This is rather a risky blog topic, but maybe a necessary one. An online eZine takes as its focus all the dark underclass phenomena, third world contexts, places where people are poor, addicted, enraged, and -- for most folks -- “other.” Reservations are candidates for this intepretation.
The eZine begins by interviewing some legitimate people, then throws in drunks and bartenders, and picks up enough entry points for the responding anonymous commentators to express scorn, contempt, solidarity, incredulity, or whatever -- all in bad language and from mostly cynical points of view. As one onlooker remarked, the comments all sound the same no matter what supposed location is under scrutiny.
There is a genre of modern Native American story that is close enough to this to become confused with it -- maybe two genres. One is like Ian Fraser’s “On the Rez” where some adventurous white guy buddies up with a needy drunk and tours the underside of the local scene in the belief that he’s getting the “real truth” about Indians and that this makes him privileged in some way, like some cavalryman in the old Fifties movies who cozies up to Iron Eyes Cody and is told he’s “heap brave.”
The other is more like “Pow-Wow Highway” in which David Seals (who may or may not be Indian) takes the reader through a series of picaresque adventures, violent and ludicrous at once with moments of tenderness and mysticism tucked in here and there. This is really meant more for the NA reader but can be for whites, like “Stay Away, Joe.” Many people come to believe this is “really” what Indians are like.
Oddly, many whites find this sort of story attractive. I used to know a rancher who took a week off once a year and went to stay on skidrow in a major city, observing the down-and-out wrecks there. He couldn’t explain it. Was he trying to motivate himself to succeed on the ranch? Was he tempted to give up the battle and join the street people? Was he trying to reassure himself that even these failures were human? I asked, but he couldn’t say.
Clearly movies like “City of God” (a ferociously violent movie about gangs in a South American slum) and books like the recent “A Million Little Pieces,” which fell apart when it turned out the author grossly exaggerated his own wickedness, have a hold on us strong enough to evade our BS detectors. They’re hailed as “true” or “brave” or “real” as though getting up and going to work and school every day was just an illusion, not real. As though it didn’t take guts to answer that alarm clock every day. Maybe a lot of people feel in the “daily grind” as though nothing is really happening. Because tales of addiction, pain and crime are outside of what most of us know, we have no way of judging them. And we grossly underestimate the pain to ourselves and others.
Nasdijj is one of the more recently unmasked writers of this type. His blog was SO outrageous that it was too incredible not to believe -- how could anyone make such stuff up? He was writing about trying to help young mixed race boys overcome AIDS, abuse, starvation, and maltreatment by the health system. I read “The Boy and his Dog Are Sleeping,” his book about helping a boy die. It won prizes. But also the same man (under his real name) won prizes as a gay porn writer -- the same gift for the vivid detail, the stunning scene, the pathetic combined with heroism, served him well in both contexts. He mixed reality with fantasy. Even trained therapists have a hard time sorting such stuff out (one’s own reactions being so strong as to fuzz up judgment) so how is an ordinary reader supposed to manage?
This eZine doesn’t go as far as Nasdijj, but it does stir up enough mud for anonymous people to vent a lot of misspelled and scurrilous nonsense. As soon as a sort of critical mass is achieved, the bottom feeders begin to snap and snarl at each other, creating a verbal barroom brawl. The Zine, all this while, can claim innocence.
I suppose one might worry that outsiders would think this is really what Indians and reservations are like. I think only foolish outsiders would be deceived. In fact, the most damage is done on the reservation, esp. among youngsters trying to get a sense of who they are and what their role in the world might be. They are most susceptible to this poison. They might begin to think that meth addiction or alcoholism is normal, that all adults are violent, and that these problems are inescapable when, in fact, that misery CAN be resisted, escaped, thrown aside.
I’m not unaware. Take the little know-it-all description of the reservation bar scene. There are far fewer of them than there ever have been in the past. The worst in the modern past (Napi, Minyards) have been gone a long time. The worst in the historic past was in Robaire, next to the Catholic mission which had also been pushed off the rez by the Methodist agent. The last trace of Robaire was washed away in the 1964 flood. One summer I lived in a house that had been empty so long that drunks had gotten in the habit of drinking in the yard. Rather than run them off, I listened to them. They were pitiful.
I’m not saying there aren’t wicked forces on the rez. But I AM saying that just like anyplace else, the forces for good are also there and growing stronger. In the meantime, I’m glad there are so many people who sound as though they’ve spent too much time with a beer in their hand, yelling at the TV set, who have now set down the beer and taken to the keyboard. I just wish they would be a little more reflective and analytical. Maybe they have something good to say under all the cussin’ and frothin’.