Sunday, August 20, 2006

American Indian Writing, Seen Through a New Lens

LEECH LAKE RESERVATION, Minn. — The novelist and critic David Treuer of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe here does not look like the received image of a Native American. With his pale skin and brown hair, many people would not even take him for an Indian.

Nor, Mr. Treuer noted as he sat in a faded bar on the Leech Lake Reservation, does his résumé sound like the stereotype of the Native American.

Now 35, he was educated at Princeton (as were his two brothers; they were inspired to apply there by the movie “Risky Business”), and is an English professor at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. His mother, an Ojibwe tribal judge, met his father, a Jewish Holocaust refugee from Austria, when he was teaching high school on the reservation.

“My life will rarely be interpreted as Indian unless I translate it myself,” Mr. Truer said.

But in two books to be published later this month by Graywolf Press, he is mounting a challenge to the whole idea of Indian identity as depicted by both Native and white writers.

“Native American Fiction: A User’s Manual” is a kind of manifesto, which argues that Native American writing should be judged as literature, not as a cultural artifact, or as a means of revealing the mystical or sociological core of Indian life to non-Natives.

“He’s exploring and revealing a truer history of Native Americans,” said Toni Morrison, his former professor at Princeton. “We tend, even now, to like ethnic literature to contain our notion of what the iconography is.”