"The average man doesn't want to be free," H.L. Mencken said. "He simply wants to be safe." The Sage of Baltimore, so irritatingly right in so many things, is probably also right in this. The average man is not an American Indian, however, and the American Indian, I must conclude after reading On the Rez, Ian Frazier's book about the Oglala Sioux of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, is not the average man. It is the Indian's self-possessed sense of freedom that Frazier says makes him want to be an Indian, in his own peculiar way. He's not the only one; Indians, he says, understand that many visitors to reservations have a vaguely formed wish that they could be Indians. Maybe it's that sense of freedom that causes about 100,000 Germans a month, as I recently read elsewhere, to dress up as American Indians and attend gatherings to study the American West and Indian culture. Or maybe, as the folk song has it, freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose.
Frazier quotes a Jesuit brother (a non-Indian) who works at an Indian school near the reservation: "It's remarkable, really when you think about it, how much of their tribal culture the Sioux have retained. Far more than other ethnic groups have," the Jesuit says. It doesn't seem remarkable to me. When you're poor, badly treated, and lack opportunities, clinging to your roots and to something that makes you special is entirely understandable. If you've nothing left to lose, hang on to what can't be taken away. Whether or not Indians are free, they definitely are not safe. Murder and other violence, high infant mortality, shorter than average life expectancy, alcoholism, suicide (especially among youth) that reaches epidemic proportions all these and more fill the lives of Oglala Sioux. They are especially prone to death in automobile accidents.
Whose fault is this? Each person is responsible for his or her own life, of course. But Indians have been cheated, lied to, stolen from, defrauded, betrayed, murdered, dispossessed and discriminated against ever since the first Indian-robber stepped upon these shores. The safe average man would find it tough going to exercise his individual responsibility under those conditions. It's still going on. Whenever the Indian has something valuable, the government (fronting for commercial interests) steps in to take it away or restrict it. In the past it was land. Later it was hunting and fishing rights. More recently it has been gambling casinos. "No tribal enterprise in history has succeeded even remotely as well as tribal casinos," Frazier writes. So the states, lusting after this untaxable loot, pressed Congress into passing a law giving them some control over the casinos and forcing Indians to negotiate with them. The Navajo, realizing that when you sup with the devil no spoon is long enough, have consistently rejected casinos because of their diminishment of Indian sovereignty. But On the Rez is not just the latest litany of horrors visited upon aboriginal Americans. It is primarily a personal book a most agreeable and eccentric grab bag of a book, loosely drawn shut and with odd bulges whose chief purpose is to be a big fat Valentine to the Oglala Sioux. "Of course I want to be like Indians," Frazier says. "I've looked up to them all my life." To deliver the Valentine he flings himself upon his horse and rides madly off in all directions. The main direction, though, is determined by his good friend Le War Lance (a.k.a. Leonard Thomas Walks Out), a genial bullthrower and scrounge.
Frazier continually gives him and his friends and family money less, it seems, out of white guilt than simple brotherly love and listens to his self-image-enhancing tall tales, which incredibly often turn out to have a strong core of truth. Though Le sometimes makes him uneasy, Frazier never judges him, just as he never indulges in the white penchant for telling Indians how to get with the program. Of all the facts and statistics in this book, the most telling, I think, is this contrast: Pine Ridge village and the county containing it are year after year the poorest spots in the United States. The richest spots are the areas surrounding Washington, D.C. The richest and poorest both get their money from the federal government. Some people get to milk that cow from the right side.
Roger K. Miller, a member of no tribe but the Anglo-Saxon, is a freelance writer in Wisconsin.