobiographical and more romantic; they focus more on Native spiritual life. Treuer is more attuned to Indian-white relations, reservation history, and the practical social, cultural, economic, and racial issues of reservation life. Despite these differences and the 25-year gap between these books, both narratives are good-faith efforts to explore and explain American Indian life honestly and in greater depth than routine daily journalism can provide.

Although neither book was written by a journalist and neither is billed as literary journalism, both books employ some of the key practices of literary journalism, including subjectivity, immersion, direct observation, and extensive interviewing. As previously noted, Lincoln, Slagle, and Treuer immerse themselves in Native life, spending many months among Native people, gaining experience in Indian country by observing, interviewing, and listening. In the case of Lincoln and Slagle, these methods allow them access to Lakota ceremonies, where they participate alongside their Lakota sources in search of spiritual deliverance. Lincoln captures the deeply human spirit of a Native ceremony: “People were coming together: to pray, to cry, to sing, to think, not to think, to lose themselves to the spirits of one another and the petitioned powers of a nurturing land, old family spirits, the comforting darkness.”

For Treuer, writing about the rez is an intensely personal experience involving his own reservation upbringing as well as the lives of his Ojibwe family and friends. Treuer also conducts more formal research into Native American history and the history of the federal reservation system. As an Ojibwe writer, Treuer also advocates for such issues as tribal sovereignty and the revival of Native languages. Finally, Treuer places his Native American story in a national context: “Indian reservations, and those of us who live on them, are as American as apple pie, baseball, and muscle cars. Unlike apple pie, however, Indians contributed to the birth of America itself.”

In all these ways, The Good Red Road and Rez Life apply the tools of literary journalism to render Native American life in a personal, culturally nuanced, and deeply observed narrative. As literary journalism, these books live up to — and perhaps exceed — the standard articulated by Richard Lance Keeble that literary journalism “engages readers imaginatively in the aesthetics of experience and the search for understanding, meaning, and insight.”

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The Postscript

Additional content and context, added to everything we do.

Collaborate: Partnership Credit

A version of this story was first published in the Spring 2018 issue of LJS, a peer-reviewed journal from the International Association for Literary Journalism Studies, a multi-disciplinary learned society whose essential purpose is the encouragement and improvement of scholarly research and education in literary journalism (or literary reportage).

Meet: About the Author

John Coward is professor of media studies at the University of Tulsa. A former newspaper reporter, he completed a Ph.D. at the University of Texas–Austin. Coward’s books include The Newspaper Indian, published in 1999, and Indians Illustrated: The Image of Native Americans in the Pictorial Press, published in 2016.

Read: Footnotes

1

Al Slagle writes: “We have sometimes altered names, the order of incidents, and the places where they actually occurred.”

2

Kenneth Lincoln writes that he was “adopted” into the Monroe family of Alliance, Nebraska, and became part of their “extended family.” The father of the family, Mark Monroe, “gave me his Lakota name, Mato Yammi or ‘Three Bears.’”