On the Rez is really two books that are yoked together only at the end, but which are compelling for the portraits both paint of Native American life in the United States at the end of the twentieth century. In the first two hundred pages, Ian Frazier describes his many encounters with Native American life and history. Although the focus is on the Plains Indians, and particularly the Oglala Sioux on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, their life becomes representative of the fate of Native Americans on and off the reservation and across the United States. Two-thirds of the way through the book, however, Frazier takes up the story of SuAnne Big Crow, and the last third of the book—a vivid description of her life and a moving tribute to the talent and pride she stood for—implies the potential of Native American life everywhere.
Frazier lives in Manhattan when On the Rez opens. He meets and befriends Le War Lance, an Oglala Sioux residing in Washington Heights. When Frazier and his family resettle in Missoula, Montana, Frazier drives the eight hundred miles to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota where Le now lives, and over the course of the next four years visits Pine Ridge a number of times and meets other Oglala Sioux and learns their history, their few successes, and their many sufferings.
Frazier writes that in 1900, there were fewer than a quarter million Native Americans in the United States. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the population totaled two million or more, making Native Americans the fastest-growing ethnic group in the country. Part of this growth must be attributed to the American Indian Movement (AIM), which began at Pine Ridge and, through a series of public protests, raised awareness of the plight of Native Americans and at the same time spurred hundreds of thousands of Americans to acknowledge their American Indian heritage. The most famous AIM incident occurred in 1973 at Wounded Knee, fifteen miles from the village of Pine Ridge, and marked the slaughter of Indians at that site in 1890. “AIM changed the way people regarded Indians in this country, and the way Indians regarded themselves; in an assimilationist America, they showed that a powerful Indian identity remained.”
Certainly, that identity was necessary because the “saddening statistics” for Native Americans only multiply in Frazier’s account:
Ninety thousand or more Indian families are homeless, living on the street or sharing housing with relatives. Forty percent of Indian households are overcrowded or have inadequate dwellings, compared to about 6 percent for the population at large. Indians are about twice as likely as non-Indians to be murdered. Their death rate from alcoholism is four times the national average, and the rate of fetal alcohol syndrome among their children is thirty-three times higher than for whites.
Actually, as Frazier shows, Native Americans represent a kind of contradiction in American life. On one hand, there is the high incidence of adolescent suicide and alcohol-related car accidents. In addition, “30.9 percent of Indians have incomes below the national poverty line, more than any other race or ethnic group, so the neighborhoods where they live tend to be run-down.” On the other hand, Native American tribes now own high-priced real estate in Las Vegas and Palm Springs, and several operate gambling casinos that gross one hundred million dollars or more a year.
Frazier parcels out this information as background to his story of life on Pine Ridge, and that reservation becomes a microcosm of the problems and potential of Indian life at the end of the twentieth century. His history covers Native American life from the Wampanoag who met the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock through the Cherokee’s removal from Georgia in 1839 that became known as the Trail of Tears, to more recent Indian heroes such as Ira Hamilton Hayes in World War II and Olympic runner Billy Mills. The Oglala Sioux are among the best-known tribes in American history, in part because of Wounded Knee, but also for other incidents in their history, such as their loss of the mineral-rich Black Hills and their spiritual autobiography narrated by the Holy Man in Black Elk Speaks(1932). Their poverty is emblematic of native Americans living everywhere in the United States.
(The entire section is 1781 words.)