Ojibwe historian and award-winning author Anton Treuer offers a balanced, frank and enlightening look inside Indian culture, shattering stereotypes that swing between romanticism (embodied in fictions like "The Last of the Mohicans" and "Dances With Wolves") and racism (seen in most films where Indians are depicted as bloodthirsty savages rightfully shot down by the U.S. cavalry).
What Treuer makes clear is the eye-opening diversity of Indian cultures, the large differences between and within tribes about languages, religious practices, casinos, economic development and more. What's true for one Indian, such as Treuer, who grew up on the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota, may not be true for others.
Treuer asks and answers more than 100 questions, some quite basic ("What is a powwow?") and others less so ("Why does the FBI investigate murders on some reservations?"). The answer Treuer offers to "What is Indian religion?" is reflected in many of his responses, which is that it depends on which Indian group you're talking about: "Because there is so much diversity in Indian country," Treuer writes, "there is no such thing as Indian religion. Customs and traditions vary significantly from tribe to tribe."
Treuer's answers often describe the brutal policies of the U.S. government in attempting to destroy Indian culture, and how Indians have managed to hold on to their cultural heritage with varying degrees of success. In answering the question "Why can't Indians just move on?," Treuer describes the scars that remain: "Historical trauma is a complicated subject," he writes. "There is still all this damage," including "language and culture loss, many health issues, substance abuse, the educational opportunity gap, lack of economic opportunity ... all can be directly attributed to specific government policies."
Treuer, like so manys, believes the way Indians can best repair what's broken is to preserve and embrace traditional cultures.
"The more disconnected native people have become from their motherlands, languages, and cultural ways, the more dysfunctional they have become." Treuer wants the entire nation to become educated about Indian history and the role the U.S. government played in attempting to decimate Indian culture: "We sugarcoat our history, which enables us to celebrate even the ugliest chapters. We need to think real hard about why we do that."
Treuer's wide-ranging and highly illuminating Q&A will help correct the historical record and clear up misconceptions. Just about every question one might ask about Indians is included, and wisely answered in this valuable primer on American Indians.
Chuck Leddy is a book critic in Boston and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.