I’ve been thinking about pain, how each of us constructs our past to justify what we feel now. How each successive pain distorts the preceding.
-Sherman Alexie, “Distances” from The Business of Fancydancing (18)
Having evoked some of the major reasons for suffering, pain, and the widespread feeling of despondency that is apparent in Alexie’s prose set on reservations, I will focus on “Every Little Hurricane” which is the opening short story of the collection The Lone Ranger. “Every Little Hurricane” is an excellent illustration of the transmission of suffering. I will show that negative feelings spread, grow, and consequently endanger American Indians.
The short story is narrated from the point of view of Victor, a nine year old boy. It is winter and his parents are hosting New Year’s Eve party. Victor is woken up from a nightmare by a hurricane that hit the Spokane Indian Reservation. At the same time, Victor’s Uncles Arnold and Adolph have an argument that develops into a fistfight in the yard. They nearly kill each other and then, it is over. They reconcile and come back to the party. They are hurt and bleeding. But their wounds on the body are not the only consequences. Their fistfight is described as being harmful and damaging to their minds and souls. But their anger and pain are also hurting other Indians that are at the party by awakening their own suffering. All the aroused emotions are compared to the hurricane that hit the reservation. As Jerome DeNuccio points out, hurricane is a metaphor for “anger and painful memories” (86- 87).
The short story is built on the usage of metaphors. Victor’s family sufferings are likened to different weather catastrophes. The two uncles’ bursts of anger come into conflict in the same manner as “[h]igh-pressure and low-pressure fronts” (2). Anger overwhelms people suddenly and disappears quickly as “[f]lash floods” (5), but the damages are lasting. When Victor is hungry, the feeling is so intense that it captures all his attention; similarly to the impossibility of hearing anything else than drops of rain when “rain [is falling] like drums into buckets and pots and pans set out to catch whatever they could” (6). Alcohol destroys Victor’s father even though it brings him temporary relief. Victor remembers when his father got a vodka drink on an empty stomach. “Maybe,” states the narrator,
it was like lightening tearing an old tree into halves. Maybe it was like a wall of water, a reservation tsunami, crashing onto a small beach. Maybe it was like Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Maybe it was like all that. Maybe. But after he drank, Victor’s father would breathe in deep and close his eyes, stretch, and straighten his neck and back. (6)
Alcohol is compared to the most ravaging catastrophes and leads to complete devastation. Many reservation Indians, in the same way as Victor’s father, seem to feel in turns despair and anger. That alternating feelings are expressed by Victor’s father being compared to visually and verbally meaningful symbol. “During those long drinks,” claims the narrator, “Victor’s father wasn’t shaped like a question mark. He looked more like an exclamation point” (6). Whether reservation Indians are afflicted by “whirpool”, “[t]hermals and undercurrents”, or “drown[ing]”, it generates “[t]ragedy” (7).
The fact that anger and pain are compared to natural phenomena and catastrophes may be seen as revealing. Apparently, weather is a condition independent of human will and power. Of course people can pray not to be hit by hurricanes, tsunamis, or other misfortunes but they cannot influence them directly. Yet anger, poverty, alcoholism, and the feeling of despondency are, without any doubt, extremely difficult to overcome or change but still, it is partly possible to achieve. However, the reaction of the party guests to Victor’s uncles’ fistfight that turns into a general battle is apathy. Everybody is watching the fight but nobody rises up against it. As Grassian points out, “Alexie criticizes the passive complacency of the onlookers” (57). The passivity is striking:
“They´re going to kill each other,” somebody yelled from an upstairs window. Nobody disagreed and nobody moved to change the situation. Witnesses. They were all witnesses and nothing more. For hundreds of years, Indians were witnesses to crimes of an epic scale. Victor’s uncles were in midst of a misdemeanor that would remain even if somebody was to die. One Indian killing another did not create a special kind of storm. (3)
Alexie suggests that the inability to react and oppose dangerous situations, that are liable to result in tragedies, is a long lasting problem. Clearly, passivity is one of the factors that consequently enforce the feeling of despondency.
Another key aspect that deepens the pain is its circulation among reservation members. It appears that the reservation is a “demarcated place of suffering” (Nygren, “A World of Story-Smoke: A Conversation with Sherman Alexie.”, 149). After Arnold and Adolph reconciled and the “hurricane” was over, the negative emotion of anger did not disappear. To the contrary, “the storm that had caused their momentary anger . . . moved from Indian to Indian at the party, giving each a specific, painful memory” (8). Suffering is being awakened in every party guest and spreads as an epidemic. The memories are extremely harmful. They remind the reservation Indians of moments of humiliation, injustice, distress, and anxiety: “Victor’s father remembered the time his own father was spit on as they waited for a bus in Spokane. Victor’s mother remembered how the Indian Health Service doctor sterilized her moments after Victor was born. Adolph and Arnold were touched by memories of previous battles, storms that continually haunted their lives” (8). As it is suggested by the verb “haunted”, these painful memories are repeatedly aroused and consequently the “pain” grows and is “expanded” (8). The pervasive tension and distressed atmosphere cause hyper sensitive reactions. “One person,” explains the narrator, “lost her temper when she accidentally brushed the skin of another” (8). Grassian refers to transmission of pain as the “domino effect” and, interestingly, stresses both its positive and negative aspects (58). He argues that these “mini-hurricanes”, “bottled-up rage”, and “repressed animosity” set off a “chain reaction” (58). At the same time, Alexie implies that shared pain “forges strong bonds between family members on the reservation” (Grassian 59).
Yet, the circulating pain appears to be very dangerous. It is likened in Victor’s imagination to his father’s tears frozen solid and broken into “millions of icy knives” once they hit the floor (5). Tears are usually perceived as a result of unhappiness and often provide relief. Here tears originate from pain but also recreate other pain once the “icy knives”, “each specific and beautiful”, “[e]ach dangerous and random” hurt someone (5). The circulation of pain on reservations may be therefore compared to the water cycle on earth and in a way, complete the weather metaphor used by Alexie. However, whereas the water cycle is essential for most life on the planet, the circulation of pain on reservations seems to be very destructive. Victor feels that dangerous force when he places his hands on his sleeping parent’s stomach. “There was enough hunger in both,” states the narrator, “enough movement, enough geography and history, enough of everything to destroy the reservation and leave only random debris and broken furniture” (11). As Grassian comments, “Indians on the reservation are, in many ways, the greatest danger to themselves” (59).
As we can see, despondency is an important theme in Alexie’s works. Alexie explores it in detail and shows its reasons, effects, and consequences with virtuosity. However, it would be too restrictive to focus on despondency and suffering without pointing out that reservation Indians, called “the eternal survivors” in “Every Little Hurricane” (11), have powerful weapons that help them to endure many difficulties. Humor, imagination, and love for basketball, are often praised in Alexie’s works for their great power.
My braids were cut off in the name of Jesus
To make me look so white
My tongue was cut out in the name of Jesus
So I would not speak what’s right
My heart was cut out in the name of Jesus
So I would not try to feel
My eyes were cut out in the name of Jesus
So I could not see what’s real
-Sherman Alexie, Reservation Blues (131)
One of the important reasons why some of Alexie’s American Indian characters choose to leave the reservation is to get better education off the reservation and, thanks to this, have a chance at a better future. This theme is explored in several of Alexie’s books and is therefore a recurrent pattern that needs to be taken into consideration. Sadly, according to Kimberley Roppolo and Chelleye L. Crow who are Native American instructors, many Native Americans receive poor education in unfavorable environments. They assert in their article “Native American Education Vs. Indian Learning: Still Battling Pratt After all these Years” that “[m]any of us were educated in a system that was neither friendly to our learning styles nor designed to encourage our success” (3). Education on reservations as depicted in Alexie’s works appears to share that point of view. First, I will discuss the main reasons for the hostility in reservation schools and its consequences. Then, I will point out that a good education is perceived as paramount for Alexie.
The Reservation School: an Unfriendly Environment
In the collection of short stories The Lone Ranger, Alexie presents an overview of education on reservations in the short story entitled “Indian Education”. The narrator, Junior Falls Down, sets out the most important moments from the first grade to graduation in the twelfth grade. During his education, the narrator transfers schools and studies in a white school, which enables him to make interesting comparisons. At his first school on the reservation, he suffers from bullying by other Indian children instead of acquiring knowledge and skills. The reason why he is being maltreated is because of his physical appearance. The first person narrator states, “[m]y hair was too short and my U.S. Government glasses were horn-rimmed [and] ugly. . . .” (171). In other words, there is always a reason to beat a “weakling” (italics added, 172). Grassian points out in his book devoted to Alexie’s work that violence and conflict are ordinary on the reservation and it even characterizes it. He states that “[c]onflict . . . is not purely an aftereffect of interactions with whites. To a large extent, it is a by-product of the reservation, where violence is prevalent even in the early childhood” (72).
Moreover, Junior suffers both physical and emotional abuse. He is in constant conflict not only with other children but also with his teacher, Betty Towle. She respects neither Junior, his parents, nor indigenous culture. Junior narrates, “[s]he sent a letter home with me that told my parents to either cut my braids or keep me home from class. My parents came in the next day and dragged their braids across Betty Towle’s desk. “Indians, Indians, Indians.” She said it without capitalization. She called me “indian, indian, indian.” And I said, Yes, I am. I am Indian. Indian, I am” (italics in original, 173). For Native Americans, long hair represents “an important cultural symbol” (Morel 32-33).The teacher’s demand to cut Junior’s braids thus indicates that she wanted him to give up his indigenous identity. As I am going to explain later in this chapter (pages 29-30), cutting hair was part of Captain Richard Henry Pratt’s educational method aimed at assimilating American Indians. Junior’s teacher therefore followed Captain Pratt’s method that he launched back in the 1870s. Pratt’s legacy appears to be enduring in the 1990s. Moreover, the way the teacher pronounced Indian, without capitalization and therefore respect, clearly signifies that her behavior was racist. The fact that the teacher’s manner of saying “Indian” is visually rendered explicit and transcribed as “indian” highlights her feeling of superiority. Obviously, Junior’s parents’ response to her letter and Junior’s answer to her maltreatment stress their indigenous pride and resistance to assimilation.
Historically, education and also religion have been used as means of assimilating indigenous populations. In fact, the first schools were established by the church. Roppolo and Crow explain in their article that “churcheshad established mission schools to use education to Christianize various Indian tribes” (5). Furthermore, mission schools “set up a paradigm for education as assimilation that was later copied by the U.S. government” (Roppolo and Crow 5). In order to justify colonization, white settlers opposed western civilization to Native Americans’ so-called savagery. Native Americans were considered inferior to white men. Vine Deloria Jr. in the book Power and Place: Indian Education in America, sharply criticizes white men’s “arrogance” and claims that “[f]or many centuries whites scorned the knowledge of American Indians, regarding whatever the people said as gross, savage superstition and insisting that their own view of the world . . . was the highest intellectual achievement of our species” (1). Clearly, the legacy of the white superiority claim that was used in the past as an explanation and even justification of racist behavior and assimilation policy is apparent in Alexie’s short story “Indian Education”.
Education as means of eradicating indigenous identity is further addressed by Alexie in the novel Diary. The main character, Arnold Spirit Jr.3, has a sincere and private conversation with his math teacher Mr. P who tells him about the way white reservation teachers educated Indians when he was at the beginning of his career years ago. He explains to Arnold:
“We were supposed to kill the Indian to save the child.”
“You killed Indians?”
“No, no, it’s just a saying. I didn’t literary kill Indians. We were supposed to make you give up being Indian. Your songs and stories and language and dancing. Everything. We weren’t trying to kill Indian people. We were trying to kill Indian culture.” (italics in original, 35)
The math teacher’s phrase “kill the Indian to save the child” refers to Richard Henry Pratt’s idea of assimilation. Captain Pratt (1840-1924) was one of the best known supporters of Native American education as means of civilizing and assimilating indigenous people. He believed that he would help Native Americans by forcing them to give up their tribal cultures and adopt a white lifestyle. Mary Kay Morel in the article “Captain Pratt’s School” points out:
Pratt’s vision was hardly unique, and his ideas were shaped as much by the times as by his experiences. Many Americans believed that “reforming” Indians meant eradicating their centuries old traditions. Dress an Indian in white man’s clothes, cut his hair, show him the white man’s technological achievements and creature comforts, the theory went, and he would want to embrace the white man’s world. (28)
Clearly, Pratt’s assimilation method was very radical and reflects the atmosphere of his time. Nevertheless, David W. Adams argues in his book entitled Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience: 1875-1928, that Pratt’s view was rather moderate in comparison to more widely accepted views of the day. Pratt’s “philosophy differed from popular sentiment at the time that the ‘only good Indian is a dead one’” (Adams, quoted in Roppolo and Crow, 5). However, assimilation and therefore loss of cultural identity, original language, traditions, and religion is very close to “a death” of the spiritual body. Native American scholar Cornell Pewewardy stresses in “A Reclamation of Power” that “[p]robably the worst thing you could do to a people besides Extermination is to assimilate them. We were intentionally miseducated. Education is a form of termination” (capitalization in original, quoted in Roppolo and Crow, 24). The continuous goal of assimilation in the educational system into which Native Americans have been forced, is an important criticism raised by Alexie in his works.
Moreover, schooling on reservations as described in Alexie’s books is far from achieving intellectual stimulation. To the contrary, in “Indian Education”, school is described as a place of mental starvation. In order to accentuate the point that runs through the short story, the narrator focuses on different ways of starvation in the narrative “EIGHTH GRADE” (capitalization in original, 177). The narrator contrasts white anorexic and bulimic girls vomiting in school bathrooms with his feelings of hunger and the poor quality of food that are both commonplace on the reservation. That motive echoing in the narrative reinforces the feeling that starvation pervades reservation life. The narrator concludes the eighth grade section by stating that “[t]here is more than one way to starve” (177).
Similarly, in the novel Diary, Alexie suggests that good education is absent on the reservation in the same way as the teacher, Mr. P, sometimes does not come to the classroom. Arnold asserts that “the absolutely weirdest thing about Mr. P is that sometimes he forgets to come to school. Let me repeat that: MR. P SOMETIMES FORGETS TO COME TO SCHOOL! (capitalization in original, 28- 29). By using these analogies, Alexie accentuates poor schooling on reservations and the consequent intellectual starvation.
The end of the short story “Indian Education” accentuates the tremendous difference between reservation and white school graduates. Junior receives his diploma from a white farm town high school. During the ceremony, he listens to the awards and accomplishments being read out. The final comment is full of hope and optimism, “I try to remain stoic for the photographers as I look toward the future” (179). In contrast, the reservation graduation ceremony is demoralizing and leaves everyone with the feeling of hopelessness. What is more, a number of the graduates’ knowledge and skills are extremely poor. The narrator sums up: “Back on the reservation, my former classmates graduate: a few can’t read, one or two are just given attendance diplomas, most look forward the parties. The bright students are shaken, frightened, because they don’t know what comes next. They smile for the photographer as they look back toward tradition” (179-180). It is interesting to note that “future” is opposed to “tradition”. Reservation graduates’ prospect of a better future seems bleak and limited. Grassian holds an interesting view about the conclusion of the short story: “With this ending, Alexie suggests that ‘Indian Education’ is often wasted and that, in a way, it’s less an intellectual education that an indoctrination into racism, sadness, and despondency; what little education they receive is often frittered away after graduation” (73).
In a conversation with Joshua B. Nelson, Sherman Alexie expresses his point of view about education on reservations and in Native American communities in general. He notes: “There’s an anti-intellectualism on Indian reservations, inside Indian communities” (41). In the interview, Nelson and Alexie discuss the past Native American leaders and their accomplishments. When asked what achievements Native American leaders should have nowadays, Alexie claims that it should be a “college education” (41). Yet, in 2005 “only 1.1 percent of college graduates [were] American Indian and only 13 percent of Native people [earned] a degree” (U.S. Office of Management and Budget, quoted in Roppolo and Crow, 3). Alexie stresses that the leaders who are being sent out to represent their tribes are often uneducated, without high school diplomas, and consequently Indian tribes are frequently “manipulated”, “abused” and “stolen” from (41). As we can see, good quality education would be beneficial to Native American tribes according to Alexie.
The fact that Alexie attaches great importance to schooling is clearly expressed in his highly autobiographical novel for adolescents, Diary. The main character Arnold makes the tough decision to transfer schools from the reservation to the high school in Reardan, a nearby white town. In his essay, Jan Johnson asserts that “Arnold identifies alcohol and hopelessness as the plagues affecting his tribe and reservation and believes that an education and interaction with people who are not burdened by these afflictions will allow him to create a better life for himself” (235).
Surprisingly enough, it is his teacher, Mr. P, who advises him to leave the reservation. He is insisting that it should be for good. He asserts:
“You have to leave this reservation.”
“I’m going to Spokane with my dad later.”
“No, I mean you have to leave the rez forever.” (42)
Furthermore, he stresses the hopeless future he would experience on the reservation: “‘If you stay on this rez,’ Mr. P said, ‘they are going to kill you. I’m going to kill you. We’re all going to kill you. You can’t fight us forever’” (43). Johnson expresses a similar point of view and argues that in “Diary rejecting alcohol and even the reservation becomes for Arnold an act of resistance to ongoing colonialism and cultural genocide” (236). Still, he does not generalize his opinion and notes, “I do not believe, however, that Alexie is suggesting that healing can only come through Indians leaving the reservation and assimilation into white families and cultures” (240).
Mr. P opposes the hopeless reservation future to the possibility of hope in the outside world. Mr. P explains:
“And now, you have to go take your hope and go somewhere where other people have hope.”
I was starting to understand. He was a math teacher. I had to add my hope to somebody else´s hope.
“Where is hope?” I asked. “Who has hope?”
“Son,” Mr P said. “You´re going to find more and more hope the farther and farther you walk away from this sad, sad, sad reservation.” (43)
The difficult and tremendously important choice Arnold has to face is expressed with virtuosity in the picture by Ellen Forney who crafted the illustrations accompanying the novel. Her drawings accentuate complex and often conflicting emotions, wry humor and great imagination of the main character, who is their author in the story.
Figure , Diary (43) 1 In the picture above, Arnold is standing near a signpost that indicates two ways: “REZ” and “HOME” on the left side and “HOPE” and “???” on the right side (43). The left side is the side of the heart and is traditionally associated with love. Johnson observes that even though Arnold loves his family and home, he has to leave. He explains that “Arnold expresses love for his father, his family, his tribe, and his reservation but believes he must leave to escape the hopelessness and despair that can overwhelm even wonderful, loving people” (236). The right direction shows the way to hope but also to an unknown world.
The Reservation: A Place Haunted by a Horrid History
Time has no mercy. It’s there. It stays still or it moves.
And you’re there with it. Staying still or moving with it.
I think it moves. And we move with it. And keep moving.
-Simon J. Ortiz, “Time as Memory as Story”
In Diary, the narrator expresses an ambiguous relationship towards the reservation. On one hand, it is a place where Arnold is at home. At one point of the novel, he describes the reservation as extremely beautiful. When he climbs to the top of the highest tree on the reservation with Rowdy, his best friend, they have a great view and he states: “We could see from one end of the reservation to the other. We could see our entire world. And our entire world, at that moment, was green and golden and perfect. ‘Wow’, I said” (226). Rowdy looks at the reservation with admiration as well and claims, “‘I’ve never seen anything so pretty’” (226). The reservation, at that particular moment, is described as a marvelous place. On the other hand, Arnold expresses very early in the novel his desire “to escape the reservation” (6). The usage of the verb “escape” is quite significant as it suggests a lack of freedom on the reservation and the difficulty in leaving it. Similarly, in the novel Reservation Blues, the Spokane Indian reservation is seen as beautiful, this time by Robert Johnson, the legendary bluesman. On his arrival, he speaks with Thomas Builds-the-Fire and utters, “‘[t]his is a beautiful place’” (7). “‘But you haven’t seen everything,’” answers Thomas (7). Robert Johnson being a newcomer has a limited perception. In the same way, Arnold and Rowdy look at the reservation from a height and consequently, they cannot see details. When asked what else is on the reservation, Thomas thinks of “all the dreams that were murdered here” (7). His mind seems to be tormented by the past. Yet, the past is very close to the present as “the bones [were] buried quickly just inches below the surface, all waiting to break through the foundations of those government houses built by the Department of Housing and Urban Development” (7). It is noteworthy to point out that the semantic field of death is used in the passage: “murdered”, “bones”, and “buried” (7). The place appears to be haunted by dreadful history.
Moreover, the heavy burden of history is a theme explored in the short story “A Drug Called Tradition” from The Lone Ranger. Interestingly, it is also voiced by Thomas. He tells a story to Junior and Victor at Benjamin Lake. He explains that “[y]our past is a skeleton walking one step behind you, and your future is a skeleton walking one step in front of you” (21). The past and the future are therefore part of the present. “The past, the future,” states Thomas, “all of it is always wrapped up in the now” (22). The image of the skeleton, usually symbolic of death, might seem threatening, but as Thomas explains, skeletons are “made of memories, dreams and voices” (21). Consequently, they are “not necessarily evil, unless you let them be” (22). They are dangerous if you let them “trap you in the in-between, between touching and becoming” (22). Thomas stresses that the only possible way to avoid being in the in-between is to “keep walking, keep moving” (22). However, it is not simple as the skeletons may be tempting and they “will talk to you” or “make you promises, tell you all the things you want to hear” (22). Thomas concludes his story by saying that “[w]e are trapped in the now” (italics in original, 22). As DeNuccio explains in his article entitled “Slow Dancing with Skeletons: Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven,”
[t]he self is positioned in a social space replete with memories, dreams, and voices that invite attention and response, that must be accommodated and negotiated if the self as an individual and a tribal subject is to emerge. Such negotiation, although paramount, is never easy. Memories, dreams, and voices form a dense network of social significations. They bear traces, are mediated by social relations and cultural dynamics, are inflected by family, friends, lovers, traditions, mass media, history. (87)
I will argue in the following part of this chapter that history is one of the “skeletons” that is extremely difficult to accommodate. Alexie’s reservation American Indians are haunted by a horrid and violent history that poisons their existence.
The Reservation Compared to a Prison
We are the great-grandchildren of Sand Creek and Wounded Knee.
We are the veterans of the Indian wars. We are the sons
and daughters of the walking dead. We have lost everyone.
What do we indigenous people want from our country?
We stand over mass graves. Our collective grief makes us numb.
We are waiting for the construction of our museum.
-Sherman Alexie, “Inside Dachau” from The Summer of Black Widows (120)
In the collection of short stories The Lone Ranger, the Spokane Indian Reservation is depicted as a confined place. This image is particularly powerful in the short story “The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire”. As Grassian notes, “the atmosphere of the reservation is both intellectually and culturally confining to the point that Alexie, in one story, compares it to a prison” (61). In fact, the main character, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, is put on trial for “murder[ing] two soldiers in cold blood and with premeditation” in 1858 during a battle with federal troops under Colonel Steptoe(101). This charge is both ironic and absurd for the simple reason that the story takes place in the late twentieth century. Thomas was not born in 1858 and indeed could not have committed the crime. Thomas is finally sentenced for a murder that happened in the past which shows the influence of history today. As Arnold Krupat and Michael A. Elliott assert, “this points to the ongoing force of the colonial past in the present” (167). Moreover, it highlights that the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the authority on the reservation, abuses its power. Thomas appears to be a threat as one BIA agent claims that Thomas suffers a “storytelling fetish accompanied by an extreme need to tell the truth”, that he judges as being “[d]angerous” (93). It is noteworthy that Grassian analyses Thomas’s role in the community as “a would-be leader of the reservation who could help awaken Spokane Indians from their communal daze, a state in which the BIA can keep them powerless” (61). As we can see, Thomas’s trial resembles a political process.
Interestingly, Thomas’s innocence is brought into focus even before the story begins by a quotation from Franz Kafka’s The Trial: “Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning” (TLR 93). The Trial is a novel that denounces injustice and the abusive power of authority. Furthermore, Nancy Peterson suggests that the quotation by Kafka also “calls to mind the political upheavals of Kafka’s own lifetime and the tortured exploration of oppressive claims of juridical authority and government bureaucracy in Kafka’s fiction that some scholars read as anticipating the Holocaust” (68). The theme of the Holocaust is a significant issue that I will discuss later on in this chapter, (page 40).
Thomas seems to be reconciled with the situation and knows he is going to be convicted. The narrator expresses that Thomas “was guilty, he knew that” (94). Thomas’s feeling of guilt is quite intriguing. Clearly, Thomas is innocent and therefore there is no reason why he should feel that emotion. Guilt consists in being anxious because one knows he hurt somebody. In that sense, it is true that Thomas causes pain to tribal people who attend the trial as he makes them cry. He chooses to defend himself and to be the only witness. He tells them of extremely violent events of the Spokane history that are said to be “the worst kind of war crime” (TLR 96). Peterson observes that “[t]he term war crime echoes with the momentousness of the Nuremberg Trials” (italics in original, 68). Again, Peterson traces parallels with the Holocaust. Thomas seizes the opportunity to awaken the reservation members, to reveal the truthful version of history and to remind them the atrocities of colonization and genocide. Thomas, and thus Alexie, does not want people to forget or misunderstand history. Furthermore, as Grassian points out, one of Alexie’s aims is “to rewrite dominant American history” because he considers that it “barely acknowledges the violent colonization and subsequent massacres of Indians by European settlers” (8).
Moreover, the lack of freedom and justice is not restricted to the Spokane Indian Reservation. The narrator suggests that the message is general as it is very much the same on “any reservation” (94). “All that was variable,” voices the narrator “was how the convicted would be punished” (95). When Thomas is travelling to the Walla Walla State Penitentiary, he describes the prison as “a new kind of reservation, barrio, ghetto, logging-town tin shack” (103). As we can understand from the quote, Alexie denounces genocide. Furthermore, he criticizes all inhumane conditions that people have to endure in extreme poverty.
Genocide: the American Indian Holocaust?
So, now, when you touch me,
my skin will you think
of Sand Creek, Wounded Knee?
And what will I remember
when your skin is next to mine
- Sherman Alexie, “The Game Between the Jews and the Indians is Tied
Going Into the Bottom of the Ninth Inning” from First Indian on the Moon (80)
The two funniest tribes I’ve ever been around are Indians and Jews, so I guess that says something about the inherent humor of genocide.
-Sherman Alexie, “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” Ten Little Indians (187)
Near the end of the novel Diary, Arnold is extremely sad and angry. He voices his despair and anger against the reservation:
I cried because so many of my fellow tribal members were slowly killing themselves and I wanted them to live. I wanted them to get strong and get sober and get the hell out off the rez. It’s a weird thing. Reservations were meant to be prisons, you know? Indians were supposed to move onto reservations and die. We were supposed to disappear. But somehow or another, Indians have forgotten that reservations were meant to be death camps. (216- 217)
This extract is particularly revealing. Arnold states that he wants his fellow tribal members to leave the reservation. He explains why with clarity. He asserts that reservations are places where American Indians are gradually dying, alcohol being one of the major causes. Furthermore, he states that historically, reservations were conceived as places where American Indians were concentrated in order to vanish. He compares reservations to “prisons” and “death camps”. By using the specific term death camp, Alexie draws a parallel between Native American history and the extermination of Jews during the World War II. That line of analysis of Alexie’s works is very important “for over the course of his career, Alexie has developed a keen sense of possible intersections between Native and Holocaust histories, and he has incorporated numerous references to Jewishness and to the Holocaust as part of his ongoing effort to scrutinize Native American identity, marginality, and history” (Peterson 64- 65).
In Alexie’s interview with Nygren, that point is discussed in detail. Alexie claims that “we [American Indians] come out of genocide, and our entire history is filled with murder and war” (155). He explains that consequently, the pain became part of Native American identity (157). That is what American Indians and Jews have in common according to him (157). “I think,” says Alexie, “the strongest parallel in my mind has always been the Jewish people and the Holocaust” (157). Of course, he is conscious of the differences and acknowledges that “their oppression has been constant for 1900 years longer, but the fact is that you cannot separate our identity from our pain” (157). Obviously, the usage of the term Holocaust is controversial as it was coined after the World War II for the particular historical mass murder of Jews. Alexie, being conscious of it, says that it could possibly be “interpreted as anti-Semitic” (166). Nygren states that such claims are provocative and questions the adoption of “the term ‘holocaust’” since there are “varying views in academia as to whether you can use [it] or not” (165). Moreover, she points out “the risk of de-historicizing unique experiences of oppression” (165). Alexie’s aim is not to demean Jewish people, but to draw people’s attention to historical atrocities perpetuated against Native Americans after 1492. Alexie admits that his usage of the word holocaust is a “political move” (166). He is being “rebellious” because he considers that the mainstream society in the United States of America does not acknowledge the “genocide” that happened there (166). Alexie believes it is important for the history to be recognized, the “dead to be honored”, and wants them to receive “the same sort of sacred respect” as “what happened in Germany does” (166). One of Alexie’s purposes is “to rewrite dominant American history” that does not truthfully acknowledge the colonization, violence, and genocide, what Alexie calls “the original sin of this country”, because it “would severely damage American national identity and pride” (Grassian 8).
It is important to note that Alexie is not the only one to employ the terms genocide and holocaust in Native American historical context. Other writers and scholars also draw a parallel between the extreme violence committed to Native peoples in post-Columbus era and the Nazi Holocaust. In the essay published in 2010, Peterson explains that it “has become a prominent line of analysis in Native American studies over the past two decades” (63). To give an example, the demographer Russell Thornton published in 1987 a book entitled American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History Since 1492.In the preface of his book, he states:
[T]he arrival of the Europeans marked the beginnings of a long holocaust although it came not in ovens, as it did for the Jews. The fires that consumed North American Indians were the fevers brought on by newly encountered diseases, the flashes of settlers’ and soldiers’ guns, the ravages of “firewater,” the flames of villages and fields burned by the scorched-earth policy of vengeful Euro-Americans. The effects of this holocaust of North American Indians, like that of the Jews, was millions of deaths. In fact, the holocaust of the North American tribes was, in a way, even more destructive than that of the Jews, since many American Indian peoples became extinct. (xv-xvi)
As we can see, Thornton compares North American Indian history to the Jewish Holocaust. He even claims that Native American holocaust can be perceived as “more destructive” as “many American Indian peoples became extinct”. David E. Stannard, who published his book American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History Since 1492, shares Thornton’s views and states that “[t]he destruction of the Indians of the Americas was, far and away, the most massive act of genocide in the history of the world” (x). The size of the demographic decline he provides is appalling:
[T]he vast majority of the Western Hemisphere’s native peoples had been exterminated. The pace and magnitude of their obliteration varied from place to place and from time to time, but for years now historical demographers have been uncovering in region upon region, post-Columbian depopulation rates of between 90 and 98 percent with such regularity that an overall decline of 95 percent has become a working rule of thumb. (x)
Furthermore, he does not perceive the genocide as a finished process but argues that it “continue[s] to occur today” by the means of “more sophisticated indirect government violence” (xiv).
However, other scholars argue that the term genocide is inaccurate. Gunter Lewy in the article entitled “Were American Indians the Victims of Genocide?” responds to Thornton’s and Stannard’s views as well as to other leading scholars’ statements; among them Ward Churchill who also puts forward controversial viewpoints on indigenous history. “That American Indians suffered horribly,” claims Lewy, “is indisputable. But whether their suffering amounted to a ‘holocaust,’ or to genocide, is another matter”. In order to fully comprehend the issue, Lewy defines the characteristics of genocide. “The Genocide Convention was approved by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 9, 1948,” writes Lewy, “and came into force on January 12, 1951; after a long delay, it was ratified by the United States in 1986”. “According to Article II of the convention,” explains Lewy, “the crime of genocide consists of a series of acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group as such. Practically all legal scholars accept the centrality of this clause”. It is the notion of intentionality that Lewy perceives as the main reason why post-Columbus American Indian history cannot be considered as genocide. First, he analyzes the most important cause of the Indian’s demographic decline: contagious diseases that Native Americans were not immune to. He concludes that “the huge number of Indian deaths from epidemics cannot be considered genocide” because “the lethal diseases were introduced inadvertently”. However, in regards to military engagements, “some of the massacres in California, where both the perpetrators and their supporters openly acknowledged a desire to destroy the Indians as an ethnic entity, might indeed be regarded under the terms of the convention as exhibiting genocidal intent”. Lewy comes to the conclusion that “some episodes can be considered genocidal” but according to the convention, only persons can be charged with the crime, not “an entire society”. Moreover, according to Levy, no U.S. government has ever proposed a policy of extermination. “Genocide,” states Lewy, “was never American policy, nor was result of policy”. The question remains, however, as to whether from an indigenous perspective, Lewy’s reliance on a post-World War II convention’s definition of genocide, is at all relevant to the application of the term to events that predate that definition.
As we can see, scholars do not agree on the complicated issue of Indian genocide. Clearly, there are analogies and similarities between Jewish and Indian historical tragedies. Alexie and other writers and scholars perceive them and point them out. Interestingly, some Jewish authors were fascinated by American Indian identity and expressed their interest in indigenous literature. This issue is thoughtfully discussed by Rachel Rubinstein in the book entitled Members of the Tribe: Native America in the Jewish Imagination. Obviously, Alexie, being an influential writer, contributes to the debate over the similarities between Indian and Jewish identity. His juxtapositions of Indian and Jewish atrocities are undoubtedly provocative. But in my view, in literary works, authors have the freedom of literary license; in the same way that poets make usage of metaphors, hyperboles, and tropes. When Arnold in Diary compares reservations to prisons and death camps, it is definitely striking and it articulates the misery, despondency, and lack of freedom he experiences.
Becoming a “Traitor”
Having examined the primary motivations and the reasons why some characters choose to leave the reservation, longing to find a better future in the outside world, other important questions naturally arise: How are the ones who choose to migrate perceived by the reservation members in Alexie’s works? How are their choices accepted? How do reservation Indians cope with migration? First of all, I will show that the migrants are seen as traitors and they are maltreated by the majority of the community. Secondly, I will argue that success, and mostly any kind of achievement linked to white people, is negatively perceived by a greater part of reservation Indians. Finally, I will focus on the novel Diary in order to emphasize that healing is possible through forgiveness.