Ian Frazier, former staff writer at The New Yorker and author of six books, spent four years in Missoula working on a unique project. Beginning in 1995, he regularly commuted from western Montana to Pine Ridge, South Dakota, where he spent time bumming around with his long-time Sioux friend Le War Lance, buying beer and car parts for their buddies, and chronicling his experiences, impressions and flights of fancy about life on the Oglala Sioux reservation. The result was On the Rez, released two months ago, which combined Frazier’s free-ranging wit and cultural observations with genuine pathos and a strong sense of identification with the people of Pine Ridge. To some, in fact, that identification was surprisingly strong. “In the same way that I have gotten used to my liking for hot sauce and my aversion to crowds, I accept that my affections veer toward the Oglala Sioux,” Frazier, who is white, writes. “… By blood and circumstances, I can never be Oglala; but by long-standing affinity, the Oglala are my tribe.”
Some of Frazier’s reviewers praised the courage, sensitivity and honesty of his portrayal of life on the reservation. Atlantic Monthly even excerpted it as last December’s cover story. Other reviewers, however, from a pundit at Frazier’s own New Yorker to young novelist Sherman Alexie, Spokane Indian and the author of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, saw it quite differently.
In an essay published in the Los Angeles Times Book Review this winter, Alexie wrote: “Frazier’s formal use of ‘the rez’ marks him as an outsider eager to portray himself as an insider, … as a white man who is magically unlike all other white men in his relationship to American Indians.” Alexie went on to accuse Frazier of being naïve, and of lacking a crucial self-consciousness: “Nowhere in the book does he examine his own motivations or question his own observations,” Alexie charged. “He almost convinces us that he is writing about the Oglala Sioux, when he’s mostly talking about himself, about his feelings, about his real and imagined pain. … Does he ever admit that somebody from ‘the rez’ has a different life experience than somebody who is just writing about the rez?”
Two months later, the literary and political debates go on. On the Rez continues to get plenty of attention, including both criticism and praise, and Frazier, having long since moved back East, has begun work on another project, this one about life in Siberia. Last week, we caught up with him in his home in New Jersey, to discuss On the Rez, his critics, life in Missoula, and the nature of writing.
As a white man on an Indian reservation, you spent a lot of time as an outsider, yet your writing is almost journalistic, and not, as people have pointed out, very self-conscious. But there is a scene in your book in which three Oglalas—your friend Le War Lance, plus Wendy and Mike Shot—show up in your house in Missoula. And you are so uncomfortable with them being there that you hurry them out the door in a snowstorm. How do you account for that instance of self-consciousness? Is it something that you have to edit out of your writing?
… You know, I didn’t edit much about myself at all, and that scene that you mention was not a particularly comfortable thing to describe. But I think that this is something that would be true for a lot of people who would go to the reservation as outsiders and be very happy to be welcomed and included in stuff, and if the reservation were to come to them they might have a very different response (Laughs.).
Do you think this points to the difficulty of friendship between people who may be kindred spirits but live in very different worlds?
Definitely. It is very hard to understand a place where suffering is as great as it is on Pine Ridge. You are bound by who you are; and if you are living a comfortable life in Missoula and even if you try really hard, you’re going to fail at imagining what is in the mind of somebody who is really having a hard time on Pine Ridge.
This seems to be the big issue, one that brings up a larger question: Is the writer restricted to write only what he knows?
Yes, That is the big question about this. Obviously I don’t agree.
I don’t believe that the writer is restricted about anything. In fact, I believe that in any kind of real venture outside of your own comfort zone, you’re going to look foolish. Every tourist looks foolish. … And I feel like you don’t make any progress unless you look like an idiot. You’re going to look like an idiot, and unfortunately I sometimes did look like an idiot on Pine Ridge. You know, sometimes I just came from right out of left field. …
The mistake is to think you are not an idiot and some of the reviews assume that I didn’t know that. I mean, it is sort of hard to say in every sentence ‘I know I am an idiot,’ or ‘I know I am getting only part of the facts,’ or ‘I know I am seeing this through a kind of blurred glass that I brought with me.’ And of course it becomes a little boring and affected to constantly be the dude who doesn’t know what is going on. So you drop it, but you don’t lose it. It is still part of the reporting.
Sherman Alexie’s critique of On the Rez was that it “implied a degree of cultural familiarity that is very rare.”
Well, I will say that I know more about Pine Ridge than he does.
Oh, I think so. I mean, he’s not from Pine Ridge. I don’t know that [how much he knows about Pine Ridge] for a fact, but I think each place is different, and my cultural familiarity is just never going to be the equal of someone who grew up there. It never would be.
But at least if you drop the mask of being completely objective, as you say you’re doing…
Well, for example, look at the white people who marched with Martin Luther King. You look at films of them and they do look like—you know, they are these Christian white people with big glasses singing (sings) we shall overcooome—kind of like idiots, and God bless them.
Yet they’re doing the right thing.
(Laughs.) They are doing the right thing but they look ridiculous. The thing is that they don’t look cool. The thing is that you can’t always look cool. Sometimes you are going to look like a complete fool, and I think that that is one the terrible orthodoxies that young people have now is that you can’t look like a fool. … You can’t always be afraid of being a fool.
So you have to be a kind of gullible traveler?
Yeah, and it’s a Western genre. I mean, what the hell is that jackalope that you see in every gas station? You are supposed to make fun of the people who show up. And that’s why I think vis-a-vis Native people, white people will always have that disadvantage because we got here later. I mean, if a Native person says there really are woolly mammoths living in the badlands of South Dakota, you have to for a minute say, ‘Gee, I don’t know. They’re here and I’m not,’ and this is where the American tall story comes from. …
What would you say to a writer who only writes about what he knows? Take someone like Sherman Alexie, who writes very much about what it is like to be a Spokane.
Well, he just wrote a short story that was about a guy who comes to Missoula, and to me that had about as much to do with Missoula as—I mean, you’re always going to be writing about something that you are not 100-percent familiar with. Anything that has any kind of plot involves taking you somewhere that you didn’t know you were going. I think it is incredibly stultifying and limiting to say to someone: Write what you know. I mean write any goddamn thing! And then you just hope for the best. …
What is really interesting is when you cross into someplace where you are lost. If Sherman wrote about my hometown of Hudson, Ohio, which was an almost all-white town when I grew up, I would be very interested to read it. And I would think, ‘Wow, I wonder what he thought of my town. I wonder how it looked to him.’
Speaking of being an authority, and Missoula, you have lived in Montana twice, is that correct?
Yes, for seven years. Three in Big Fork and four in Missoula.
In On the Rez, you say when you wanted to move from the East Coast it was either Missoula or Moscow. Why Missoula?
Well, first, I just love it and have a great time there. I think it’s a beautiful place. When I was there in February to do a reading, I was walking up Broadway and the sun was going down and the red and blue neon lights of the Thunderbird Motel came on and with Hellgate Canyon in the background, I just practically fell on my knees and said: ‘My God, that is so beautiful!’ … Secondly, we have very good friends in Missoula. And the final deciding factor was that I could fly to either Siberia, which was the book I was working on, and am still working on, or drive from Missoula to the reservation.
I used to read the Independent. Do you still do person-on-the-street interviews on the inside front page?
The whole time I was there, nobody ever asked me.
Maybe next time you’re in town we’ll get you in “Street Talk.”