Masaryk University Faculty of Arts



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Masaryk University

Faculty of Arts

Department of English
and American Studies

English Language and Literature


Eliška Kellnerová



Leaving the Reservation in Selected Prose by Sherman Alexie
Master’s Diploma Thesis
Supervisor: Jeffrey Alan Vanderziel, B.A.
2013


I declare that I have worked on this thesis independently,
using only the primary and secondary sources listed in the bibliography.

……………………………………………..

Author’s signature

Acknowledgements


I would like to thank my supervisor, Jeffrey Alan Vanderziel, B.A., for his kind help,
valuable advice and encouragement while I was working on the thesis.

Also, I am very grateful to my family and Mr. Jan Wdowyczyn,


whose psychological support helped immensely.

Table of Contents

1Migration from Reservations to Urban Areas 6

2Despondency 9

3Education 15

4The Reservation: A Place Haunted by a Horrid History 20

5Becoming a “Traitor” 26

6A Distorted Representation of Native Americans? 33

7Conclusion 40

Works Cited 42

Summary 45

Resumé 46



Native American literature is little known to the mainstream European readership. A knowledge of the contemporary life of Native Americans is minimal. In contrast, Europeans were and are greatly interested in the romanticized image of the stoic Indian, the Indian who lives in harmony with nature and has spiritual powers. This fascination was further encouraged by the immensely popular of the adventure novels by Karl May, a German author who provided his readership with highly romanticized representation of Native Americans. It has clearly influenced the image of Native Americans in many Europeans’ minds, a stereotype that some still want to believe is applicable today. The desire for wilderness and untamed nature may also partly explain why May’s novels and film adaptations of his works are still so popular nowadays.

Significantly, some appealing aspects of Native American cultures and traditions have been exploited by American society. Some ecology movements operated with “indigenous wisdom” and ways of thinking and applied indigenous ideas to fight their own cause. They approved of the indigenous people’s close contact with nature and the respect of the land. However, some Native American scholars and writers have criticized this, perceiving it as cultural colonization. In other words, considering the history of genocide and assimilation, it is understandable that appropriation of indigenous thoughts is seen as another form of disrespect and abuse.

It is obvious that readers cannot acquire a comprehensive knowledge of Native American cultures from May’s novels or Western movies. Similarly, taking bits and pieces of traditions and wisdom of indigenous peoples is questionable. That is why it seems to me important to confront our stereotypical images and representations with Native American literature, i.e. literature written by indigenous authors themselves.

American Indian literature is unique and contributes to the extraordinary diversity of human literary expression. The first wave of Native American authors, called the Native American Renaissance, flourished in 1960s. The leading writers included N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, Gerald Vizenor and James Welch. The second wave also known as “Generation X” developed in 1980s and includes Louise Erdrich, Joy Harjo, Simon J. Ortiz, Sherman Alexie, Louis Owens, Linda Hogan and Paula Gunn Allen.

Native American literature faces an interesting paradox. A great part of indigenous literature concentrates on reservation life and is set on reservations. Yet, about seventy percent of Native American population resides in urban areas (Alexie, “Humor is My Green Card” 39). In the introduction to the book American Indians and the Urban Experience, Susan Lobo wonders “why, with more than half of all Indian people now living in urban areas, there is so little urban-focused interest among researchers, writers, poets and artists, and why there are so few books on urban themes and contexts” (xi). American Indians have migrated to urban areas since the end of the World War II. However, this phenomenon seems to be neglected.

In my thesis, I will focus on the migration from reservations and analyze selected prose by Sherman Alexie in order to understand the main push factors as depicted in his works. Alexie is a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene author of poetry, short stories and novels. He is one of the most visible and talked about contemporary American Indian writers. He grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington state, where many of his stories are set. Later in his life, he moved to Seattle, Washington. In the same way, his early works deal with contemporary reservations whereas in his later writings he shifted the focus to urban settings. For my purpose, I have considered particularly relevant Alexie’s first collection of short stories The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven1 (1993), his first novel Reservation Blues (1995) and the novel for adolescents entitled The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian2 (2007). Moreover, I will also refer to other prose by Alexie, namely the novel Indian Killer (1996) and the collections of short stories The Toughest Indian in the World (2000) and Ten Little Indians (2003).

First of all, I will discuss the historical and political background of the migration process and present important demographical information about Native American population. In the following parts of the thesis, I will focus on selected prose by Alexie. I will argue that widespread despondency may be an important reason for leaving the reservation. I will analyze the causes and effects of this despondency. Moreover, I will stress the significance of poor-quality education and its assimilating function. American Indians have suffered a violent history of genocide and colonization and I will therefore explore the influence of the past on Alexie’s reservation characters. Of course, there are other push factors that appear in Alexie’s works and are not included in the thesis, but I tried to point out the most significant of them. Another issue that seems to me noteworthy is the attitude of reservation residents to the phenomenon of migration. Finally, I will consider to what extent Alexie’s representation of the reservation reflects the reality and point out the main criticism raised against Alexie in that regard. I will carry out detailed textual analysis of Alexie’s works as well as make usage of relevant secondary sources to support my points. I believe that Alexie’s works offer a profound and interesting insight into the motivations of large-scale migration from reservations to cities.



  1. Migration from Reservations to Urban Areas

I’ve been relocated and given a room
In a downtown hotel called The Tomb
And they gave me a job and cut my hair
I trip on rats when I climb the stairs
I get letters from my cousins on the rez
They wonder when they’ll see me next
But I’ve got a job and a landlady
She calls me chief, she calls me crazy

-Sherman Alexie, Reservation Blues (221)

After World War II, the U.S. government implemented the policy of termination and relocation that aimed at assimilating Native Indians into mainstream society and encouraged their migration to cities. The relocation program offered jobs and housing to American Indians in urban areas. However, Donald L. Fixico points out that assimilation did not take place and it did not happen the way the government expected. “Indian people”, advocates Fixico, “have struggled to learn a new culture of mainstream urbanization, but rather than becoming absorbed into the process, they have survived to form a new identity of their own” (ix). Nevertheless, the early years of the relocation in the 1950s and 1960s were very hard for Native Americans. Fixico accentuates that “[e]conomic pressure and the cultural alienation of city life frustrated the early generations of early urban Indians who were miserable living in run-down apartments and feeling lost in the city” (x). Consequently, some Native Indians returned to the reservations but others managed to overcome the cultural barrier among different tribes and formed a pan-Indian community (x). Fixico claims that in the 1960s “[i]n what we sometimes call the ‘second removal’, urban Indians found a new home in the cities, one representing modern traditions of an urban Indian culture” (quotation marks in original, x). The increase of the Native American population in urban areas was significant. J. Matthew Shumway and Richard H. Jackson, in their study “Native American Population Patterns” quote the U.S. Census Bureau to stress the large-scale migration. “In 1950, 13.4 percent of enumerated Native Americans lived in urban areas, but by 1990 the proportion had risen to 53 percent” (quoted in Shumway and Jackson, 187).

However, many scholars and researchers have reproached the U.S. Census Bureau for inaccurate enumerations of Native Americans. Shumway and Jackson argued that “[c]learly, the number of individuals who are of Native American ancestry has been repeatedly underenumerated in the federal censuses of population” (186). The underenumaration, explains Snipp, “results in part from the shifting definitions used by the Bureau of the Census” (quoted in Shumway and Jackson, 186). The inability of the U.S. Census Bureau to properly define the employed terms reflects the insufficient comprehension of the minority. That fact is severely criticized by Lobo who claims that the 1990 undercount “demonstrated the lack of understanding by this governmental agency, and by extension other governmental agencies, regarding the very nature of urban Indian populations and communities” (xii). Furthermore, Lobo points out that “[t]his miscount not only fueled continued misperceptions regarding Indian life in cities, but also justified reduced funding for the many greatly needed social services for Indian people living in cities” (xii). She even states that some people called it “statistical genocide” (xii).

It is interesting to note that Alexie, in the short story “Flight Patterns” from the collection Ten Little Indians, alludes to the way the U.S Census Bureau used to enumerate multiracial people. At one point of the story, the main character William is imagining how it would be to have a biracial child: “He wondered how his life would have been different if he’d married a white woman and fathered half-white children who grew up to complain and brag about their biracial identities: Oh, the only box they have for me is Other! I’m not going to check any box! I’m not the Other! I am Tiger Woods!” (italics in original, 108). The humorous comment highlights the feeling of humiliation and anger.

In response to widespread criticism of the type alluded to by Alexie, the U.S. Census Bureau introduced a new option that consisted in self-identification with more than one race in the 2000 and 2010 censuses. In the 2010 census, the population was enumerated as follows:

The 2010 Census showed that the U.S. population on April 1, 2010, was 308.7 million. Out of the total U.S. population, 2.9 million people, or 0.9 percent, were American Indian and Alaska Native alone . . . . In addition, 2.3 million people, or another 0.7 percent, reported American Indian and Alaska Native in combination with one or more other races. Together, these two groups totaled 5.2 mil­lion people. Thus, 1.7 percent of all people in the United States identi­fied as American Indian and Alaska Native, either alone or in combina­tion with one or more other races. (3)

The Native population may now be perceived as growing. That fact stands in contradiction to the persistent stereotype of the vanishing Indian. Carol Miller makes the point that the increasing population is “a fact that had been true for decades but is confounding to presumptions of doom and vanishing” (29). Not only do the Native populations appear to be increasing, but Native residency is also undergoing a marked shift. The majority of American Indians are living outside the American Indian and Alaska Native areas. According to the U.S. Census Bureau,

a majority of the American Indian and Alaska Native alone-or-in-combination population (78 percent) lived out­side of American Indian and Alaska Native areas. This compares with 67 percent of the American Indian and Alaska Native alone popula­tion and with 92 percent of the American Indian and Alaska Native in combination population that lived outside of American Indian and Alaska Native areas in 2010. (20)

In regard to the rural and urban distribution, out of the 5.2 million American Indian and Alaska Native alone-or-in combination, 3.7 million (71 percent) lived, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, in urban areas and 1.5 million (29 percent) lived in rural areas in 2010 (“Urban and Rural”). Clearly, there has been a continuous increase of the American Indian population in urban areas since the 1950s.

Urban Indians are a minority that is neglected and misunderstood even though the size of the community is increasing. They are little seen by the mainstream Euro-American population that tends to associate Native Indians with rural areas, but are also neglected by scholars, artists, and both Native Americans and non-Natives (Lobo xi). The so-called “statistical genocide” (Lobo xii), accentuates the ignorance and misunderstanding.

The policy introduced by the federal government in the 1950s and 1960s is without any doubt an important reason for the American Indian migration from reservations to urban areas. However, the relocation and termination program “sponsored about 100,000 Indians” (Shoemaker 380). It cannot be therefore considered as the only explanation for the phenomenon. Fixico in his book entitled The Urban Indian Experience in American, points out that “the majority of American Indians moved to cities on their own and not under the auspices of the federal relocation program (quoted in Shoemaker, 380). For these reasons it seems to me meaningful to analyze the push factors that lead some of Alexie’s characters to leave the reservation.




  1. Despondency

You know I’m lonely, I’m so lonely
My heart is empty and I’ve been so hungry
All I need for my hunger to ease
Is anything that you can give me please

-Sherman Alexie, Reservation Blues (1)

Reservations in Alexie’s works appear to be places where poverty, unemployment, alcoholism, violence and suffering are common among American Indians. The consequent feeling of despondency is pervasive in Alexie’s narratives that are set on reservations. Alexie’s reservation characters live in poorly built HUD houses and eat surplus commodity food on the daily basis. Daniel Grassian characterizes living standards in Alexie’s stories set on reservations as “abysmal, nearly Third World conditions” (21). In Diary, the main character makes a bitterly humorous comment and complains about the fact that his family has always been poor, tracing its origins in terms of poverty. He states that “[his] parents came from poor people who came from poor people who came from poor people, all the way back to the very first poor people” (11). Similarly, in the short story “That Is What It Means to say Phoenix, Arizona” from the collection of short stories The Lone Ranger, the narrator comments on the widespread poverty. Victor, one of the main characters, desperately needs money in order to go to Arizona and bring back home his father’s ashes. “Victor,” explains the narrator “didn’t have any money. Who does have money on a reservation, except the cigarette and fireworks salespeople?” (59). Eventually, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, an eccentric storyteller, gives him the money he needs in exchange for Victor letting Thomas accompany him. Still, it would probably be more difficult for Victor to grieve his father’s death if he could not go to the place where his father passed away and could not bring his remains back home. Obviously, poverty compounds all problems and difficulties.

Hopelessness and despair torment many of Alexie’s reservation characters. Very often, the atmosphere of the stories is bleak and future of the characters seems to be dire. The feeling of misery is clearly expressed in the short story cited above, “That Is What It Means to say Phoenix, Arizona”. When Victor and Thomas come back home from their journey, the narrator comments, “Victor and Thomas made it back to the reservation just as the sun was rising. It was the beginning of a new day on earth, but the same old shit on the reservation” (73). Sunrise is usually associated with beauty, life, and hope. Alexie seems to be playing with these associations in order to stress that many reservation characters suffer from widespread apathy.

In the short story “The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore” from the same collection of short stories, the reservation is depicted as a monotonous place. “Adrian and I,” relates Victor, “sat on the porch and watched the reservation. Nothing happened. From our chairs made rockers by unsteady legs, we could see that the only traffic signal on the reservation had stopped working” (44). Later in the story, Victor and Adrian make fun of the uselessness of the traffic signal:

“Damn,” Adrian asked. “When did that fucking traffic signal quit working?”

“Don’t know.”

“Shit, they better fix it. Might cause an accident.”

We both looked at each other, looked at the traffic signal, knew that about only one car an hour passed by, and laughed our asses off.” (48).

Traffic signals control the movement of vehicles on the road but clearly, there is little traffic on the reservation. It seems that few people move inside the reservation, few go out or enter it. Isolation of the community is the first theme evoked in the novel Reservation Blues. The novel’s opening sentence announces the confinement of the Spokane Indian community. The omniscient narrator recounts that “[i]n the one hundred and eleven years since the creation of the Spokane Indian Reservation in 1881, not one person, Indian or otherwise, had ever arrived there by accident” (3). The fact that nobody ventured to the reservation since its creation stresses that it is a “monotonous, virtually self-enclosed hermetic environment” (Grassian 79).

The monotony and inhibition that reigns on reservations in Alexie’s works is sometimes interrupted by on outbreak of violence. It is palpably expressed in the short story “Indian Country” from the collection The Toughest Indian in the World. Low Man, the main character of the short story, was born and raised in Seattle. His mother was white and his father was Coeur d’Alene. He visited the reservation only six times in his life and does not seem to be strongly bound to it. Interestingly, his view of the reservation appears to be rather negative. The narrator states:

Low Man believed the Coeur d’Alene Reservation to be a monotonous place-a wet kind of monotony that white tourists saw as spiritual and magic. . . . The tourists didn’t know, and never would have guessed that the reservation’s monotony might last for months, sometimes years, before one man would eventually pull a pistol from a secret place and shoot another man in the face, or before a group of women would drag another woman out of her house and beat her left eye clean out her skull. (122)

The central idea that is highlighted in the extract is extreme violence that seems to erupt unexpectedly. One of the sources of physical and psychological pain on reservations as depicted in Alexie’s works is undoubtedly alcohol.

The Scope of Alcoholism

Indian boy takes a drink of everything that killed his brother


Indian boy drives his car through the rail, over the shoulder
Off the road, on the rez, where survivors are forced to gather
All his bones, all his blood, while the dead watch the world shatter
-Sherman Alexie, Reservation Blues (245)
Alcohol is a dominant theme that runs through Alexie’s life and works. Alexie describes himself as a recovering alcoholic and his father “was a heavy drinker who would often abandon the family for days a time” (Grassian 1). It is hardly an exaggeration to state that nearly all Alexie’s reservation characters have to cope with alcoholism; many are alcoholics themselves and others have heavy drinkers among their family members and friends. Both men and women abuse alcohol. It is a tremendous problem for children, adults, as well as old people. Victor, one of the main characters of the collection of short stories The Lone Ranger, was influenced by alcohol from the very beginning of his existence. “I was conceived during one of those drunken nights,” explains the first person narrator, “half of me formed by my father’s whiskey sperm, the other half formed by my mother’s vodka egg” (27). Victor’s embryo is said to be the union of two liquors. The statement is directly followed by a sad and humorous comment on the strong bond between Victor and his father that is likened to his father’s alcohol addiction. “I was born a goofy reservation mixed drink,” states the narrator, “and my father needed me just as much as he needed every other kind of drink” (27). Obviously, alcohol affects human relationships. In the collection of short stories The Lone Ranger, Victor stays sober. However, the character is further developed in Reservation Blues and in this novel, Victor is constantly consuming alcohol. Moreover in Reservation Blues, the main characters i.e. Victor, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, and the Flathead sisters Chess and Checkers have all alcoholic fathers. It is a persistent pattern that appears in Alexie’s stories.

Alcohol can be seen as a destroyer of the community in many ways. A significant number of reservation characters die because of it. Furthermore, these tragedies are witnessed by the reservation members and affect them profoundly. In “Every Little Hurricane” from The Lone Ranger, Victor encounters death in early childhood. The narrator recounts that “[w]hen he was five years old, an old Indian man drowned in a mud puddle at the powwow. Just passed out and fell facedown into the water, collected in a tire track” (7). The man’s death is tragic. A mud puddle is usually dirty and shallow but apparently not dangerous. The fact that the man suffocated in it stresses that alcohol led him to vulnerability, misery, and finally death. “Even at five,” continues the narrator, “Victor understood what that meant, how it defined nearly everything” (7).

Grassian, in his analysis of the short story significantly entitled “A Drug Called Tradition” from the same collection states that “drugs, most prevalent among them alcohol, have replaced cultural traditions” (51). Alcohol appears to be an important cause of the spiritual deterioration of the reservation community. Victor, in the short story “This Is What It Means to say Phoenix, Arizona” from the same collection, comes to the realization that hopelessness and alcohol endanger the community strength. The narrator articulates Victor’s anxiety and utters: “Whatever happened to the tribal ties, the sense of community? The only real thing he shared with anybody was a bottle and broken dreams” (74).

Obviously, heavy drinking destroys dreams and hopes. In the short story “The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore” from The Lone Ranger, Alexie expresses the negative effects of alcohol on an adolescent who represents hope for the community. The first person narrator Victor shows the admiration he feels for the fifteen year old Julius Windmaker. Julius is said to be “the latest in a long line of reservation basketball heroes” (46). In fact, basketball is an important theme in Alexie’s works. This sport appears to have highly positive effects on reservation players and fans. According to Grassian, “one activity that Alexie believes to have transformative power in counteracting the despondency and grief on the reservation and forming community is athletics, specially basketball” (74). Julius’s gift seems to be a remedy for the community. He is likened to “an artist” and his fingers are compared to hands of “a goddamn medicine man” (45). Clearly, his skills are uplifting the souls of his admirers.

Julius is praised by Victor and Adrian but the later feels concerned about Julius possibly sinking into alcoholism. They have a conversation about him while he is passing by with a group of American Indian young men described as “[l]ittle warriors looking for honor in some twentieth-century vandalism” (44). The healing power of basketball is contrasted with aimless vandalism and drinking. Adrian and Victor have differing views on Julius’s future:

“He looks good,” Adrian said.

“Yeah, he must not be drinking.”

“Yet.”


“Yeah, yet.” . . .

“I think Julius is going to go bad,” he said.

“No way,” I said. He’s just horsing around.”

“Maybe, maybe.” . . .

“I guess that Julius is pretty good in school, too.”

“And?”


“And he wants to maybe go to college.”

“Really?”

“Really,” I said and laughed. And I laughed because half of me was happy and half of me wasn’t sure what else to do.” (45, 49, 50)

As we can see Victor is being quite optimistic whereas Adrian presumes Julius is going to become a drunk and his talents will be wasted. “It’s hard to be optimistic on the reservation,” claims the narrator (49). “When a glass sits on a table here, people don’t wonder if it’s half filled or half empty. They just hope it’s good beer” (49). Clearly, alcohol destroys hope. Even Victor who wants to believe in Julius is sadly disillusioned.

A year later, Victor and Adrian are sitting at the same place and see Julius passing by. But this time, Julius is completely drunk. Victor says to Adrian that Julius has been drinking a lot and he even consumes Sterno, a fuel made from denatured and jellied alcohol. Julius has a match in the evening. Victor, Adrian, and other reservation fans are very disappointed. “He still looked good in his uniform,” states the narrator, “although he was a little puffy around the edges. But he just wasn’t the ballplayer we all remembered or expected. He missed shots, traveled, threw dumb passes that we all knew were dumb passes” (51). Victor and Adrian are profoundly hurt. Julius represented a better future that disappeared because of alcohol. Basketball players are said to be “heroes” and even “saviors” (52). The narrator humorously compares the hope basketball players represent for reservation members to Christian salvation. “I mean,” he argues, “if basketball would have been around, I’m sure Jesus Christ would’ve been the best point guard in Nazareth” (52). Obviously, alcohol destroyed Julius’s skills and ended his career as basketball player and college student. “Times like that, on a reservation,” utters the narrator, “a basketball game felt like a funeral and a wake all rolled up together” (51). The noun “funeral” stresses that something died in the reservation members. The pain is extreme. “I just can’t explain,” voices the narrator, “how much losing Julius Windmaker hurt us all” (52). What happened to Julius Windmaker caused great anxiety on the reservation, but the story ends with a new hope. A girl named Lucy is a promising basketball player, “a little warrior” (53). The first person narrator voices his plea and states, “‘God, I hope she makes it all the way’” (53).


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