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Lighting Out for the Territory

On the Rez

by Ian Frazier
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 311 pp., $25.00

I first became aware of Ian Frazier, as a writer to keep an eye on, in the late 1980s, when, flipping through The New Yorker, I read a little two-page piece with his name under it. The piece was called “The Last Segment,” the last segment being the final episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I expected to be amused but instead was moved—the brief piece touched a chord. One page was devoted to the fond farewells of a bunch of TV characters who were once almost as familiar to Americans as their own families: Mary and Murray, Lou and Ted, Sue Ann and Georgette; the second page, in graceful pastiche, described the immediate crumbling of a typical American family once this stabilizing sitcom was no longer there to hold them together. With a couple of lines from a Bobbie Gentry song and a few other tags from here and there in the culture, Mr. Frazier managed to show, in only a page, how many things can go wrong in a family when there are no good TV shows to watch. I still think “The Last Segment” is the best two pages ever written about American television; it can be found in a collection of his magazine pieces called Coyote v. Acme, a book not much thicker than a leaf.

Intrigued, I went looking for Ian Frazier’s books, and, in his second, Nobody Better, Better Than Nobody (1987), found evidence of a restless spirit. On his way to Kansas, to attend a centennial of a massacre which took place in 1878—they use their history in Kansas—he gets stuck in the Omaha airport and immediately tries to walk over to the Missouri River, great waterway of the nineteenth-century West. The river is only a couple of hundred yards from the terminal, as the crow flies, but Mr. Frazier, not being a crow, had to trudge a long way before he could muddy his shoes beside the Big Muddy itself.

A little later, having made it to Kansas, he finds it not easy to adapt to the early-to-bed habits of Kansans:

One night, I watched TV in my motel room and after all the stations signed off went for a drive. There were few cars on the road and no lights on in town and no people except for a man at a gas station who was ignoring a man with no teeth who was telling about a sow and her piglets he had seen walking down the highway some distance to the west. I drove on dirt roads until I couldn’t see any lights, and then I got out of the car. The prairie just kept on going and going in the night, under the faraway, random stars. I felt like a drop of water on a hot plate. I did not get so far from the car, with its engine running and its headlights on, that I could not hear the radio through the closed door.

Just so were the first western travelers, lacking engines, headlights, and radios, momentarily intimidated by the immensity of the great American steppe. But only momentarily: the next thing you know they were staring at the Pacific, and Ian Frazier, like them, is soon all the way over in Glacier National Park, writing about grizzly bears.

Plainly this was a man unlikely to be forever content with the civilities of the eastern seaboard; he’s poised, like Huck Finn, to light out for the territory. On the very first page of his third book, Great Plains (1989), out he lights:

Away to the Great Plains of America, to that immense Western short-grass prairie now mostly plowed under! Away to the still-empty land beyond newsstands and malls and velvet restaurant ropes! Away to the headwaters of the Missouri!… Away to the high plains rolling in waves to the rising final chord of the Rocky Mountains!

If that passage and the next few pages seem a little too New Yorker-on-safari, it’s a tone Mr. Frazier soon puts behind him, along with the velvet restaurant ropes. He also quickly moves past the point where he has to stand by the car with the headlights on and the radio playing when he wants to take a look at the midnight prairie. He has visited the Jimtown Bar outside Lame Deer, Montana, a very formidable bar, and he is now confident enough to stop and sleep in his car if he happens to be tired.

In the course of writing On the Rez, he wanders on foot, by day and by night, all over the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, and Pine Ridge, when it comes to safety, is not exactly Switzerland. A report in the newspapers just today mentions that in Rapid City, South Dakota, not far from the rez, six homeless Indian men have been found dead in the river. Somebody is probably hunting Indians, a practice that has never really stopped.

Here is Mr. Frazier on what it’s like to walk around on the rez:

When I go to Indian reservations in the West, and especially to the Pine Ridge Reservation, Isometimes feel unsure where to put my foot when I open the car door. The very ground is different from where I usually stand. There are fewer curbs, fewer sidewalks, and almost no street signs, mailboxes, or leashed dogs. The earth here is just the earth, unadorned, and the places people walk are made not by machinery but by feet…. The Oglala Sioux Reservation, actively or otherwise, continues to resist the modern American paving machine. Walking on Pine Ridge, I feel as if Iam in actual America, the original version that was here before and will still be here after we’re gone. There are windblown figures crossing the road in the distance who might be drunk, and a scattering of window-glass fragments in the weeds that might be from a car accident, and a baby naked except for a disposable diaper playing in a bare-dirt yard, and an acrid smell of burning trash—all the elements that usually evoke the description “bleak.” But there is greatness here, too, and an ancient glory endures in the dust and the weeds. The way I look at it, this is the American bedrock upon which the society outside its borders is only a later addition. It’s the surviving piece of country where “the program” has not yet completely taken hold.

Two words in that paragraph, “bleak” and “glory,” are the pivots on which this book turns. Ian Frazier is so worried that people visiting Pine Ridge will see the bleakness and miss the glory that he tortures his own logic in order to downplay this threat. On the first page of the book he has this sentence:

Many thousands of people—not just Americans, but German and French and English people, and more—visit the reservations every year, and the prevailing opinion among the Indians is not that they come for the bleakness.

Prevailing opinion? Does this mean that a minority of the Pine Ridge Sioux think the Germans and French and English do come for the bleakness, which would presuppose travel agencies in Düsseldorf or Brighton or Lyons that manage to use bleakness as a lure?

On the Rez is a good book whose author could have spared himself some odd contortions if he had just admitted the quite realistic fear that many visitors to Pine Ridge will be put off by the bleakness, because the flat truth is that Pine Ridge is one of the bleakest places in America. If more adjectives are needed, blistered, blighted, and blasted would not be inappropriate. It’s not hopeless—therein lies the greatness of the Sioux—but it’s not like the pretty places on the scenic postcards, either. President Clinton was right to headline it on his recent poverty tour. Long wars leave scars, physical, social, moral. The fields of France still bear the scars of World War I, and the small Native American communities in South Dakota and elsewhere bear their own deep scars, the result of one hundred and fifty years of usually hostile, never fair, frequently warlike relations with the American government. If there’s one place in America where the wounds of old conflicts have refused to heal, it’s Pine Ridge.

On the Rez is a complex follow-up to Great Plains, the book of intelligent, sometimes passionate reportage that Ian Frazier published ten years ago. Mr. Frazier had clearly fallen in love with the Great Plains and followed his nose, sharing his enthusiasms as well as his occasional fatigues with his readers. Though his curiosity is wide-ranging, one search comes to seem central to the narrative, and that is the search for heroes. Mr. Frazier is comfortable with heroes—indeed, he’s uncomfortable without them. He finds several, scattered across the plains, but the best hero, for him, is Crazy Horse, the great warrior of the Oglala Sioux—the tribe that, once defeated, were eventually shoved up to Pine Ridge.

The best chapter in Great Plains is a kind of meditation on Crazy Horse: what he meant to people, what he means to Mr. Frazier. Near the beginning of On the Rez Mr. Frazier admits that at one point his obsession with Crazy Horse became so powerful that when he and his wife were discussing remodeling their apartment in Brooklyn he found himself wondering what the great warrior would think about such expense. The Frazier family subsequently packed up and moved to Missoula, Montana, with what blessing from the spirit world I don’t know.

During his Crazy Horse period Ian Frazier met, on the streets of New York, an Oglala Sioux from Pine Ridge named Le War Lance—his relatives mainly just called him Leonard. Le War Lance was, as he told Mr. Frazier, a Sioux dog soldier, reminding the writer that the Sioux were, after all, a warrior society whose record as American servicemen in the several wars of this century had been excellent.

Visitors to Pine Ridge might want to keep that excellent service record in mind, if they happen to be finding themselves a little put off by the bleakness. What looks to the white eye like dysfunction may be, in part, a form of refusal of white norms, made by a people still convinced that they have a right to their own way of life. The American West is hardly the only place in the world where warrior societies have been only painfully—and incompletely—suburbanized.

Ian Frazier and Le War Lance begin as strangers, become friends, and end as brothers. The brotherhood they achieve is a high estate but not an easy estate. The spiritual travel involved was mainly Mr. Frazier’s; this book is the story of that pilgrimage, that is, of his effort to live up to what is best in the Sioux. And what is best in the Sioux, as he already knows from his attachment to Crazy Horse, is very good indeed. Living up to it involves a good deal of struggle and a lot of tension, as Mr. Frazier grapples with the uncertainties, inconsistencies, and inscrutabilities of life on the rez. As a seasoned reporter he tries to keep appoint-ments and be punctual, but punctuality is not a concept the Sioux attach much importance to, preferring to remain as free as possible within the temporal sphere.

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