Cover image for On the rez
On the rez
Frazier, Ian.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2000.
Physical Description:
311 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm
Personal Subject:
Format :


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Material Type
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E99.O3 F73 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
E99.O3 F73 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
E99.O3 F73 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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A great writer's journey of exploration in an American place that is both strange and deeply familiar. In Ian Frazier's bestselling Great Plains, he described meeting a man in New York City named Le War Lance, "an Oglala Sioux Indian from Oglala, South Dakota." In On the Rez, Frazier returns to the plains and focuses on a place at their center-the Pine Ridge Reservation in the prairie and badlands of South Dakota, home of the Oglala Sioux. Frazier drives around "the rez" with Le War Lance and other Oglalas as they tell stories, visit relatives, go to powwows and rodeos and package stores, and try to find parts to fix one or another of their on-the-verge-of-working cars. On the Rez considers Indian ideas of freedom and community and equality that are basic to how we view ourselves. Most of all, he examines the Indian idea of heroism-its suffering and its pulse-quickening, public-spirited glory. On the Rez portrays the survival, through toughness and humor, of a great people whose culture has shaped our American identity.

Author Notes

Writer and broadcaster Ian Frazier was born in Ohio and educated at Harvard University, where he wrote for the Harvard Lampoon.

After his graduation he joined The New Yorker staff and frequently contributes to The Atlantic Monthly.

His writing collections Dating Your Mom and Coyote V. Acme earned him a Thurber Prize for American Humor. The Great Plains won a 1990 Spur Award for Nonfiction from the Western Writers of America. Frazier has appeared on the National Public Radio Program A Prairie Home Companion and has acted in Smoke and Blue in the Face, both of which are Wayne Wang and Paul Auster films.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Frazier writes urbane and witty essays for magazines such as the New Yorker, and he writes books that exemplify the best of immersion journalism. Energetically detailed first-person narratives, they combine detectivelike observations with history, travelogue, and social commentary. The first and most popular of these works was Great Plains (1989), in which Frazier reported on his journey from New York across the great American West. A meeting with an Oglala Sioux named Le War Lance proved crucial to his exploration, and Le plays an even larger role in Frazier's second foray. After Frazier and his family moved from Manhattan to Missoula, Montana, he decided to write about life on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, where Le, a man of courage and convictions, a teller of tall tales, a heavy drinker, and a master manipulator, provided entree into the homes of family and friends as long as Frazier kept his wallet and car at the ready. In between recounting every nuance of every experience, Frazier profiles Le and his family, American Indian Movement leader Russell Means, historical personages including Crazy Horse and Red Cloud, and SuAnne Marie Big Crow, a high-school basketball star who epitomized the best and most tragic aspects of Pine Ridge. He also writes with indelible precision about the reservation's dwellings and treacherous roads and highways as well as the grim and violent town of White Clay, Nebraska. By weaving the past with the present and illuminating so many aspects of Indian life, Frazier's frank and adroitly improvised narrative will stand as one of literature's most complex yet most clarifying testaments to the essence of American Indian culture. --Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

When telling non-Indians that he was writing a book about the American Indian, Frazier (Great Plains, etc.) received a nearly unanimous reaction: that the subject sounds bleak. "Oddly," he says, "it is a word I never heard used by Indians themselves." Frazier builds his narrative--or, more deliberately, unpacks it, since he has no discernable plot, chronology or conclusion--around his 20-year friendship with the Indian Le War Lance and the Oglala Sioux of South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation. Though no "wannabe" or "buckskinner," Frazier emulates and reveres "the self-possessed sense of freedom" that he claims is the Indian contribution to the American character, adopted by the earliest European settlers and preserved in our system of government. Frazier's record of his travels with Le War Lance includes the tolls of alcohol, fights and car wrecks (Le claims to have survived 11 of them) and acknowledges the realities as well as the clich‚s of reservation life. But in his rendering, the calamities of American Indian life are outweighed by the pervasiveness and endurance of that same sense of freedom, a feeling that Frazier captures in his style, his organization, his wonderful eye for detail. Probably no book since Evan S. Connell's Son of the Morning Star has so imaginatively evoked the spirit of the American Indian in American life; like Connell's tours of the Little Bighorn battlefield, Frazier's visits to Pine Ridge and Wounded Knee, and to the descendants of Red Cloud and Black Elk, frame a broad meditation on American history, myth and misconception. Funny and sad, but never bleak, his meandering narrative is, in fact, the composite of many voices and many kinds of history. Agent, Andrew Wylie. (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Following his other road books, the marvelous Great Plains (1989) and Family (1994), Frazier moved his family out West and spent several years exploring South Dakota's Pine Ridge Agency, hoping to enter (as far as "a middle-class white guy" with a ponytail can) the world of the Oglala Sioux. After starting with an uncharacteristic rant about modern American culture, he settles into his quietly observed adventures with friends Le War Lance and Floyd John, whom he fascinatedly and exasperatedly follows (and often drives) around their reservation, where local heroes include Crazy Horse, Red Cloud, and a high school basketball star named SuAnne Big Crow. While also making sidetrips into the Lakota language, Wounded Knee, Sioux political history, and the national disappearance of Indian bars, Frazier's broader interest is in the influence of Indian ideas of bravery and human freedom on the American character. His narrative tips at times between writing about his Pine Ridge friends and some Universal Indian, but the story always veers nicely back to specifics on the rez, a landscape "dense with stories." It's the seemingly casual artistry of his descriptionsÄof evocative prairie junk, a highway snow squall, a summer powwow in a field full of hoppers, the pure experience of roamingÄfrom which Frazier's book gains its resonant strength. Highly recommended for all collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 9/15/99.]ÄNathan Ward, "Library Journal" (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

School Library Journal Review

YA-Frazier's book occupies a refreshing middle ground between sentimental worship of everything Native American and a blanket dismissal of all Indians as drunks and layabouts. Some early chapters are about the state of particular tribes today, including statistics; much of this information will be new to most readers. Most of the book is about the Oglala Sioux of the Pine Ridge reservation south of South Dakota's Badlands and about Frazier's long friendship with an Oglala Sioux named Le War Dance. Readers meet Le while he is living in New York City, where his contribution to the narrative seems obscure. Later, though, Frazier visits him on the rez, where he is the entre to reservation life. In large part, the author observes that the women work while the men drink beer and the ensuing chaos-auto accidents, suicides, etc.-is a sad turnoff to readers. At the same time, Frazier limns the good parts: the businesses that work, and the people who make things run despite daunting odds. Much of the last half of the book is given to the short but generous life of an extraordinary high school basketball star who helped her Indian team win the state championship and whose ideals live on at Pine Ridge. From a concise retelling of how some tribes got into the casino business, or a short treatise on odd Indian names, to a portrait of the American Indian Movement of the `70s, there is something here for anyone interested in current Indian affairs.-Judy McAloon, Potomac Library, Prince William County, VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



CHAPTER 1 T his book is about Indians, particularly the Oglala Sioux who live on the Pine Ridge Reservation in southwestern South Dakota, in the plains and badlands in the middle of the United States. People want to know what a book is about right up front, I have found. They feel this way even if the book does not yet exist, if it is only planned. When I describe the subject to non-Indians, they often reply that it sounds bleak. "Bleak" is the word attached in many people's minds to the idea of certain Indian reservations, of which the Oglala's reservation is perhaps the best example. Oddly, it is a word I have never heard used by Indians themselves. Many thousands of people--not just Americans, but German and French and English people, and more--visit the reservations every year, and the prevailing opinion among the Indians is not that they come for the bleakness. The Indians understand that the visitors are there out of curiosity and out of an admiration which sometimes even reaches such a point that the visitors wish they could be Indians, too. I am a middle-aged non-Indian who wears his hair in a thinning ponytail copied originally from the traditional-style long hair of the leaders of the American Indian Movement of the 1970s, because I thought it looked cool. When I'm driving across a field near the town of Oglala on the Pine Ridge Reservation and I see my friend Floyd John walking across it the other way, I stop, and he comes over to the car and leans in the window and smiles a big-tooth grin and says, "How ya' doin', wannabe?" I kind of resent the term "wannabe"--what's wrong with wanting to be something, anyway?--but in my case there's some truth to it. I don't want to participate in traditional Indian religious ceremonies, dance in a sun dance or pray in a sweat lodge or go on a vision quest with the help of a medicine man. The power of these ceremonies has an appeal, but I'm content with what little religion I already have. I think Indians dress better than anyone, but I don't want to imitate more than a detail or two; I prefer my clothes humdrum and inconspicuous, and a cowboy hat just doesn't work for me. I don't want to collect Indian art, though pots and beadwork and blankets made by Indians remain the most beautiful art objects in the American West, in my opinion. I don't want to be adopted into a tribe, be wrapped in a star quilt and given a new name, honor though that would be. I don't want to stand in the dimness under the shelter at the powwow grounds in the group around the circle of men beating the drums and singing ancient songs and lose myself in that moment when all the breaths and all the heartbeats become one. What I want is just as "Indian," just as traditional, but harder to pin down. In 1608, the newly arrived Englishmen at Jamestown colony in Virginia proposed to give the most powerful Indian in the vicinity, Chief Powhatan, a crown. Their idea was to coronate him a sub-emperor of Indians, and vassal to the English King. Powhatan found the offer insulting. "I also am a King," he said, "and this is my land." Joseph Brant, a Mohawk of the Iroquois Confederacy between eastern New York and the Great Lakes, was received as a celebrity when he went to England with a delegation from his tribe in 1785. Taken to St. James's Palace for a royal audience, he refused to kneel and kiss the hand of George III; he told the King that he would, however, gladly kiss the hand of the Queen. Almost a century later, the U.S. government gave Red Cloud, victorious war leader of the Oglala, the fanciest reception it knew how, with a dinner party at the White House featuring lighted chandeliers and wine and a dessert of strawberries and ice cream. The next day Red Cloud parleyed with the government officials just as he was accustomed to on the prairie--sitting on the floor. To a member of a Senate select committee who had delivered a tirade against Sitting Bull, the Hunkpapa Sioux leader carelessly replied, "I have grown to be a very independent man, and consider myself a very great man." That self-possessed sense of freedom is closer to what I want; I want to be an uncaught Indian like them. Another remark which non-Indians often make on the subject of Indians is "Why can't they get with the program?" Anyone who talks about Indians in public will be asked that question, or variations on it; over and over: Why don't Indians forget all this tribal nonsense and become ordinary Americans like the rest of us? Why do they insist on living in the past? Why don't they accept the fact that we won and they lost? Why won't they stop, finally, being Indians and join the modern world? I have a variety of answers handy. Sometimes I say that in former days "the program" called for the eradication of Indian languages, and children in Indian boarding schools were beaten for speaking them and forced to speak English, so they would fit in; time passed, cultural fashions changed, and Hollywood made a feature film about Indians in which for the sake of authenticity the Sioux characters spoke Sioux (with English subtitles), and the movie became a hit, and lots of people decided they wanted to learn Sioux, and those who still knew the language, those who had somehow managed to avoid "the program" in the first place, were suddenly the ones in demand. Now, I think it's better not to answer the question but to ask a question in return: What program, exactly, do you have in mind? We live in a craven time. I am not the first to point out that capitalism, having defeated Communism, now seems to be about to do the same to democracy. The market is doing splendidly, yet we are not, somehow. Americans today no longer work mostly in manufacturing or agriculture but in the newly risen service economy. That means that most of us make our living by being nice. And if we can't be nice, we'd better at least be neutral. In the service economy, anyone who sat where he pleased in the presence of power or who expatiated on his own greatness would soon be out the door. "Who does he think he is?" is how the dismissal is usually framed. The dream of many of us is that someday we might miraculously have enough money that we could quit being nice, and everybody would then have to be nice to us, and niceness would surround us like a warm dome. Certain speeches we would love to make accompany this dream, glorious, blistering tellings-off of those to whom we usually hold our tongue. The eleven people who actually have enough money to do that are icons to us. What we read in newsprint and see on television always reminds us how great they are, and we can't disagree. Unlike the rest of us, they can deliver those speeches with no fear. The freedom that inhered in Powhatan, that Red Cloud carried with him from the plains to Washington as easily as air--freedom to be and to say, whenever, regardless of disapproval--has become a luxury most of us can't afford. From a historical perspective, this looks a lot like where America came in. When Columbus landed, there were about eleven people in Europe who could do whatever they felt like doing. Part of the exhilaration of the age was the rumored freedom explorers like Columbus found. Suddenly imagination was given a whole continent full of people who had never heard of Charlemagne, or Pope Leo X, or quitrents, or the laws of entail, and who were doing fine. Amerigo Vespucci, the explorer whose name and the continent's would be the same, brought back news that in this land "every one is his own master." If this land new to Europeans was the setting, the lives of these untrammeled people suggested the plot: we could drop anchor in the bay, paddle up the river, wade up the creek, meet a band of Indians, and with them disappear forever into the country's deepest green. No tyranny could hold us; if Indians could live as they liked, so could we. The popular refrain about Indians nowadays is that they and their culture were cruelly destroyed. It's a breast-beatingly comfortable idea, from the destroyers' point of view. In the nineteenth century, with white people firmly established on the continent, common wisdom had it that the Indian must eventually die out. That meant die, literally, and give way in a Darwinian sense to the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon. "Adieu, red brother! You are going to join the Mastodon and the Scthysaurus," wrote humorist Bill Nye in 1891, shortly after the massacre at Wounded Knee. In the twentieth century, stories of the Indians' destruction, set mostly in the past tense, made a follow-up to this comfortable idea. From one century to the next, the destruction of the Indians was such a common theme that if they did not die out in fact, by the sound of it they might as well have. But beyond the sphere of rhetoric, the Indians as a people did not die out, awful though the suffering was. Killing people is one thing, killing them off is another. The Sand Creek Massacre, one of the bloodiest episodes on the Western frontier and a permanent scar on the history of the state of Colorado, killed at least two hundred, mostly women and children, of Chief Black Kettle's band of Southern Cheyenne in 1864. Today there are more than four thousand descendants of Sand Creek Massacre survivors; they hope for restitution and a reservation of their own. New England's Pequots, a tribe "extinct as the ancient Medes," according to Herman Melville, rebounded from a recent time when just two members were still living on the reservation and now run a gambling casino which takes in x billion dollars a year. The Mohicans, of whom we were supposed to have seen the last in the 1750s, recently prevented Wal-Mart from building a multiacre discount store on land they consider sacred in upstate New York. In 1900, there were fewer than a quarter of a million Indians in the United States. Today there are two million or more. The population of those claiming Indian descent on the census forms has been growing four times as fast as the population as a whole, making Native Americans one of the fastest-growing ethnic groups in the country. Like many comfortable stories, the story of the Indians' destruction hides other stories that are less so. For starters, it leaves out that the destruction was and is actually worse than can be easily described. A well-informed person probably knows of the bigger and more famous massacres, but big and small massacres took place in many states over the years. Killing Indians was once the official policy of the state of California, which spent a million dollars reimbursing Indian-hunters for the ammunition they used. Helen Hunt Jackson's history of Indian-white relations, A Century of Dishonor , published in 1881, recounted episodes of killing and mistreatment which have long faded into the past. Its modern reader can weep at descriptions of massacres he has never heard of--does anyone besides those who live in the town of Gnadenhutten, Ohio, know of the slaughter in 1780 of the peaceful Indians at the Moravian mission there? Jackson's book could be revised and reissued today, with another hundred years added to the title. After the frontier gunfire died down, violence and untimely death found other means. The Indian was supposed to be heading off to join his ancestors in the Happy Hunting Ground, and the path he might take to get there (alcoholism? pneumonia? car wreck? the flu epidemic of 1918?) apparently did not need to be too closely explained. The violence continued, and continues today. Among the Navajo, the largest tribe in the United States, car accidents are the leading cause of death. Especially in Western towns that border big reservations, stabbings and fights and car wrecks are a depressingly regular part of life. Also, the destruction story gives the flattering and wrong impression that European culture showed up in the Americas and simply mowed down whatever was in its way. In fact, the European arrivals were often hungry and stunned in their new settlements, and what they did to Indian culture was more than matched for years by what encounters with Indians did to theirs. Via the settlers, Indian crops previously unknown outside the Americas crossed the Atlantic and changed Europe. Indian farmers were the first to domesticate corn, peanuts, tomatoes, pumpkins, and many kinds of beans. Russia and Ireland grew no potatoes before travelers found the plant in Indian gardens in South America; throughout Europe, the introduction of the potato caused a rise in the standard of living and a population boom. Before Indians, no one in the world had ever smoked tobacco. No one in the Bible (or in any other pre-Columbian text, for that matter) ever has a cigarette, dips snuff, or smokes a pipe. The novelty of breathing in tobacco smoke or chewing the dried leaves caught on so fast in Europe that early colonists made fortunes growing tobacco; it was America's first cash crop. That the United States should now be so determined to stamp out all smoking seems historically revisionist and strange. Surrounded as we are today by pavement, we assume that Indians have had to adapt to us. But for a long time much of the adapting went the other way. In the land of the free, Indians were the original "free"; early America was European culture reset in an Indian frame. Europeans who survived here became a mixture of identities in which the Indian part was what made them American and different than they had been before. Influence is harder to document than corn and beans, but as real. We know that Iroquois Indians attended meetings of the colonists in the years before the American Revolution and advised them to unite in a scheme for self-government based on the confederacy that ruled the six Iroquois nations; and that Benjamin Franklin said, at a gathering of delegates from the colonies in Albany in 1754, "It would be a strange thing if six nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming a scheme for such a union and be able to execute it in such a manner as that it has subsisted for ages and appears indissoluble, and yet that a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies." His use of the term "ignorant savages" is thought to have been ironical; he admired the Iroquois plan, and it formed one of the models for the U.S. Constitution. We know, too, that Thomas Jefferson thought that American government should follow what he imagined to be the Indian way. He wrote: " ... were it made a question, whether no law, as among the savage Americans, or too much law, as among the civilized Europeans, submits man to the greatest evil, one who has seen both conditions of existence would pronounce it to be the last ... It will be said, that great societies cannot exist without government. The savages, therefore, break them into small ones." Indian people today sometimes talk about the need to guard their culture carefully, so that it won't be stolen from them. But what is best (and worst) about any culture can be as contagious as a cold germ; the least contact passes it on. In colonial times, Indians were known for their disregard of titles and for a deep egalitarianism that made them not necessarily defer even to the leading men of their tribes. The route this trait took as it passed from Indian to white was invisible. Probably, contagion occurred during official gatherings, as when an exalted person arrived at a frontier place from the governor's palace or across the sea. The Indians spoke to the exalted person directly, equals addressing an equal, with no bowing or scraping or bending of the knee. Then, when their white neighbors got up to speak, perhaps ordinary self-consciousness made it hard to act any differently--to do the full routine of obeisance customary back in England--with the Indians looking on. Or maybe it was even simpler, a demonstration of the principle that informal behavior tends to drive out formal, given time. However the transfer happened, in a few generations it was complete; the American character had become thoroughly Indian in its outspokenness and all-around skepticism on the subject of who was and was not great. We often hear that Indians traditionally believed in the Great Circle of Being, the connectedness of all creation, and the sacredness of every blade of grass. That the example of individual freedom among the Indians of the Americas inspired writers from Thomas More to Locke to Shakespeare to Voltaire is seldom mentioned these days. (None of those writers, for their part, seem to have heard of the Great Circle of Being.) The Indians' love of independence and freedom has dwindled in description in recent years to the lone adjective "proud." Any time the Apache, for example, or the Comanche, or a noted Indian leader is described, that adjective is likely to be someplace close by. We are told that the Comanche or the Apache were or are "a proud people," and we get used to hearing it, and we forget what it means: centuries of resistance to authority, intractibility and independent-mindedness have won them only that brief epithet. The excitement of new discoveries in the Americas fired all sorts of fantasies about Indians in the minds of Europeans, and Indians remain the objects of fantasy today. The current fantasy might be summed up: American Indians were a proud people who believed in the Great Circle of Being and were cruelly destroyed. I don't doubt that Indians in general saw all parts of creation as holy; references to such beliefs come up often in translated and transcribed speeches of Indians from years ago. At a treaty council between General Oliver O. Howard and the Nez Perce in 1877, Howard got tired of what he called "the oft-repeated dreamer nonsense" of the Indians, and told them, "Twenty times over I hear that the earth is your mother, and about the chieftainship of the earth. I want to hear it no more." What strikes me as fishy is that white people, having had no apparent interest in the Great Circle of Being for centuries, should find it so compelling now. I think its appeal has partly to do with its vague and unthreatening environmentalism, the genial Earth Day sort that leaves larger problems aside. Beyond that, I think the idea of connectedness is its key selling point. It reminds me of an advertisement for a telephone company, the one that used to say, "We're all connected." That statement could be further from the truth, but not much; no matter how many wires we thread into our homes, no matter the increasing complexity of the machines we hook them to, we are getting more disconnected all the time. People with money and without, people of different races and sexual identities, people in tinier and tinier areas of specialization, people in various categories off in gated communities by themselves--we are divided and a scattered every which way. Whiskey-trading forts on the Western frontier had special entrance enclosures where goods could be exchanged under guard, with escape doors at the other end for the traders in case negotiations got out of hand. That's essentially the connectedness the modern "we're-all-connected" world provides. The Indian inclination toward personal freedom, no matter the consequences, made for endless division and redivision among tribes. Social problems often were solved geographically: you and I don't get along, so you stay here and my family and friends and I will move over there. Also, of course, splitting up into smaller groups was an efficient way to use the wild resources of the land. To give an accurate picture of any tribe, you need not just an identifying name or two but plenty of subcategories as well. For example, the Sioux, a populous and powerful tribe west of the Great Lakes when white men arrived, got that name apparently from a French corruption of the word nadowesioux, which was said to mean "little snakes" in the language of their enemies the Chippewa. Among themselves, the Sioux used (and use) the name Lakota, or variations of it, to indicate the tribe as a whole. Lakota means "allies." Setting aside the Assiniboine Sioux, a more northerly tribe, the Sioux in the United States were of three kinds: the Eastern, or Santee Sioux, who lived near the Mississippi in and around what is now Minnesota; the Yankton Sioux, a central branch, who lived between them and the Missouri; and the Western, or Teton Sioux, who lived farther to the west, on the Great Plains. The Santee were divided into a number of tribes, including the Sisseton, the Wahpekute, and the Mdewakanton. The Yankton had two subgroups--the Yankton and the Yanktonai. The Teton Sioux were of seven tribes, also called the seven council fires. They were the Sicangu, the Minnecojou, the Oohenumpa, the Itazipcho, the Sihasapa, the Hunkpapa, and the Oglala. Each name has a Lakota meaning whose origin is more or less obscure. One translation of Oglala is "dust scatterers." It may have come from a time when members of that tribe tried unsuccessfully to farm in the unwatered soil of the plains. After the Western Sioux got horses, they thrived as buffalo hunters on the plains. The Oglala tribe grew in numbers, and spread out and divided into bands. Important moments in Oglala history involved a conflict between a band of Oglala called the Bad Faces and a band called the Cut Off People. There were other bands of Oglala as well. Historians have said that this kind of social division was a reason for the Indians' defeat. Inability to unite in common interest ruined the conspiracy of Pontiac, and the alliance Tecumseh tried to create among tribes resisting white encroachment in 1811. Indians lost battles because they couldn't keep together and attack all at the same time, like the white soldiers. Indian leaders often worried more about enemies within the tribe than about threats from outside, and survived wars with the whites only to die at the hands of Indian rivals. Certainly, pursuit of individual freedom among Indians has had a dreadful downside in quarreling and jealousy. Some Indians say that jealousy is a bigger problem for their people than alcohol. On Indian reservations nationwide, it is hard to find one that has no ongoing intratribal dispute. Any smugness at the thought of this urge to division in Indian society ignores how powerful it has been in the United States at large. From a certain perspective, the history of the United States has been the history of schism. Whether we would be one nation or many has perplexed us from the start. The Civil War seemed to decide the question in favor of unity. Many Northerners who cared nothing for the fate of enslaved blacks had been persuaded to fight to preserve the union; "Union!" was the wartime rallying cry that echoed in the names of national companies like the Western Union Telegraph Company and the Union Pacific Railroad that prospered after the war. As a plot device, union proved ideal. It gave the American story a clarity of outcome and a vista of happily-ever-after. Out of many, so we were told, we had become one. Disunion, on the other hand, is complicated and ambiguous and inconclusive, and more difficult to describe. In our history whose winner is union, disunion is the bad guy, the loser. Its story is less often told. But it holds there, right below the surface of American history, threatening to turn the story of our union into countless numbers of stories too complicated to follow or tell. We know, for example, that the United States has been a Protestant-majority nation since it began. That fact seems simple, white-bread, monochrome. But the origin of Protestantism was protest and argument. Especially in the early nineteenth century the Protestants in America argued and disagreed and divided into factions so prolifically as to make the Indian tribes seem unanimous by comparison. A glance into the can of worms that is the Baptist sects, the Hard-Shell and Foot-Washing and Six Principle and Free Will and Primitive and so on, or at the multiplicity of Presbyterian sects strewn across the range of opinion on the doctrine of predestination, suggests why there is not yet any comprehensive and coherent account of the Protestant Churches of America. Like Indian tribes, Protestant Churches split up into smaller groups, solved disputes geographically, and took advantage of the immensity and variety of the land. America was resettled by Protestant division, as it had been settled by Indian division before. Confidently unum, we looked down on the Indian pluribus; but we have always been at least as pluribus as they. So, to the question "Why can't Indians get with the program?" one might reply that we have already gotten with theirs. Immigrants did not simply reproduce in America the life they had left behind overseas. They adapted instead to the culture they found here, a native culture that was immeasurably old and that still survives today. The latest version of American history tends to describe the meeting of white and Indian in terms of despoilment, with the Indian getting the worst of it, as indeed occurred. But such accounts can't do justice to the thrilling spark of freedom in the encounter--the freedom the Indians had, the freedom that white people found. As surely as Indians gave the world corn and tobacco and potatoes, they gave it a revolutionary new idea of what a human being could be. Thanks to Indians, we learned we didn't have to kneel to George III. In the droning sameness of history, this was front-page, glorious news: we could walk the earth the equal of anyone we met, no princeling's inferior, unobliged to kiss anyone's hand in subjugation or to have anyone kiss ours. As with other inventions, this one succeeded because it met people who were ready for it, and Enlightenment-era Europeans in particular were. Generations of thought about the right relationship of people to God and to each other had already moved Europeans away from the oppressions of feudalism; but the example of freedom and equality among Indians provided a resounding real-life confirmation of theory. The pursuit of freedom drove the social revolutions that occupied much of the world over the last two centuries, and reform in the name of equality produced great improvements and disasters. Now, in America, we have gotten used to freedom. We heard about it in school, we know we have it, theoretically; and so what? With regard to its original thrill, we are like frequent fliers grown so used to the routine of modern air travel that we've lost the heart-lifting joy people felt at the sight of Wilbur Wright flying past the New York skyline and circling the Statue of Liberty in his homemade biplane back in 1909. But like the principles of flight, the idea of freedom still survives. It is what makes people all over the world still want to come to America, and still have hopes for what America can be and do. It is part of the allure in American advertising, and in American popular music, and in the images we export of gangsters and bikers and heavily armed lone-wolf fighters of evil. Freedom illuminates the cheapest made-in-Taiwan feathers in the toy-store Indian costume and provides the theme of every Western movie, in which the irresponsible and too-free freedom of wild Indians and outlaws yields inevitably to the more responsible, less-free freedom which we townsfolk understand. And now we look out upon the traffic jam and wonder, "Is this the land of the free?" We turn on the television along with the rest of America every evening and wonder whether this is the equality the Founders had in mind. Yes, we do kiss a hand now and then, the boss's or the loan officer's or the preferred customer's--it's just part of life, no big deal--and we take a certain pleasure in having our own hand kissed as well. (Though our kissing metaphor, like the rest of our culture, has moved a bit lower down.) The day after tomorrow the earth will be so crowded you won't be able to turn around without stepping on someone's toes, and what will be the purpose of freedom then? In our spare moments we worry about what the world's coming to, and our worry breeds proposals: one expert reveals that the solution is all in education, in improving the public schools and in hiring more teachers to reduce the number of students per classroom. Another says the solution requires the perfection of the electric car. Others talk of changing the policies of the Federal Reserve Bank, of campaign-finance reform, of making new laws or getting rid of laws we already have. Not long ago I read in the newspaper about new kinds of bioengineered trees that will produce nearly thirty times the annual growth of ordinary trees, thereby supposedly saving the rain forests and providing us with lumber and protecting the ozone until kingdom come. But even if we somehow do all the experts say we should, and even if the solutions work better than we could expect, will we be free? Will the question even be mentioned at all? Will anything remain of that urge to freedom that drove people across oceans and continents, and caused them to struggle and die, and inspired them to speechify in such high-flown terms? In our smaller public school classes, at the wheels of our electric cars, in control of our bank policies and our politicians' campaign spending, listening to the rustling of our frantically photosynthesizing trees, what kind of people will we be? Will we be a free people, will that idea have meaning anymore? When I go to Indian reservations in the West, and especially to the Pine Ridge Reservation, I sometimes feel unsure where to put my foot when I open the car door. The very ground is different from where I usually stand. There are fewer curbs, fewer sidewalks, and almost no street signs, mailboxes, or leashed dogs. The earth here is just the earth, unadorned, and the places people walk are made not by machinery but by feet. Those smooth acres of asphalt marked with lines to tell you where to park and drive which cover so much of America are harder to find on the reservations. If the Iroquois hadn't resisted the French in the 1600s, the Northeast would be speaking French today; if the Comanche hadn't opposed the Spanish, the American Southwest would now be Mexico. The Oglala Sioux reservation, actively or otherwise, continues to resist the modern American paving machine. Walking on Pine Ridge, I feel as if I am in actual America, the original version that was here before and will still be here after we're gone. There are windblown figures crossing the road in the distance who might be drunk, and a scattering of window-glass fragments in the weeds that might be from a car accident, and a baby naked except for a disposable diaper playing in a bare-dirt yard, and an acrid smell of burning trash--all the elements that usually evoke the description "bleak." But there is greatness here, too, and an ancient glory endures in the dust and the weeds. The way I look at it, this is the American bedrock upon which the society outside its borders is only a later addition. It's the surviving piece of country where "the program" has not yet completely taken hold. Of course I want to be like Indians. I've looked up to them all my life. When I was a young man my number-one hero was the Oglala leader Crazy Horse. I read every source I could find about him, went to many places of importance in his life, and studied his history as an example of what a person should be. I discovered many others who felt as strongly about Crazy Horse as I did. Crazy Horse was born about 1840 into the Bad Faces band of Oglala at Bear Butte, near where Sturgis, South Dakota, is today. He grew up in the neighborhood of Fort Laramie on the prairie in what is now southeastern Wyoming, made his reputation as a young man in battles with the Crow and other tribes, and won his greatest fame for his part in Indian victories over the Army, most notably the killing of General Custer and others of his command at the battle of the Little Bighorn. The following spring Crazy Horse agreed to stop fighting and come in to the Red Cloud Agency--the early version of the Pine Ridge Reservation, located then in western Nebraska. The Army put him under arrest and killed him, under confused and shameful circumstances, that fall. A large plaque erected in 1964 on the reservation just off Highway 18 by the turnoff to the village of Wounded Knee recounts his biography in some detail. As a rule, historical markers on the reservation get hit pretty hard by vandalism. Almost any unattended point of interest, it seems, will attract a scrawl of spray paint or a hurled Budweiser bottle sooner or later. But I have never seen a speck of graffiti or a sliver of glass on the marker commemorating Crazy Horse. Evidently, even the most hell-bent drunks leave it alone. When its lettering begins to age, someone carefully paints it in again. I wrote a lot about Crazy Horse in a book I published in 1989, and I continued to refer to his example when wondering how I should act in certain situations. I had decided that Crazy Horse's one mistake was in coming into the agency, where his halfhearted efforts at accommodation led only to intrigue, jealousy, and death. When faced with a possibly compromising decision, I would ask myself, "Is this 'coming into the agency'?" Having lunch with certain people in the magazine business or applying for an arts grant was 'coming into the agency,' I believed. My wife and I bought a cooperative apartment in Brooklyn, and it had a shabby kitchen, and my wife decided to remodel it. She went to a remodeling firm, then sat down with me to go over the estimates. I asked myself, "Would Crazy Horse have spent this much to remodel a kitchen?" Crazy Horse's recent popularity dates from the years of the Vietnam War, when a lot of people began to see the sense in his resistance to the U.S. government. The political activists who made up the American Indian Movement loved Crazy Horse. AIM leaders often repeated the few quotations attributed to him--"One does not sell the earth on which the people walk"; "Today is a good day to die!"--and took inspiration from his warlike determination to be himself no matter what. Watching AIM leaders on the news in those days, I sometimes found them scary, with their improvised protest demonstrations and violent talk. But I admired them, too. Most of them were of the same age as the older guys I had looked up to in school. AIM guys--and AIM was very much a "guy" organization--usually came from city-Indian backgrounds and dressed in an eclectic combination of street tough and Indian traditional that no one had seen before. To a press conference, an AIM leader might wear a beaded black leather vest, black chinos, and black boots, with his hair in waist-length braids wrapped in strips of red felt and otter fur. Violence and dissension and FBI informers did in AIM eventually, and its members ended up scattered, more than a few in jail. But AIM changed the way people regarded Indians in this country, and the way Indians regarded themselves; in an assimilationist America, they showed that a powerful Indian identity remained. A while ago I was reminded of my admiration for Clyde Bellecourt, a Chippewa from Minnesota and one of the founders of AIM. Back in 1973, as a result of a long-standing dispute between AIM factions, an AIM member named Carter Camp shot Clyde Bellecourt in the stomach on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. Clyde Bellecourt survived the shooting and refused to press charges, and Carter Camp went free. What reminded me was a recent item in an Indian newspaper saying that Clyde Bellecourt's daughter Mary, a tenth-grader, was about to receive a high award in her Girl Scout troop. To have survived a shooting and to have a daughter who wins a high award in Girl Scouts--how much cooler can a middle-aged father be? I'd like to be a hero myself, especially for dramatic, action-hero exploits of some kind. Riding the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan, I used to daydream of rescuing a helpless person from armed muggers, of knocking guns to the subway floor and subduing criminals and turning them over nonchalantly to the Transit Police. Other fantasies, even more far-fetched and Walter Mittyish than that, sometimes ran through my mind; a few scenarios I now know so well I have them nearly memorized and could direct the film versions to the smallest detail. In reality, I've never performed any heroic feat, and I'm glad that no mugging has ever taken place in front of me to reveal what I would actually do. On a subway train I often rode, but at a time when I was not there, someone once set off a firebomb in a car filled with rush-hour passengers. The bomb burned forty-seven people, some of them critically. A passenger who survived the blast ran back into the burning car to rescue a number of injured people who were still on fire. In news stories that followed, when reporters asked the rescuer about his deed he always said, "I'm no hero." This, I have found, is a constant in modern-day news stories in which heroic acts are involved. You will meet the disclaimer by the third paragraph, almost without fail. Regardless of the courageous, dangerous, lifesaving thing the person has done, he or she always insists, "I'm no hero." Most everybody wants to be rich, millions want to be famous, but no one today wants to be mistaken for a hero. This recent change in our psychology is baffling to me. It is also profoundly un-Indian. Indians who were heroes generally came out and said so. For many tribes, life revolved around heroism. Young men dreamed of setting off from camp alone and on foot, and of returning days or weeks later on a fine mount with eight other ponies captured from the Snakes; the old women would cry their praises, the drummers would compose songs in their honor, the chiefs would hold feasts and giveaways, and the young women would look at them over the tops of their shawls. For many Indians, autobiography was just a series of brave exploits strung together over years. Naturally, Indian culture produced heroes of all sizes in plentiful supply. Bil Gilbert, biographer of Tecumseh, says that the Indians of North America resembled the ancient Greeks in their ability to produce heroes, and that both societies considered heroism more important than wealth or power. In American history, the names of Sequoyah and Osceola and Black Hawk and Roman Nose and Chief Joseph and Looking Glass and Satank and Quanah Parker and Cochise and Geronimo ring like names of heroes out of Homer. The Western Sioux, who never numbered more than seventy thousand souls in all, have given America and the rest of the world heroes in quantity far out of proportion to the size of the tribe. Sitting Bull, the Hunkpapa warrior and medicine man, became one of the most famous Americans of all time. Spotted Tail, of the Sicangu or Brule Sioux, was perhaps the greatest Indian diplomat and negotiator. Other Sioux, like Rain in the Face and Gall and Pawnee Killer, were known mainly for deeds in battle. Among the Oglala, the number of heroes is unusually high. Besides Crazy Horse, the Oglala included Red Cloud, who spoke to power in Washington and New York as no Indian had done before. Oglala chiefs like Little Wound and Red Dog and American Horse and He Dog and Young Man Afraid of His Horses attained eminence within the tribe and beyond. One of the greatest Oglala heroes was a holy man, Nicholas Black Elk, who held on to his people's ancient religion during a time when it was actively suppressed. Toward the end of his life he conveyed some of the holy teachings in print, most notably in the book Black Elk Speaks , written with the help of Nebraska poet John G. Neihardt. Black Elk Speaks , published in 1932, became a classic of religious literature, familiar to readers around the world. A surprising amount of Oglala culture is the same today as it was in pre-reservation times. The Oglala still produce heroes, despite the fact that the wider market for them seems to have waned. If you want to see a lot of combat veterans in one place, go to a Veterans' Powwow in Pine Ridge village on an August afternoon. There's probably more foreign shrapnel walking around the small towns of the reservation than there is in similar towns anywhere in America; some Oglala families can give you a genealogy of warriors that begins at Operation Desert Storm and continues back to the Little Bighorn and before. The Oglala have always honored warriors, and they honor children as well. The Lakota word for child, wakanyeja, translates literally as "the child is also holy." An Oglala hero of recent history was a girl athlete who died just before she turned eighteen. She starred for the Lady Thorpes, the girls' basketball team at Pine Ridge High School, from 1987 through 1991. I have only heard about her and read local news stories about her, but words fail me when I try to say how much I admire her. Her name was SuAnne Big Crow. ON THE REZ. Copyright © 2000 by Ian Frazier. All rights reserved. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010. Excerpted from On the Rez by Ian Frazier All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.