On the Rez by Ian Frazier

On the Rez by Ian Frazier

“On the Rez” by Ian Frazier is not on the new book shelf; it is 22 years old. I have been reading it over my lunch break for about three months now. With every 20 minutes I spend with it, I find myself liking the book more. I miss it over the weekends. I read a lot of nonfiction, but I don’t often have this sort of reaction to a nonfiction book.

Ian Frazier, a long-time admirer of the Sioux, met Le War Lance on a street corner in New York City. Frazier asked him if he was Sioux, and War Lance replied, “I’m an Oglala Sioux Indian from Oglala, South Dakota...Crazy Horse was my gran’father!” While they both lived in the city, they would occasionally spend time together. War Lance eventually moved back to Oglala and Frazier moved to Montana.

Frazier researched the history and culture of the Oglala in the late 1990s. He writes about the Pine Ridge Reservation from the viewpoint of an outsider with close connections to the Oglala.  War Lance and his friends took advantage of Frazier by asking for money and using him for transportation. In return, they introduced Frazier to the Pine Ridge Reservation through stories and people.

If you like a book that presents information in a straightforward manner, you will likely find this book challenging. “On the Rez” rambles through the history and economic contributions of many Indian tribes. Frazier goes into a lengthy discussion about the American Indian Movement (AIM) and describes both Battles of Wounded Knee. He also identifies a modern day hero in SuAnn Big Crow.

I suppose it’s more of a stroll than a ramble. Reading “On the Rez” is like wandering through the Pine Ridge Reservation, taking time to speak to the people and listen to the language. The book explores the communities and investigates the historical sites, stopping to attend a rodeo and a powwow. Each of these topics and more are woven into various chapters and scattered with Frazier’s feelings about his complicated relationship with War Lance.

One of my favorite passages in this book is an excerpt from a 1939 Sioux/ English dictionary written by Father Buechel. Frazier highlights the specificity of the Sioux language, 

“cui’yohe, n. Moccasins made of old hides that have served as tents.

glinun’wan, v. To arrive at home swimming.

hepi’ya, n. The side or flank of a hill.

hia’kigle, v. To set the teeth firmly, as a dying person does...

hena’gi, n. The shadow of a hill...

iwa’glamna, n. An extra or fresh horse.

iyu’s’o, v. When a man rides through water and gets wet in spite of lifting his legs.”

It’s important to keep in mind who is writing a book like this. Does the author belong to the culture they are writing about? Do they acknowledge it in their writing? Frazier refers to himself as a wannabe. He deeply admires the culture but readily admits he is an outsider.

Readers who want to learn more about the Oglala and those who like a deep dive into complicated friendships would enjoy this book. I would suggest it to anyone interested in Native American culture.