CEHD Reads Highlights Native American Culture With Rez Life

Our CEHD First Year Experience Common Book Program and related courses and events work to build community in and outside the classroom. Our goal is to both challenge and support students as they enter into their undergraduate careers. We want to facilitate students making connections and exploring the amazing range of people, resources and opportunities that can make their college experience meaningful.

Engaging With Native American Culture Through Rez Life

This year’s selection centered on Native American culture through the lens of David Treuer’s insightful Rez Life, a thoughtful analysis of the historical and cultural forces that have shaped modern-day Native American life.

Rez Life is not an easy read, but we hoped that students would appreciate the ways in which Treuer complicates and challenges simple familiar stories about the kinds of lives (i.e. “tragic”) that Native Americans are living on reservations. In our First Year Inquiry course, we are fostering critical thinking, reading and writing. Treuer’s book supports these processes by connecting history to the present, and institutional policies to everyday lives.

Treuer’s book also illuminates important parts of Minnesota’s history and geography that are often completely ignored or misunderstood. Treuer encourages people who love Minnesota to get informed and get involved. Ultimately, this is the purpose of our First Year Experience Common Book program – asking our students and readers to consider the question: “How can one person make a difference?”

The students’ engagement with the book and Native American culture in and out of the classroom was supplemented by some special events that proved to be extremely enlightening. We had a successful panel discussion on issues related to Rez Life that included Ojibwe language instructor and outdoor camp director Dennis Jones, MN Native Youth Alliance Executive Director Lannesse Baker, and Dakota scholar and activist Waziyatawin. Professor Mary Hermes facilitated this discussion with our 450 first-year students. Panelists discussed how they were working to make a difference through their work on issues like sovereignty, land reclamation, cultural revitalization and community-based action. This was an invaluable opportunity for our student to listen and learn about how the ideas and challenges discussed in Rez Life are being addressed.

We were also honored to be joined by Rez Life author David Treuer for a special pre-reception and book event. David began speaking to the large audience in Northrop Auditorium about Malcolm Gladwell’s article on school shootings and the concept of “thresholds of violence.” The concept comes from the work of Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter. Gladwell writes, “Social processes are driven by our thresholds—which [Granovetter defines] as the number of people who need to be doing some activity before we agree to join them.” Granovetter uses the example of rioting – how many people need to be rioting before a person decides to join in? Gladwell applies this same theory to the last decade’s epidemic of school shootings.

Treuer turns this concept from violence to compassion. During his speech, he challenged audience members to consider practicing a “zero threshold” for compassion – acting with compassion even when no one around you is. In addition to explaining his motivation for writing Rez Life, Treuer spoke of his father as one person who was fully dedicated to making a difference. Treuer shared stories about the ways that his father cared about young peoples’ lives on the reservation when it seemed like no one else did.

Students also joined him on stage with questions they had developed about his book and writing process. One big takeaway for many students was the determination that writing requires. Treuer said that, after two years of writing, his first draft of Rez Life was rejected, forcing him to start over. It took him another 5 years to write the version you can read today. For students in our writing intensive First Year Inquiry course, this revelation really puts the writing process in a new light.

Tips for Students Who Want to Make a Difference

Take a leap of faith. I encourage students to take a leap of faith and trust their own voices and ideas. A critical piece of finding community and a sense of belonging both inside and outside the classroom is allowing yourself to explore, to take risks, and to be known and heard.

Challenge yourself to grow and explore. College is a time full of growth – intellectual, emotional and interpersonal. Growth in each of these areas requires students to continually explore and develop a new and deeper awareness of themselves. Step out of your comfort zone.

Recognize and appreciate differences. Students have the opportunity to make connections with an incredible diversity of people on campus. Adopting an attitude of curiosity and respect for differences allows students to learn about themselves and expand their knowledge of the range of lived experiences that makes our community rich, lively and generative.

Find a balance. Seek support, seek challenge.  Find comfort and take risks.  A balance of these will keep you thriving as you immerse yourself in your undergraduate experience. Our First Year Experience aims to provide support to students as they develop critical awareness of themselves and the world around them.

Kris Cory

About the Author

Kris Cory

  • Senior Teaching Specialist and FYE Director
  • Postsecondary Teaching & Learning
  • College of Education and Human Development
  • University of Minnesota

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