Life at the Extremes — Not Really

DAVID TREUER, professor of English, USC Dornsife.

This op-ed originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

During the election cycle we tend to ask: What does America mean; where are we going? And then someone decides to check on the Indians to find out the answer, as though Indians represent America’s soul hidden in the attic. And of course politicians have long stood next to their “souls” and posed for pictures on the campaign trail.

Within the last year, Diane Sawyer and “20/20” did a special on the sorry conditions at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, and the New Yorker featured a grim photo essay on Pine Ridge too. The New York Times published a piece on brutal crime at the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming and another on the deep financial problems at Foxwoods, the Pequot-owned “world’s largest” casino in Connecticut. Indians make the news, but the news isn’t really news, it’s just a way for the country take its temperature.

In America, fear of the poor is equaled only by uncomfortable fascination with the rich. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the reporting about Indians and Indian reservations, which seem to be represented only when they are one or the other, but mostly when they are poor. In the rush to extremes, what is missed is a more vital (and vast) middle that goes unnoticed in stories about American Indian lives.

Of course, many Indian reservations are among the most desperate places in America. Pine Ridge, according to some accounts, has an unemployment rate of 80%. On my reservation of Leech Lake, in Minnesota, 1 in 4 children grow up below the poverty line and don’t seem likely to rise above it any time soon.

The causes for such dire circumstances are well known and studied — lack of access to capital, long distances from manufacturing and markets, institutionalized racism, lack of infrastructure, historical trauma, substance abuse.

The federal government, likewise, assumes certain responsibilities for what has impoverished Indian communities. During the treaty-making process, in exchange for the right to settle vast tracts of land across America, the government promised Indians quality healthcare, quality education and economic assistance. That it has not lived up to its promises and is complicit in the agony of the tribes is another thing that isn’t news anymore.

The history of the tribes and the government is, as Yankton writer Vine Deloria Jr. put it in 1974, a trail of broken treaties. And the rest of the history, the way Indian stories are reported, the way Indians are imagined, is more like a trail of broken narratives. Among the broken narratives are the ones about our supposed nobility, or the beauty of our cultures, and the one about the tenacity of hope. But the most broken of these narratives is the one that equates Indian lives only with misery or tragedy.

That’s because the mode of tragic storytelling mostly evokes horror and outrage to allow the audience to purge itself of those emotions; tragedy, and the meme that Indian lives are necessarily tragic lives, becomes a kind of comforting, expected story to those who consume it. As though outrage were as a kind of action, or sympathy a kind of politics. They are not.

I think it is in response to a complicated middle, rather than a tragic extreme, that action can be born. And these are the stories we are waiting for.

It would be ridiculous to claim that the narratives of Indian lives are more impoverished than our actual lives. That would be to ignore the very real crisis of poverty in Indian communities. But the kids at Pine Ridge must have felt something like that after ABC aired the “20/20” special titled “Children of the Plains.” Two high school classes wrote and shot a video response to the episode. It is a moving and nuanced corrective to the narrative poles of sudden wealth and historic poverty.

“We’re more than that,” the students say, and they’ve Magic Markered their arms, feet and hands with words that blessedly tell many other stories. They show us that there are many Indians — working, studying, thinking, feeling, succeeding and failing and, above all, not just waiting in the heartland with nothing better to do than to exhibit America’s virtues and sins.

So here’s the news: An Indian community muddles its way through the 21st century in something other than extreme poverty or extreme wealth, trying to make ends meet and getting the job done, engaging in all sorts of fierce moral skirmishes in the vast American middle. Revolutionary.

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