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Plains Talk



Ian Frazier, who wrote about one American icon, the dysfunctional family, in his last full-length work, returns to another, the American Indian, in On the Rez, his second book to deal with the Oglala Sioux of Pine Ridge, South Dakota.

On the Rez, (the word 'rez' is of course short for reservation) is partly an account of the author's difficult friendship with Le War Lance, a heavy-drinking raconteur and a onetime soldier, prisoner, minor league pitcher, stunt driver and activist. Frazier accompanies Le War, who calls himself Le, to rodeos and powwows, drives him to the liquor store, wires or lends him money, bails him out of jail, and spends a lot of time with him and his friends sitting around drinking beer and watching Westerns on television.

The author describes in Le and his friends a conservatism that touches not just tribal ceremonies and ways of life but extends to that particularly modern expression of traditionalism, brand loyalty:

Once I brought a six-pack of a beer called Moosehead. ...When I pulled it out of the shopping bag, the shouts of derision from Le and Floyd John ... were something to hear. I might as well have pulled an actual moose head out of the sack. How could I have been so peculiar to bring this extremely non-Budweiser, off-brand beer? Le and Floyd John never got over it. ... If this were 150 years ago and I were an eccentric white traveler passing through the Oglala camps, I have no doubt what my Indian name would be.

A self-confessed wanna-be who wears his hair in a long ponytail copied from the leaders of the American Indian Movement who were the heroes of his youth, Frazier sees, in his Indian friends, men and women who are broken-down but not broken. He honors their outspokenness and reckless bravery, which he sees as a powerful alternative to our society with its emphasis on accumulating wealth, minimizing risk and prolonging life at all costs:

We live in a craven time. I am not the first to point out that capitalism, having defeated Communism, now seems to be about to do the same to democracy. The market is doing splendidly, but we are not, somehow. Americans today no longer work mainly in manufacturing or agriculture but in the newly risen service economy. That means most of us make our living by being nice. The freedom that inhered in Powhatan, that Red Cloud carried from the plains to Washington as easily as air -- freedom to be and to say, whatever, regardless of disapproval -- has become a luxury most of us can't afford.

Part of our uneasy fascination with Indian culture, the author suggests, derives from the paradox that rather than wiping it off the face of the earth, we have actually internalized Indian culture, and much of what we think of as quintessentially American about ourselves is quintessentially Indian as well.

Recklessness, in the form of car accidents, is a constant motif in On the Rez. The author describes driving along the highways around Pine Ridge that are lined with fatality markers, some of which have been dented by subsequent crashes, and seeing a car so incinerated it has melted the asphalt around it. During the course of the book, several of the author's acquaintances die in auto accidents; the author's own accident ends an estrangement between himself and Le -- the accident becomes a bond of shared experience. Finally, it is a car accident that ends the short life of the book's heroine, Su Anne Big Crow.

A freshman member of the Pine Ridge High girl's basketball team, Su Anne performs what the author calls, in intentionally gee-whiz language, "one of the bravest and coolest deeds I know about":

... during the pre-game warm-up before a historically hostile white high school, with the jeering fans waving food stamps and the band playing mock Indian songs, Su Anne runs to the jump-ball circle, takes off her warm-up jacket, drapes it around her shoulders and performs a traditional shawl dance, singing Lakota songs all the while. She finishes by dribbling the ball around the court and hitting a lay-up with the crowd now cheering her on.

Real-life heroism embarrasses us nowadays, the author suggests, and what this incident brings to mind is a scene in the movie version of the Su Anne Crow story, perhaps the big-screen debut of a black-wigged Britney Spears. But the melodrama is the least important part of the incident. For Frazier, Su Anne's gesture, uniting political factions of the Oglala community which had been opposed to the occupation of Wounded Knee in the early '70s, merits comparison to the Civil Rights movement:

America is a leap of the imagination. ... This leap is made in public, and it's made for free. ... The leap requires physical presence and physical risk. But the payoff -- in terms of dreams realized, of understanding, of people getting along -- can be so glorious as to make the risk seem miniscule.

Su Anne's story is told alongside another, bigger story: the sorry history of the theft of the gold-rich Black Hills, whose beneficiaries were the very students who jeered Su Anne. Although the Supreme Court awarded the Sioux nation $106 million in compensation, the tribes involved decided the land was not for sale and the money remains untouched.

Near the end of the book, when an acquaintance fixes the transaxle on Le's car and promises to send a bill for his services, Le replies with what the author tells us is a common Sioux expression which translates as "I'll pay you when I get my Black Hills money." The quip is funny, but it's also sad, ironic, stoical and historically resonant, which is the same way I would describe On the Rez.

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