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On the Rez by Ian Frazier

On The Rez - Ian Frazier

This is an interesting book, though as others have said, the last third is by far the best. Frazier, a white travel writer, befriends an Oglala Sioux man named Le from the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, and writes about his time hanging out with Le and his friends and family. He also writes more broadly about Native Americans today and about the last few centuries of history. The last third of the book is a biography of a basketball star named SuAnne Big Crow who was an inspiration for many before her tragic death as a teenager.

The content is interesting and Frazier’s writing is fine, but I do think he could have done more with the first two-thirds of the book. These chapters are often pretty diffuse, and he goes off on some weird tangents, like trying to hunt down every historically Native American bar in the country and chronicle their bar fights. Some of the broader information he provides is interesting, including some firsthand accounts of the American Indian Movement. But the first two-thirds was a bit of a drag overall.

I also wondered about the quality of Frazier’s information. At one point, in a brief discussion of eastern tribes, he mentions “the Lumbee of North Carolina, a tribe which has lived for a hundred years in the mountains around Lumberton unrecognized by anyone but themselves.” It’s cool that he mentioned the Lumbee, a group few Americans have heard of although they’re apparently the largest tribe east of the Mississippi, but basically everything in that sentence is wrong. Lumberton is nowhere near mountains – it’s in the flat coastal plain of eastern North Carolina – the Lumbee have been around for a lot longer than a hundred years, and the tribe gained state recognition in the 19th century, and a weird mostly-useless federal acknowledgment in 1956. (You can read more here or here). As always, when an author messes up the things you know, you have to wonder at the accuracy of the things you don’t.

All that said, SuAnne Big Crow’s story is really fantastic, and it’s worth reading the book for that part alone. Frazier is on much surer footing here with a narrative to follow and many people who knew SuAnne to contribute their memories, and I wish he’d spent more of the book on this type of writing and less on hanging out with Le.

At any rate, interesting book, and the author seems to be respectful and to view Native Americans as actual people rather than embodiments of stereotype, whether good or bad. He could have allocated his page count better, but it’s worth a read for those who are interested in the topic.