South Dakota

Photo by Hamner_Fotos used under a Creative Commons license.

Vic Glover, Keeping Heart on Pine Ridge (Native Voices, 2004).
A Vietnam vet and former journalist, Glover wrote this series of short essays about life — his life — on the Pine Ridge reservation.  Pine Ridge is one of the poorest places in the country,  a hard place where car accidents, alcoholism and diabetes kill more than they should.  Glover is a survivor, and his essays glow with a dry humor and an understated spirituality, both keys to getting by.  I really liked this book, and I think it deserves a bigger audience.

Some of the essays were published first in Indian Country Today, including “Armageddon didn’t happen yet,” “Windy day sweat,” and “Ceremonies, hospitals, and cemetaries.” Timothy White (Shaman’s Drum) says it offers an honest portrait of contemporary Native beliefs and perspectives on the reservations. The Midwest Book Review says it reveals the challenges, history, bonds, and rich traditions that infuse and reflect the stark realities of life on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Tom Rice sees despair on Pine Ridge. Glover blogs!

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Cross Row
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Ian Frazier, On The Rez (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000).
Frazier met Le War Lance while he was writing a book about the Great Plains, named — bien sur — Great Plains, in which Lance had a minor part in an ensemble cast.   In that book, Frazier roamed all over the American West; here, he settles into the Oglala Sioux reservation, Pine Ridge, in southwestern South Dakota.  Frazier’s style is rambling and digressive.  Stick around until the end of the book to read about SuAnne Marie Big Crow, a Lakota basketball star, whose story could be a book in itself.

Wikipedia’s bio of Frazier is better than nothing. Try this introduction instead. Outside has links to other Frazier writing.  Google BookSearch offers a preview. Much (most?) of the book appeared as this article in The Atlantic.  The New York Times has Chapter One.  Hardy Green (Business Week) calls it a demanding and puzzling book, with a strange and unsatisfying conclusion.  Candace B. Moonshower (Pif) says it’s the best sort of storytelling.  Jody Keisner (Studies in the Humanities) criticizes Frazier for usurping Native American writers.  Diane L. Schirf calls it rambling and spontaneous, like reservation life. Charles Taylor (Salon) says Frazier gets at the texture of life in a way that a sociological analysis into the place of the Indian in contemporary America never would.  Christine Gray (Washington Monthly) thinks Frazier’s title is misleading. Richard Meyers (A Journal of Native American Studies) says Frazier flirts with enlightenment.  Tracy Kidder (The New York Times) says it’s propelled by small surprises, a sense of impending revelation, and the pleasure of keeping company with Frazier’s voice.  Michiko Kakutani (The New York Times) says the problem with it is that Frazier never comes to terms with the disparity between his romanticized dream of Indian life and the often discouraging facts of day-to-day life “on the rez.”  Sherman Alexie says Frazier marks himself as an outsider eager to portray himself as an insider.  Jason Roberts interviewed Frazier for The Believer.  Listen to this interview on NPR.  Read about SuAnne Big Crow here.  And here is an exchange of letters about the accuracy of part of Frazier’s account.

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Baby Bison II
Photo by ailatan used under a Creative Commons license.

Dan O’Brien, Buffalo for the Broken Heart: Restoring Life to a Black Hills Ranch (Random House, 2001).
O’Brien had owned the Broken Heart Ranch, near Bear Butte in the Black Hills of South Dakota, for more than 20 years, though like many ranchers he has had to work other jobs to pay the bills. In 1998, recently divorced and disillusioned with the economics of cattle ranching, O’Brien impulsively decided to take thirteen buffalo calves from another rancher. Before long, he decided to switch completely from cattle to buffalo. Buffalo bring their own challenges. O’Brien had to re-fence his pastures, and learn to handle wilder animals. But they are much better suited to life on the Great Plains than cattle are. They’re also easier on the range — in particular, they don’t linger by water, like cattle do — a theme which fits with O’Brien own story of recovery.

Here’s a bio of O’Brien on the site of Wild Idea Buffalo Company, where you can also buy his buffalo meat. For more on his recent ventures, see this. Here is blog reaction from Raymond Pert, Gaia Gardener, and Jeff Reed. Listen to an interview with O’Brien on Minnesota Public Radio. Or listen to a piece about O’Brien and the book on NPR’s “Living on Earth.” The Guardian‘s Matthew Engel sees O’Brien’s herd of buffalo as part of a trend.

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Days of 76
Photo of the 2007 Days of ’76 parade in Deadwood by Brooke~n~Todd used under a Creative Commons license.

Pete Dexter, Deadwood (Vintage, 2005).
In 1876, Wild Bill Hickok and Charley Utter rode into Deadwood, a little frontier town in the Black Hills of what was then the Dakota Territories, now South Dakota. Dexter’s 1986 novel is a tale of those next few months and of Hickok, Utter, Calamity Jane, and a town-full of other colorful characters. I wouldn’t call this a Western, since there’s more emphasis on character and offbeat humor, but maybe it’s just that Dexter is a better writer than most. Action is not exactly lacking; for example, it’s hardly a spoiler to mention that Hickok meets an untimely demise. So think of it as a literary Western. (N.B. — Some will tell you that this novel was the source of HBO’s miniseries, but others will tell you it isn’t true. Dexter’s book was credited as a source for the 1995 movie, Wild Bill.)

Steve Volk explains why Dexter is a legend in Philadelphia. The University of South Dakota takes credit for him too. The best discussion I can find of the book on the interwebs are these two posts by Whiskey Prajer, parts one and two. Time reviewed it in 1986. George Pelecanos recommends it. And Cindi Wafstet and Caitlin blog about Calamity Jane.

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