A Sad Dispatch From South Dakota


By Ian Frazier

Farrar, Straus & Giroux 311pp $25

It's hard to read very far into Ian Frazier's peppy 1989 best-seller, Great Plains, without getting engrossed in one of the author's historical anecdotes or chuckling at his tales of experiences in the land "beyond newsstands and malls and velvet restaurant ropes." After weighing the various advantages of joining the army, going to truck-driving school, or playing the great golf courses of the world, Frazier decided instead to sublet his New York apartment and move to Montana in the early 1980s. On the plains, he consorted with Indians such as Jim Yellow Earring and studied tribal cultures, unearthing such facts as how, in the past, Indians found whites' custom of shaking hands to be hilarious and how they prepared such delicacies as dog, ants, and turtle eggs. The book also offered absorbing accounts of such Western legends as Crazy Horse, Billy the Kid, and Lawrence Welk.

Frazier's latest book, On the Rez, which focuses on Indian life on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation, is a different patch of ground altogether. The technique is much the same: The author alternates reports of his daily doings with material gathered from a range of secondary sources. There are lists of this and that, including one of Lakota (Sioux) words that have no equivalent in English and another of litter found on the ground at Pine Ridge. And some details grab attention: Did you know that Native Americans are "the fastest-growing ethnic group in the country"? Or that the Native American actors in the classic John Ford westerns are mostly Navajo, even though they may play members of other tribes?

But On the Rez is hardly exhilarating. In fact, there are times when it seems Frazier has set out to perplex or even bore his readers. "John woke up, and he and his brother Rex and Le sat on the couch and began to watch a sitcom called Major Dad. Le had seen this episode already and he explained the plot to them.... RaeDawn pulled a cushion from an armchair onto the floor and began to do somersaults on it. Le and Rex began to talk about a car, a Volare, that someone was trying to fix up...."

Maybe the point is that the lives of Frazier's friend Le War Lance (who also appears in Great Plains as the self-professed grandson of Crazy Horse) and his fellow Oglala Sioux have little purpose or direction. We see them spending countless hours driving around the rez--often with Budweisers in hand--hanging out at Big Bat's Texaco, smoking, fixing cars, watching the tube, and bumming money. There are also accounts of shootings, stabbings, and many car wrecks.

Poverty is, of course, commonplace on the reservations of the more than 700 Indian tribes in the U.S. Although five tribes run casinos that gross at least $100 million a year, over 30% of Native Americans have incomes below the poverty line, and 90,000 Indian families are homeless.

Alcohol is ever present. The author describes numerous bars, from Rapid City, S.D., to Brooklyn, that have catered largely to a Native American clientele. One of these, the now-defunct Casey's Golden Pheasant in Billings, Mont., bore a prominent sign reading "Firewater." Sioux and Cheyenne patrons there often taunted members of the Crow tribe--whose forebears had served as U.S. Army scouts--by singing a brawl-provoking song ending "You helped Custer! Yaaaaaaaa!" Today, Frazier says, Native American bars seem to be vanishing--even though the hard-drinking ways haven't.

In spite of all that, Frazier doesn't want us to think of Native American life as unhappy. He mocks the common perception that reservations are "bleak," arguing that Indian culture, past and present, has produced "heroes of all sizes." He tells us, for example, of his admiration for Clyde Bellecourt, who in 1968 was one of the founders of the American Indian Movement, an organization that the author says "changed the way people regarded Indians" by showing "that a powerful Indian identity remained." (Frazier also describes but makes no judgment about a 1973 AIM protest of government policies at Wounded Knee, S.D., during which two FBI agents were killed.)

But the author bestows his highest praise not on warriors but on conciliators: Red Cloud, whom he calls "perhaps the most imporant Indian leader of the 19th century," and SuAnne Marie Big Crow, a high school athlete of the 1980s and '90s. Following Oglala Sioux chief Red Cloud's victory over the U.S. Army in the Powder River War of the 1860s, he made peace--and was forced to surrender more and more to the whites, including the Black Hills. SuAnne powered her basketball team, the Pine Ridge Lady Thorpes, to victory in the 1989 state championship and won national recognition as part of USA Today's all-American roster. The author also lauds her bravery in the face of anti-Indian hostility--in fact, he goes so far as to say "words fail me when I try to say how much I admire her." But in neither case does Frazier persuade the reader that his heroes merit such extravagant encomiums.

In 1992, SuAnne was killed in a car crash, following the sad path traveled by many others in her tribe. What's behind the misfortunes that plague Pine Ridge? "The only word for it...is evil," Frazier decides. It's a strange and unsatisfying conclusion to a demanding and puzzling book.