Applied to a book, the word "important" can glaze the eyes. An "important" book sounds like an earnest, educational one you should read, when you get to it, someday, maybe.
"Rez Life" is important in the word's best sense -- one you'll want to read if you're at all curious about contemporary American Indians. It's important in the way Dee Brown's "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" was when it came out in 1970, deeply moving readers as it schooled them about Indian history in a way nothing else had.
David Treuer, who grew up on Minnesota's Leech Lake Reservation, is best known as the writer of novels that include "Little" and lesser known for "Native American Fiction," in which he challenged the way Indians are portrayed, even by native writers, and pleaded for works by and about Indians to be read as pure literature.
"Rez Life" is a different kind of book, a well researched mix of history, memoir and commentary that uses reservations to show how Indians got where they are today. Treuer loathes sentiment and stereotypes, and the people whose stories he tells are layered and complex, hard to pin down.
Yet he allows the book to draw one solid, hopeful conclusion -- that what best defines, binds and inspires modern Indians is the aboriginal languages they are reviving, and the wisdom that springs from this "new traditionalism." Language and culture classes have inspired and redeemed people who otherwise might have lost identity and purpose in the crucible of poverty, violence, addiction and aimlessness that plague many communities and families, he shows. He also has a lot of good, often witty, things to say about treaty rights and casinos and how they've empowered Indians.
At the book's heart is the reservation, "the paradoxically least and most American place in the 21st century," the land and communities that endure as places of Indian control and identity. "Most often rez life is associated with tragedy," he writes, yet "what one finds on reservations is more than scars, tears, blood, and noble sentiment. There is beauty in Indian life. ... We love our reservations."
Treuer embeds these ideas within stories about modern Indians. Among those he portrays: Dan and Dennis Jones -- forced to go to a Canadian boarding school where they were raped by an Indian man hired as a "role model" -- now strong, healed men who are helping others rise above trauma. Helen Bryan Johnson, whose refusal to pay $147 in taxes on her reservation trailer home led to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allowed casinos to flourish. Brooke Mosay Amman, an Ojibwe educator cut out of tribal membership by "blood quantum" rules that Treuer sees as the worst way to define an Indian. And, most personally and painfully, his 83-year-old grandfather, Eugene Seelye, a D-day veteran who killed himself in 2007.
"Rez Life" is not just about Indians, but about America. "You can tell a lot about America, about its sins and ideals, by looking at ... a kind of American who was supposed to have died out a long time ago," Treuer writes.
In the end, he concludes: "We might just make it." This impassioned, important book may well help make it so.
Pamela Miller is a Star Tribune night metro editor.