Life on “The Rez”

When Native Americans are shown in the modern media they often appear to be trapped in the past. Rarely are they shown outside of the context of European settlement, the American frontier, or the Wild West. Little, if any, attention is given to modern Native American living on reservations, also referred to as “the Rez” by some Native Americans.

Sherman Alexie’s short story “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” provides a glimpse into life on reservations, during the 20th century. Without actually calling out the issues by name, Alexie presents many of the problems that Native Americans face everyday. For example, Victor, the main character, cannot raise enough money to get from Spokane to Phoenix to collect his father’s ashes. He does not have enough money, his friends and family cannot lend him the money, and the tribal council can only give him a tiny amount. [1] Alexie makes the lack of money seem so everyday and commonplace for Victor, but it gets at the larger issue of poverty on reservations.

For almost 30 years, Shannon County, South Dakota, has been one of the ten poorest counties in the country. Shannon County is home to the Pine Ridge Reservation, home to the Oglala Lakota tribe.  Unemployment in Shannon is well above the national average and the infant mortality rate is three times higher. On the Pine Ridge Reservation, as well as nearby Rosebud and Crow Creek Reservations, the average life expectancy is in the mid-50s. [2] According to the World Bank, the average life expectancy in the United States is 78.4 years.

House on the Pine Ridge Reservation

Another passage in “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” shows the problem alcoholism plays in Native American society. Victor is thinking about a time when he was 15 and beat up his friend Thomas. He doesn’t know why he did it except that he was drunk. Alexie writes about this as if it is a normal occurrence, but it hints at the prevalence of alcoholism and alcohol abuse among Native Americans. According to a 2008 report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 12% of Native Americans deaths are related to alcohol. The national average is 3.3%. [3]

This story does a very good job of presenting the personal tale of a man dealing with the death of his father, but also providing a brief glimpse at the hardships many Native Americans face today, namely poverty, alcoholism, and a disappearing way of life. This issues are not commonly discussed in movies, television, or other forms of popular media, but that does not mean they do not exist at all. One example that comes to mind is the song “Pine Ridge” by Kid Dakota.This haunting song discusses these problems, and some others that make reservation life difficult. Follow the link to hear the song. I strongly recommend give it a listen.

http://new.music.yahoo.com/kid-dakota/tracks/pine-ridge–183713801

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