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 I am 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.
Having written, in his second book, about “Heloise,” the tabloid column offering practical domestic wisdom, he can sometimes cheer himself up by collecting household hints from the Sioux. Here are three dandies he’s gleaned from them:
It is impossible to get bloodstains off wall paper.
A good way to break off a cast is by rubbing it on a curbside.
Warming the hide of a drumhead with a blow dryer before you play it makes the drum sound better.
During the lulls in the struggle he also manages to read all 853 pages of Father Eugene Buechel’s Lakota-English Dictionary. Two Lakota words that Iparticularly like are:
anptá niya, n. Breath of the day, the very first glimmerings of morn, vapors raised by the sun.
iyú å«so, v. When a man rides through water and gets wet in spite of lifting his legs.
Ian Frazier is not just reporting this story: he’s part of it. Very fortunately, as he is working his way toward brotherhood with Le War Lance, he discovers another real Sioux hero, a young basketball player named SuAnne Big Crow. In the town of Lead, South Dakota, SuAnne Big Crow did a heroic thing:
In the fall of 1988, the Pine Ridge Lady Thorpes went to Lead to play a basketball game. SuAnne was a full member of the team by then. She was a freshman, fourteen years old. Getting ready in the locker room, the Pine Ridge girls could hear the din from the fans. They were yelling fake-Indian war cries, a “woo-woo-woo” sound…. As the team waited in the hallway leading from the locker room, the heckling got louder. The Lead fans were yelling epithets like “squaw” and “gut-eater.” Some were waving food stamps, a reference to the reservation’s receiving federal aid. Others yelled, “Where’s the cheese?”—the joke being that if Indians were lining up, it must be to get commodity cheese…. Doni De Cory looked out the door and told her teammates, “Ican’t handle this.” SuAnne quickly offered to go first in her place. She was so eager that Doni became suspicious. “Don’t embarrass us,” Doni told her. SuAnne said, “I won’t embarrass you.” Doni gave her the ball, and SuAnne stood first in line.
She came running onto the court dribbling the basketball, with her teammates running behind. On the court, the noise was deafeningly loud. SuAnne went right down the middle; but instead of running a full lap, she suddenly stopped when she got to center court…. SuAnne turned to Doni De Cory and tossed her the ball. Then she stepped into the jump- ball circle at center court, in front of the Lead fans. She unbuttoned her warm-up jacket, took it off, draped it over her shoulders, and began to do the Lakota shawl dance…. The dance she chose is a young woman’s dance, graceful and modest and show-offy all at the same time. “I couldn’t believe it—she was powwowin’, like ‘get down!”‘ Doni De Cory recalled. “And then she started to sing.” SuAnne began to sing in Lakota, swaying back and forth in the jump-ball circle, doing the shawl dance, using her warm-up jacket for a shawl. The crowd went completely silent. “All that stuff the Lead fans were yelling—it was like she reversed it somehow,” a teammate said. In the sudden quiet all you could hear was her Lakota song. SuAnne stood up, dropped her jacket, took the ball from Doni De Cory, and ran a lap around the court dribbling expertly and fast. The fans began to cheer and applaud….
Now, Ian Frazier tries to set this act in historical context, describing the hundred-and-thirty-year struggle over the Black Hills, still not really resolved. But, after all, sports teams get heckled everywhere—try Boston—and it will probably not be clear to some readers why what SuAnne Big Crow did was heroic. It was heroic because of the deep, black, vicious, septic, century-old hatred of Indians which permeates many of the hard little towns in western South Dakota and eastern Montana. Most of the people doing the hating have never read a page of the history: they’re just mean, and their meanness is deadly. For a fourteen-year-old girl to face that viciousness down, even for the space of a basketball game, was heroic. Mr. Frazier has done his best to capture it. But it’s the kind of transcendent action that will mainly live only in the memory of the peo-ple who saw it, those who happened to be in the gymnasium in Lead, South Dakota, that day in 1988.
SuAnne Big Crow went on to lead her team to a state championship, to play abroad on all-star teams in such places as Finland and Australia, and, at home, to have to contend with the intense and bitter jealousies that are so often directed at local heroes in small communities. At the age of eighteen, while on her way to an awards ceremony, she was killed in a car wreck. On the rez, when the news came, despite the recent jealousies, the grief was intense. The local radio station received over five hundred requests for songs to be sung in her honor. One teacher still remembers the sobbing and wailing of children in SuAnne’s school the next day. Soldiers at Fort Robinson, where Crazy Horse was killed, remembered the sobbing and wailing of the Sioux when news of his death came—although some of those crying had stood ready to kill him.
Later, reflecting on the jealousy that SuAnne encountered in the year before her death, Ian Frazier ruefully remarks that Pine Ridge is not a good place to be famous, unless the fame only lasts a couple of weeks. He knows quite well that three of the Sioux’s greatest nineteenth-century leaders, Spotted Tail, Sitting Bull, and Crazy Horse, died either at the hands of, or with the cooperation of, other Sioux.
Near the end of the book, having learned what he could about SuAnne Big Crow, having come to care about Le War Lance and several other Sioux, he writes this dark passage:
So much is so wrong on Pine Ridge. There’s suffering and poverty and violence and alcoholism, and the aura of unstoppability that repeated misfortunes acquire. But beneath all that is something bigger and darker and harder to look at straight on. The only word for it, I’m afraid, is evil. News stories emphasizing the reservation’s “bleakness” are actually using this as a circumlocution for that plain, terrible word. For journalistic reasons the news cannot say, “There is evil here.” And beyond a doubt there is. A bloody history, bad luck, and deliberate malice have helped it along. Sometimes a sense of it comes over me so strongly that I want to run home to bed—for example when I walk down the row of almost-new child-size bicycles in a local pawnshop,…or when I’m driving on a deserted reservation road at night and there’s a large object suddenly up ahead, and I skid to a stop a few feet from it, and it’s the hulk of a car so completely incinerated that it has melted asphalt around it; it’s just sitting there with no warning, with no other cars on the scene, empty and destroyed and silent in the middle of nowhere. At such moments a sense of compound evil—that of the human heart, in league with the original darkness of this wild continent—curls around me like shoots of a fast-growing vine.
Very likely the growing power of this conviction about evil is what caused Ian Frazier to deny the lesser notion of bleakness at the beginning of this book. It’s his conviction, and he has a right to it, but just linking the evil in the human heart to the original darkness of this wild continent doesn’t explain very much. I would agree that the combination of old injustice, white rapacity, and the murderous jealousy of the Sioux makes for a bad mix; I would also agree that evil is always in attendance when an attempt is made to destroy a people, as in Rwanda. Attempts were made to destroy the Sioux, and all other Indians, but, in the case of the Sioux, they failed. Many Sioux are miserable but as a people they are certainly not destroyed, and even Pine Ridge has its bright spots, one of them being the SuAnne Big Crow Center, started by Chick Big Crow, SuAnne’s mother. Mr. Frazier is quick to describe how the center has improved the lives of hundreds of children; the spirit of the leader of the Lady Thorpes is doing for her people now what the spirit of Crazy Horse did for them in another time.
There are two books Iwould recommend as complements to this one. The first is Richard Manning’s Grassland,1 a look at the Great Plains that is rather more ecologically focused than Mr. Frazier’s. Richard Manning has talked to a few people that Ian Frazier missed—it is, after all, a very big plain. My favorite of the old-timers Manning visited is Caroline Sandoz, sister of the fine Nebraska writer Mari Sandoz. Though in her eighties, Caroline was planning to add several thousand acres to her holdings, so as to be able to run more cattle.
The second book, edited by Lucy Lippard, is called Partial Recall: Photographs of Native North Americans,2 and contains twelve essays on the nervous business of photographing Indians. There is in it a haunting photograph made by Sarah Penman at Wounded Knee in 1989, and many other interesting photographs, some innocuous, some even happy, despite which almost every picture makes me wince. I never see a fair exchange, or even an exchange, in pictures of Indians: what I see is the struggle of dignity with indignity. Geronimo fiercely stared down every camera he saw pointed at him and then readily signed whatever photographs resulted for a dollar apiece—at least he got his dollar. But Geronimo was tougher than most—tougher, perhaps, than all. Less defiant is Lillie Benally, the woman who posed for Laura Gilpin’s famous “Navaho Madonna” picture. Lillie Benally later sued the Amon Carter Museum for exhibiting this picture. She had come to feel—as many Native Americans have from the moment cameras appeared—that there is something deeply questionable about allowing strangers to traffic in one’s likeness.
In the mid-Thirties Laura Riding and Robert Graves did a favor for a neighbor, a former portraitist and art dealer named Georg Schwarz. The favor was to translate his memoir, which, in English, is called Almost Forgotten Germany. I think of it sometimes in connection with Ian Frazier, who has now spent a good many years of his life driving around almost forgotten America, digging up stories in unlikely places and describing for us the lives of almost forgotten Americans such as Le War Lance and SuAnne Big Crow. The Great Plains themselves, in their emptier stretches, where one can drive a thousand miles and never see a velvet restaurant rope, feel at times like an almost forgotten region—and yet there are wonders in it. Just last week in Sheyenne, North Dakota, a small town near another Lakota reservation, Isaw, scrawled on the side of a building, a sentiment so fine that Iimmediately used it to end a book. The sentiment, left us by an unknown patriot, said: Nothing was ever lost through enduring love of North Dakota. A fine thought like that helps to balance some of the tragedies and car wrecks.
February 10, 2000