Entertainment & Arts

The Writing Life: David Treuer mines his family’s ‘Rez Life’

David Treuer never planned on writing nonfiction. “I was happy working on my novels,” the fiction writer and USC professor says over the phone from Ann Arbor, where he is visiting the University of Michigan to talk about his new book, “Rez Life: An Indian’s Journey Through Reservation Life” (Grove: 330 pp., $26). “But after the Red Lake shooting in 2005" — in which a 16-year-old named Jeffrey James Weise went on a shooting spree at a school on Minnesota’s Red Lake Reservation — “I became upset and frustrated with the coverage. I had worked at that school. My father had taught there. The news was telling the same old story, that our lives, as Indians, are tragic. But there was more to reservation life, and more to that shooting. When [Grove Press publisher] Morgan Entrekin asked if I could write a book about these issues, I thought: How hard could it be?”

Seven years later, Treuer laughs at his presumption — or perhaps “innocence” is a better word. “Rez Life” is a book that kept complicating its narrative, its author’s sense of what it meant to be Native American. “From the moment I agreed to write it,” Treuer says, “I was looking for a plot. I thought about the school shooting, but that seemed dirty.”

It wasn’t until 2007, two years into the project, that he began to understand that he was going to need a personal lens. The catalyst was the suicide of his grandfather, Eugene Seelye, who had lived for 80 of his 83 years on the Leech Lake Reservation in Minnesota (where Treuer was also born and raised). “My grandfather’s death was tragic,” he says, “but his life was not tragic. I didn’t want him to be defined in terms of his last fraction of a second when there was so much more.” As an example, Treuer notes that Seelye lived in the only place that mattered to him, surrounded by the only people who mattered to him, a bounty that eludes many more overtly privileged lives.

It’s not that his grandfather was particularly happy; some of the most moving passages in the book deal with the author’s ambivalence, or outright discomfort, toward him, a distance less generational than constitutional. “My grandfather was not an easy man,” Treuer writes. “He was not … the kind of traditional elder that a lot of younger people seek out for approval and advice.… When we were kids and my cousins and I came into the house from playing, more often than not he would say, ‘Get the hell out.’”

After the suicide, Treuer began to think about connections, complications, ways Seelye’s experience both represented and pushed against the clichés of Native American life.

Such issues motivate his novels — “Little” (1995), “The Hiawatha” (1999) and “The Translation of Dr. Apelles” (2006) — which, shifting between past and present, the reservation and the city, play with our preconceptions of Indian culture, what he dismisses as “trauma porn.” But with “Rez Life,” Treuer likens the process more to that of writing his grandfather’s eulogy, which required looking below the surface for a message, to find meaning in an inexplicable event.

“Eulogies,” he says, “are to be useful to the living, and for me, the book had to be useful also. It had to have that same kind of generosity.”

Generosity is an important element of “Rez Life” because of both the voices Treuer works into the narrative and the depth to which he reveals himself. Still, it is not, for all its intimacy, a memoir, just as it is not exactly a work of reportage or a work of history. Rather, it is a nuanced hybrid, broken into six chapters, each of which begins in the personal, then expands outward to a larger theme. Sovereignty, fishing, treaty rights, the tribal justice system, education, language and assimilation — Treuer examines all of it, finding associations between the broadest stories and the most individual.

Why can reservations have casinos? The answer goes back to two precedents: Worcester v. Georgia, an 1832 Supreme Court case affirming the sovereignty rights of the Cherokee; and a $147 tax bill struck down, a century and a half later, on the grounds that it was illegal for the state to “assess a personal property tax on Indians living on Indian lands.” What, the author asks, makes someone Indian? Such a question becomes more fraught the more gambling income grows. “No one could have foreseen so many people wanting to be Indian,” Treuer writes, “after 500 years of trying to kill us and 200 years of trying not to be Indian.”

Even Treuer is on the bubble here, the son of an Ojibwe mother and a Jewish father, a European refugee who moved to the Leech Lake Reservation in the 1950s and became a social worker and an activist.

And yet, this bit of personal history opens up “Rez Life,” as does Treuer’s Princeton education and his career as a writer, his sense of himself as an insider who is also on the outside, something he shares with everyone. This is the key idea, he believes:

“The reservations are not places that have been set aside; they’re the heart of the heartland. They’re central in the same way Indians have always been central to America’s self-conception: as fantasy and history. Indian people have lived in tension with Western governments from the beginning. We had to be moved or done away with in order for America to take shape, but this had to be done in a certain way so America could keep its sense of itself as a moral democratic project. This raises all sorts of tensions, but also all sorts of possibilities, not least the unassailable moral position in which it puts us, as a set of sovereign nations within the United States.”

At heart here is a sense of place, of identity, and it affects Treuer directly; even now, he spends about a third of the year “in some capacity” at Leech Lake. Yet this comes with a set of complications built in. What does place mean when land allotments have divided reservations up like checkerboards, so that in some, including Leech Lake, more whites than Indians live on native land? What does identity mean when traditional languages are dying, when the very thing that has brought money into Indian communities — the commercialization of the casinos — threatens to undermine a more traditional way of life?

In “Rez Life,” Treuer raises all these questions, although he doesn’t come to any easy answers. That too is part of the point. “I thought I knew a lot,” he says with a laugh. “The first thing I learned was that I didn’t. To write this book, I basically went to school for seven years.” In a way, this recalls his notion of himself as a novelist, discovering the complexities of a new genre. But even more, it suggests a locus where fiction and nonfiction come together, where both add up to literature.

“When you’re writing a book,” Treuer explains, “the how inevitably shapes the what. Bad literature, all it does is narrow our vision, so we see what we expect to see. Great literature can expand our experience. It’s like when you’re out hunting, if you’re looking for one animal, you miss a lot of stuff. It’s better to keep your eyes open. A writer needs soft eyes.”