It's not easy being a "wannabe" these days. Authenticity is prized, and all cultures are celebrated, so it makes sense to embrace your own. Ian Frazier, however, says the Native American ethos has long appealed to him, and what's wrong with that? "I kind of resent the term 'wannabe,'" he says in the opening pages of his new book, On the Rez (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), out this month. "What's wrong with wanting to be something, anyway? "
Frazier, a former New Yorker staff writer and longtime contributor, intermittently spent several years unearthing culture and stories on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. There is a sense of identity, of solidarity—and yes, of history—here of a degree few of its many visitors know at home. In the late '80s, Frazier traveled and researched extensively to create his well-received nonfiction epic Great Plains. Some of those themes overlap in his new work, and he was able to draw on his Great Plains knowledge for much of On the Rez. The story's narrative mostly follows his experiences with Le War Lance, a Sioux man he met while living in New York, and who alternates between hapless and mythically heroic. Frazier also contemplates the legacy of SuAnne Big Crow, a teenager revered for her basketball talents and leadership, who died in a car accident in 1992.
How did you build a rapport with the people at Pine Ridge?
Most people would talk to me. People can tell right away whether you're sincere. It was helpful to me that my affection for SuAnne [Big Crow] was so great. With many people we would begin talking about her, and then branch out to other subjects, like Wounded Knee II [a 1973 confrontation between federal agencies and members of the American Indian Movement]. I don't think Dennis Banks [co-founder of AIM] would have talked to me if I had called him up and said I wanted to talk to him about Wounded Knee. And even so, he became less friendly when I did.
But I always had some purpose to talk to someone: I was checking out a quilt, or some question I wanted to ask, or I was fixing cars a lot of the time. There was a lot of that. It was very easy to reach people. At first I felt nervous, out of place, intrusive. Then I realized that if you can observe and do your best at observing accurately, you'll do okay.
Who do you want your reader to be?
I'd like to think my reader is someone who doesn't know a lot about this subject but is curious. Someone just picking it up. I imagine someone seeing it in a public library somewhere and wanting to know more, not someone who has read 50 other books on the subject. With Great Plains, a large number of the readers were people who owned RVs, who wanted to explore what I had chronicled. Ideally, my readership would be so vast as to resist any generalization.
You use a brand of humor in On the Rez that's almost imperceptible. How did you negotiate between irony and empathy in writing it?
The fact that it's unnoticeable proves I didn't make a good deal out of it, but I always try to write from a funny point of view. People I write about are funny, whether consciously or unconsciously. People who don't know anything about Pine Ridge don't understand the humor in it. But the Oglala [tribe members] are really funny.
Did you find yourself picking up on their humor?
Oh yeah. When you understand a joke from another culture, it's funnier than one in your own. I can't describe what their humor is like. How do you describe the sound of a beautiful piece of music?
A lot of the humor, intentional or not, overcomes whatever the sad thing that you're dealing with. The circumstances are sad, but Pine Ridge is a place that is rich in humor. Chick Big Crow [SuAnne's mother] once said to me, "There was a guy outside I hadn't seen in a while. The guy had all his stuff in a station wagon, and I asked him why. He said, 'I traded my trailer for this station wagon.' I asked him what he would do when winter came, and he said, 'I figure it will be cheaper to heat.'"
Some writers would call humor the toughest and least respected of writing pursuits. Do you agree?
Humor is much more difficult to categorize. It's not something that writers get credit for. You can be a really funny writer, and nobody really cares. I think this book will be seen as serious book about a serious subject. But then you're missing the whole point. This is a genuinely funny culture. Humor is part of survival, but it's also just for itself. Sometimes people don't understand that. They need a reason for the humor.
But you didn't give them that in On the Rez.
It is a serious book. One of the challenges of the 20th century is to write about sadness that is beyond anyone's grasp of what sadness is. Perhaps there's no way to reveal the tragedy of what has happened to Indians in the 20th century. You just go through it the best you can.