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Back on the Rez: Finding the Way Home

by Brian Maracle

In 1993, Brian Maracle, a Mohawk journalist in his mid-40s, abandoned his career in Ottawa and moved to the largely rural Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, Ontario. His family had left the reserve when he was five and he felt an irresistible urge to return and rediscover his connection with the land.

Back on the Rez has two themes: the political, social, and spiritual life of the reserve; and the struggles of an urbanite living in the country. And so you have Maracle struggling to understand meetings held in the Kanyen’kehaka (Mohawk) language and, at the same time, trying to figure out the intricacies of his house’s water supply.

Maracle’s journalistic skills (for which he garnered much acclaim for his 1992 book on native substance abuse, Crazywater) are evident in this second book, where his writing is economical and focused. Although his return to the reserve is an emotional experience, he keeps those emotions under tight control.

The book has four sections, one for each season, and it is only in the brief introduction to these sections that Maracle allows his considerable descriptive and lyrical skills free rein. In the rest of the book, Maracle writes in a conversational tone with a self-deprecating sense of humour.

As he participates in life on the reserve, Maracle introduces his readers to native history, culture, and spirituality. Although he writes specifically about the Six Nations (the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora people), much of the ground he covers – the matrilineal and matriarchal society, the clan system – applies to other native peoples. Maracle finds the reserve torn between white culture and the pull of traditional ways.

The divisions are epitomized by opposing political bodies: the government-backed band council and the traditional Iroquois Confederacy. The council appalls Maracle with its lack of fiscal responsibility; the confederacy saddens him with its complacency.

His status as an outsider, newly come to the reserve, gives Maracle objectivity. While he describes how white society has contributed to the destruction of native identity, he also sees the flaws in native society. His criticisms of the political arena are particularly pointed.

This is a book for anyone interested in native culture. It is to be hoped that Maracle will return to his subject when he is no longer the outsider looking in, and can offer yet another perspective of life on the rez.